Wednesday, July 24, 2013

One Last Hurrah

LAKE COMO, Italy - As the time was drawing near to our departure from Germany, Juston planned one last special trip to Milan and Lake Como, Italy. It was the only other place I wanted to make sure I laid eyes on before heading back to the US of A. These photos may help you understand why......

A Family Road Trip

Germany > Belgium > Denmark > Sweden

DUSSELDORF, Germany – June 1, 2013 -  At 7:30 AM Saturday morning, J and I scooped up my future in-laws from the Dusseldorf airport and headed toward Cologne, Germany. There, we stopped off to see the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral) and ate a quick bite before returning to the car to make our way to Belgium.

ANTWERP, Belgium - As one of the largest seaports in Europe, the city of Antwerp is located right on the bank of the Schledt River, which links to the North Sea. In Old English the Dutch name Antwerpen (hand werpen) translates to “to throw”. Legend has it that the city got its name from a mythical giant named Antigoon, who would demand a toll from those wishing to cross the river. For those who would refuse, the giant would severe one of their hands and throw it into the water. Eventually, Antigoon was defeated and his own hand was cut off and thrown into the river. The statue in front of the town hall now commemorates the folklore.

BRUGES, Belgium – Ahhh, Bruges. It was love at first site. The small, medieval city was filled with white swans gliding along picturesque canals and winding cobblestone streets dotted with an absurdly high concentration of chocolate shops and quiet cafes serving Belgian beer and waffles.

With over 45 different chocolate shops in the city, we spent a lot of our time in Bruges admiring (and tasting) the many piles of pralines and trays of truffles offered by local chocolatiers. After succumbing to the temptation over and over again, we even purchased a few boxes of chocolate confections to take home. (Fun Fact: In 1912, Jean Neuhaus invented the praline, the quintessential Belgian chocolate, when he filled chocolate shells with cream and nut paste.)

The Basilica of the Holy Blood, a church in Bruges, houses a venerated relic of the blood of Christ on a fragment of cloth, collected by Joseph of Arimathea after the Crucifixion. Although heavily guarded, it was quite an emotional experience to spend a few moments hovering over this relic.

And Belgium Waffles! Oh, waffles!

Every once in a while as you travel, you stumble onto a town that somehow missed the 21st-century bus. For us, Bruges was definitely one of those places. It was an enchanting and wonderfully preserved town FULL of Old World charm. 

Up to bat after Belgium....


While both Sweden and Denmark were beautiful and filled with beautiful people, the cost to travel there wasn't so pretty. It was a tad expensive (that's putting it mildly), but it was certainly worth the trip! 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

A Pretty Pence in London

LONDON – When we entered Room 7 of the Emyln House Hotel in the West London section of the city, we thought we’d been handed the key to the storage closet/furnace room. The stifling hot and narrow dwelling held twin beds that ran the length of one wall. The floor space between the beds and the opposing wall was wide enough to set our bags but not much else.  In front of the only window in the room, a tiny (inoperable) TV sat atop a (operable) mini fridge, and both were tethered to the wall by a short leash. With hardly any elbowroom in our confined roost, we took turns sliding past one another to use the even smaller bathroom. Which, by the way, you couldn’t close the door to without catching the atrocious green bedspread in the jamb. Other features of our luxury room included: a heater cranked on high (worth mentioning twice – it was THAT hot), cracked and brown tiles in the bathroom, soiled carpet, and an assortment of other people’s hair in the shower drain. But when we arrived in London after a long flight, three train connections and two subway rides, all we wanted for the night was a bed and four walls. So, under those terms, the mission was completed. 

