Christmas market in Colmar

Colmar was voted in the top 3 Christmas markets in Europe in 2016

When we read Colmar was rated one of the top Christmas markets (also called Weihnactsmarkt) we decided to spend my birthday weekend there. Colmar, is approximately an hour from the Swiss-French border in the Alsace region.

One of the first surprises was how well organized everything was. Clear signs in the city take you to a parking lot. Parking was free for the entire weekend and there were free shuttles that took the crowd to the Christmas market. No wonder it was rated highly, and this was even before we had reached the market.

 

The entire town of Colmar transforms into a Winter Wonderland

Plan enough time to walk around all the Christmas market areas (there were 5 of them!) and also visit the “Little Venice” and other neighbourhoods in town. The entire town lights up in the evening and it is a sight to behold!

Vin Chaud and Warm Maroni

Christmas markets are all about the food and drink. What better way to keep warm on the cold, winter days than some hot wine. Vin chaud, gluhwine, mulled wine- whatever you call it, it’s as delicious! We also tried some warm maroni (chestnuts) which are popular during the winters

Colmar’s market is a wonderful day out for the kids

Christmas markets, especially in Colmar, are wonderful days out for kids. There are skating rinks, carol singing at wineries, carousels and fun rides throughout the town. The highlight was kids singing carols, floating down the “Little Venice” canals in illuminated boats.

All in all, experiencing a Christmas market, and especially the one in Colmar is highly recommended!

2 day trip to Lake Como, Italy

Lake Como is one of those places everyone’s heard about but never visited

We first heard of Lake Como like most others, when George Clooney made it famous by making it his summer home. And you can see why!

444px-Lago_di_Como
Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=653364

The other thing no one tells you- it’s a huge lake! The lake is shaped like an inverted Y and borders Switzerland and Italy. There are many many small towns each of which are almost indistinguishable, yet have their own characteristics. We stayed in Lezzeno, which is close to one of the bigger towns Bellagio, and our Airbnb  had fantastic views of the lake.

 

 

Lake Como views
Views of Lake Como from our Airbnb

There’s a lot you can do around Lake Como. Our recommendations for a relaxed family friendly vacation would be to spend as much time as you can on the lake and check out some of these towns

1. Bellagio

Bellagio is one of the bigger towns in Como and looks quite regal. It has a more touristy feel but worth some time. It also is well located at the base of the “golden triangle” and has good ferry connections to Varenna and Mennagio. We spent an evening there, strolling along the lake and getting drinks and dinner.

 

 

 

We did not go to the Lido in Bellagio but it looked very busy and had a good vibe. Leave us some comments if you’ve been or plan to go.

 

 

2. Menaggio

A ferry ride from Bellagio is Menaggio. This town is easily accessible from Lugano and the Swiss border and it shows in the size and popularity. We took our car across the lake on the ferry, which was a cool experience, especially for the parents. Spend time at the Lido which has two pools and access to the lake with spectacular views of the mountains.

 

 

3. Lenno

This cute little town is on the same side as Menaggio and famous for  Villa Balbianello. Walk along the lake, enjoy the million dollar mansions and eat dinner at one of the restaurants. Good food and great prices.

 

 

4. Lezzeno

We lived in Lezzeno and is probably the only reason we visited it. We spent half a day at the lake in Lezzeno and we highly recommend Restaurant Aurora. the beach acess had deck chairs, paddle boats and a giant trampoline all accessible for 10 euros!

Como and Lecco are probably the most urban towns along the lake. We didn’t have the time to visit them but could easily be part of the plan.

Beer in Bohemia 

The people in the Czech Republic consume the more beer per head than anyone else in the world, and the country has topped the per capita beer drinking table for 23 consecutive years! In 2015, the most recent year for which statistics are available, the Czechs drank 142.4 litres per person, which is the equivalent of 250 pints – one every 35 hours! Read more here.

During our visit there, it was our duty, therefore, to contribute to national statistics and the delicious beers absolutely helped! We found that in Germany, there were fewer varieties of beer (weiss, dunkel, helles), all were light (around 5% ABV) and it was mostly about the quantity of beer (in liters!) consumed; read about the fun we had here! Almost all beer in the Czech Republic tasted like craft beer, with varied tastes, strengths, and we couldn’t get enough!