Despite all of the aforementioned awesomeness of the room, the best part (READ: most ludicrous) was its nightly rate of $70. Now, that number may not seem high to some, but given the amenities (WIFI? Forget about it), or the lack thereof, and comparing this lodging to other stops on our EuroTrip, 70 doll hairs was pretty steep for two well-seasoned shoestring travelers. However, this WAS the most economical option for our stay that weekend, not to mention our ONLY option hostel-wise for a last minute booking. Besides, even before planning the trip to London, we were well aware that Britain has never been considered a bargain destination. Yes, the United Kingdom is rather small, but it cost a pretty pence to navigate through. Okay, enough talk of our budget being obliterated. I just really wanted to use the word ‘pence’ in a sentence. (Pence – unit of British currency)

Saturday - May 4
My first word after we hit the pavement Saturday morning was “coffee,” and by now Juston knows I’m not kidding when I express the need for caffeine. It was 6:30 in the morning and we were en route to the Hilton Olympia Hotel for our scheduled pickup to embark on the tour to Stonehenge. The bus was to pick us up at 7:40 am, but first we had to find a place to print our tickets (last minute) on a Saturday morning, and I refused to get on the bus until coffee was in tow. Fortunately, by the grace of God, we were able to print our tickets at the swanky Hilton hotel AND we spotted a small breakfast stand around the corner to cure our java jones. The coffee tasted like instant that had been reheated twice, but it didn’t matter – we had a long day ahead of us and I had to believe that somewhere in there was caffeine.

After walking 2.5 miles to our pickup location, we were was happy – nay, elated – to be spending the next two hours in a reclining seat on a first class coach bus to Stonehenge. Generally, we avoid any organized group tours, as we prefer to venture and wander on our own. But seeing as how Stonehenge was two hours away from the city, we gave in and booked the guided tour for $80 USD.

Hailed as one of the Seven Wonders of the World, Stonehenge is an ancient marvel that is both fascinating and perplexing.  (Read more info here:

After returning to the city, we headed toward the Royals and Buckingham Palace.
On the way there, we took a stroll through Kensington Gardens to see Kensington Palace and Round Lake. We also stopped for a little window-shopping at Harrods, the world’s most famous department store.  Then, wandered up Constitution Hill to view the Wellington Arch. This commemorates the Duke of Wellington’s victories in the Napoleonic wars. His impressive mansion, Apsley House, was also just across road.

Following our tea and crumpets with the Queen, Prince William and Kate, we went for a glimpse at Winston Churchill’s Cabinet War Rooms – home to Churchill during WWII. (Side note – in college I had the privilege of meeting a granddaughter of Churchill, who shared with our class some of her grandfather’s daily routines which included his love of taking daily baths and working in bed. So, to honor Sir Winston, I am composing this blog post snuggled up and in the comfort of my own bedstead as well. The bed I’m borrowing in Germany, that is)

After Churchill was paid respects, Westminster Abbey was in our view. As London’s most prestigious religious building, the Abbey is the setting for coronations, state funerals, and the burial place of many celebrated kings and queens. Not far from there, we found Big Ben (not the quarterback) towering into the sky, in all of its clock-face glory. It’s cliché, but seeing the big guy for the first time really did send a shiver up my spine and plant Goosebumps down my arms.

Next to Benny boy, we found Parliament Square and the Houses of Parliament. Not far from there set Trafalgar Square, home to one of London’s most famous landmarks – Nelson’s Column. The National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery are also housed there.

By this time, all the tea and crumpets have worn off and it was time for fish and chips - although, we sprang for chicken and chips instead. Let’s be honest, London isn’t known for it’s delectable cuisine, so we really didn’t feel like we were missing out on too much by opting for the chicken over fish. Anyways, we enjoyed our lunch at the small café situated directly in front of the world-famous London Eye, the largest observation wheel in the world. Crossing the river that evening, we went to see one of London’s best-loved landmarks, the Tower Bridge (or London Bridge). Nearby was the Tower of London, originally built by William the Conqueror in the 11th-century and now one of London’s two World Heritage Sites.

Sunday - May 5
After pounding the pavement Saturday to hit the tourist attractions, we did what we always do on Sunday – Relaxed. Rested. Observed the Sabbath.  We spent the day leisurely strolling through the area of Notting Hill (sorry ladies, there was no sign of Hugh Grant), wandering through the many gorgeous parks of London, and stopping for the obligatory pictures in and around the red telephone booths. For lunch, we stopped at this amazing organic grocery store where we meandered through the aisles for a good hour and a half before deciding on a lunch option. Everything looked SO good. Our organic chicken wraps, blue corn chips, and vegetable mix weighed in at a whopping $42 meal. We even scooped up some gluten-free cupcakes to take with us to the park, where we spread out a blanket and parked our behinds for the remainder of the day. Juston catnapped while I read and watched the locals. Before catching our train back to the airport, we caught a glimpse of St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the heart of the financial district – Bank of England, Royal Exchange and Lord Mayor’s home – Mansion House.   What an appropriate area to end the trip, don't you think? Pound-less and without pence in the England financial district. Haha, okay there really is nothing to draw from that. I just had way too much fun speaking of and carrying pounds and pence that weekend. Cheerio, friends! 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Netherlands or Holland? or Both?

AMSTERDAM, Netherlands (Holland) – Whenever you tell people that you plan to make a trip to Amsterdam, you are met with a chuckle and a suggestive smirk. After all, it is home to the Red Light District and the ganja-crazed. Yet after a weekend trip, Juston and I discovered there is a lot more to the city than just that.  Between old churches, quaint houses, and peaceful canals, Amsterdam is a rather pretty city filled with culture and vitality. SPOILER ALERT: we did not partake in any recreational drug use. Like cool kids, we are above the influence.

Long before the advent of prostitute unions and drug tourism, Amsterdam was a refuge for Protestants and Jews fleeing Belgium in the 16th century.  It is also where Anne Frank and her family, along with four others, lived in a “secret annex” above the warehouse of her father’s company. Since it’s publication, the diary Anne kept during her stay in the annex has become one of the world’s most-read books.

In addition to Amsterdam, we traveled to nearby Keukenhof for the annual Tulip Festival.

As a whole, the Netherlands (from what we have seen of it) has a unique and folksy, earnest charm about it.  Only four hours from our house in Celle, we are definitely happy we made the weekend trip.

Friday, April 26, 2013

The Ancient City of Rome

ROME, Italy – The combination of ancient civilizations, religion, and the Renaissance give Rome the undeniable rich history and culture it boasts today. Last weekend, Juston and I had 36 hours to sink it all in, (as much as we could) before our flight left at 6 AM Monday morning.

Friday, April 19 – 10 PM
Friday evening we flew into Pisa, Italy and stayed at small Bed & Breakfast right by the airport. Only a 15 min walk from the train station, this location seemed perfect for us, and eliminated the headache of having to schedule transportation to and from the hotel.  When we arrived at the B&B, the young lady in charge of the place was in the kitchen studying. She was about our age, so we inquired about restaurants nearby she thought we would enjoy.  “La Paradisea Pizzeria,” she suggested. At 11 PM and with a hand-drawn map in tow, we set out on the streets of Pisa to fill our rumbling stomachs. Luckily, we found the place easily and it was still open for business. Even more luckily, the girl at the B&B suggested a place that served up the best pizza and red wine Juston and I have had on our Euro trip to date. Seriously, it was phenomenal. Our waiter was a doll as well. For two pizzas and a liter of wine, we had our best meal yet ring at about 24 Euro. Not shabby.

La Paradisea Pizzeria

Cariola B&B in Pisa, Italy
(Source: googleimages)

Saturday, April 20 – 7 AM
Saturday morning we caught a 2.5-hour train ride to Rome, where we started our day in Vatican City. It is a sovereign state that resides within the city of Rome and is the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. There, you will find St. Peter’s Basilica, Vatican Museum, and the Sistine Chapel.

St. Peter’s Basilica was built over (what is believed to be) the burial site of Saint Peter, one of the 12 apostles of Jesus Christ and the first pope of the Catholic Church. This church also houses Michelangelo’s famous Pietà, a sculpture of the Virgin Mary holding Jesus after he is pulled down from the cross.

The Sistine Chapel is where Michelangelo spent four years painstakingly painting his fresco masterpiece. Divided into panels, the paintings on the ceiling depict stories from the Book of Genesis. My personal favorite, the Last Judgment, shows souls being released into heaven or held onto the ground by demons.

Vatican City
(Source: googleimages) 

St. Peter's Basilica

St. Peter's Basilica

Michelangelo’s famous Pietà

Sistine Chapel

2 PM
Although peeved, we did not let the incident obscure the great time we had in Italy. We finished our trip back in Pisa, where that evening we went to see the leaning tower and had our last dinner at, you guessed it, La Paradisea. Although we were only able to salvage a few photos from our trip on our iPhones, we are so grateful to have had an opportunity to visit and experience a city that was on both of our 'bucket lists'. And besides, I don't think that will be our last Rome trip ;)

Next up was lunch - Pizza, of course. We were on the move to our next attraction when we stopped at Alice Pizzeria, a small shop next to a Gelato stand (dessert decision - covered) that offered fresh pizza by the slice. After pizza, well, you know what we did. The taste buds had waited long enough for Gelato. It t’was time!

Alice Pizzeria 


After provisions, we headed toward the Pantheon. The ancient Pantheon stands regal and looking relatively untouched, near the beautiful square of Piazza Navona. Originally built to be a gift to the gods over 2,000 years ago, the Pantheon is one of the cities greatest examples of Baroque architecture. It is also the world’s largest unreinforced concrete dome.

We piddled around Piazza Navona for a good while, watching street performers and other Italians inhaling Gelato, until we wandered over to the Trevi Fountain.  Complete in 1762, the massive and famous Trevi Fountain is a statue of Oceanus, the Greek god of the ocean. It here that people toss coins over their shoulder into the fountain to ensure their return to the Eternal city.

Trevi Fountain
6 PM
Sunset at the Spanish Steps, followed by more pizza, pasta, and wine (SEE: carbohydrates). You didn’t think I would forget about gelato, did you?

Sunday, April 21 – 8 AM
The majority of Sunday was dedicated Ancient Rome. Dominating the skyline and symbolizing both beauty and savagery beyond all measure, we started our day with a trip to the most iconic emblem of Rome - the Coliseum.

With a history steeped in gladiators, predatory animals, naval battles, and bloodbath, it is no wonder this tourist attraction is a favorite of all historic remnants in Rome.

Near the Colosseum is the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill. The forum is where political and religious meetings were held, as well as a place where Romans would do their shopping and go to school.

It is believe that the first Romans did indeed live on the land of Palatine Hill. Over the years, it has served as the home for a number of emperors and other wealthy romans.

Roman Forum

Roman Forum

11 AM
With our train leaving back to Pisa at four, we decided to have a relaxing day and spend the rest of our time in the Trastevere neighborhood. Across the river and set away from the hustle and bustle of tourist attractions, the Trastevere neighborhood is beautiful Italian neighborhood with an old-world charm that is filled with many shops and cafes. To me, the pace of life was much different on this side of the river. It was what I had imagined quaint and quiet Italian neighborhoods to be like.

                                                                    The Art of Espresso
                                     It’s been said Italy has the best cappuccinos in the world.





Our Lunch Stop - Trattoria: Il Ponentino


J enjoying a cigar before leaving Rome

It was a gorgeous day, with crisp blue skies. We were full, happy, and in Italy. We had blisters from walking all weekend and were very much looking forward to the four-hour train ride ahead of us. We even purchased a couple mini bottles of wine to take with us for the trip, as we would be passing through the Tuscany region of Italy on our back and wanted to make sure we had wine in hand for the occasion. Once we got to the train station, we found our train, our seats, and settled in for a nice relaxing ride. We put our backpacks right above our heads, took off our shoes, and melted into the seat of the train as it left the Rome station. As hectic as it was to finalize the plans for this destination and make our way through the crowds to see all the attractions we wanted to see, the trip had gone off without a hitch. We even had great souvenirs for our peeps and awesome pictures to share.

Then it happened. Our camera was stolen, and everything inside of the camera bag. (A whole different blog post entirely)

Sweet Lean