While all the beer we tasted was very good, according to us, the top 5 beers/breweries to try in the Czech Republic are:

Pilsner Urquell in Plzeň. Their traditional Pilsner, a blond lager, is very good, as are their darker, stronger beers- we tried Master (18°) which was yum!

Konrad and Hermann microbreweries. Our trip was perfectly timed to coincide with the Czech beer festival in Prague, a very lucky coincidence! As a result, we got to try a number of smaller microbreweries that might not have been possible otherwise. Konrad and Hermann were two that we only found at the festival and would definitely recommend both.

Kozel. More mainstream than the ones mentioned above, we found at least 4-5 different varieties of beer made by them and the few we tasted were delicious!

Bohemia regent. Also more mainstream, we got to try one of their craft brews, Lady vanilla, at the festival. It tasted like a very good cream ale, with a hint of lime, and now we really regret not having brought home any bottles!

Eggenberg brewery in Český Krumlov. Another famous brewery, this one truly deserves its good reputation! The restaurant has a nice ‘beer hall’ feel, their beers are really delicious and the food is tasty too! What more could one ask for?!

Na zdraví!!

2 days in Athens, Greece – fall in love with the ancient city!

Athens has always held a special allure, and we jumped at the opportunity to visit it!

Though we spent a week in Athens, the primary reason for the visit was work, so there were some evenings for play. Putting all the hours together we actually spent exploring the city, as is our theme, 48 hours in Athens might be sufficient to give a good taste of the city, though Athens, or Greece, will definitely leave you wanting much more time!

What blew us away right from the beginning was how old everything was! To be able to see and touch structures from 2000 and 1500 B.C. was absolutely amazing!

An approximate 2 day itinerary could be:

Day 1: Begin the day like the Athenians, with a frappe!


Take a walking tour. We went for the free walking tour organized by Athens Free Tour and enjoyed it. Unfortunately the rain decided to really come down right as we were beginning so the route was altered slightly to give us more shelter, but as in most cities, the walking tour was a great way to get a general idea of the city and figure out where things were. They have 2 tours everyday, one at 9.45am and the other at 5pm.

The tour starts from Hadrian’s arch, which is right outside the temple of Olympian Zeus, so if you can get there early, use the time to explore inside the Olympieion.

Tip: Buy the multi-site, combination ticket. When in Athens, you cannot not go into at least 3-4 of the ancient sites, if not all of them! This ticket, for 30 EUR allows entry into: Hadrian’s library, Roman Agora, Ancient Agora, Kerameikos, Olympieion (temple of Olympian Zeus), and most importantly, the Acropolis and the North and South slopes, and it absolutely worth it.

Now that you have an approximate idea of where things are, if you can resist it, dont go to the Acropolis just yet.

Grab a gyro for lunch, on the go like the Athenians, or take some time to cool off and rest your feet before the next round of walking.

Use the rest of the day to explore inside Hadrian’s library and the Ancient Agora, and you still have the energy, the Roman Agora. Hadrian’s library is possibly the oldest library ever and some tablets that survived can still be seen! The Ancient Agora is a tiny city in itself and houses the best preserved Greek temple. We definitely recommend visiting both sites.

 

Temple of Hephaestus in the Ancient Agora
Stoa of Zeus in the Ancient Agora
Odeon of Agrippa at the Ancient Agora
Gate at Roman Agora
Tower of the Winds at Roman Agora
Hadrian’s Library
Stone tablets at Hadrian’s Library

Dinner can be in the Monastiraki area. The deeper into the alleys you go, the more local the restaurants feel, though there are tourists everywhere. Rule of thumb could be cost of moussaka (not more than 8-10EUR) or a glass or ouzo (not more than 2-4EUR). Read more about all the delicious food in Greece here.

Day 2: Acropolis!

Go to the Acropolis museum first. Its a great way to hear the story about the Acropolis and Parthenon and see the real pieces they have preserved. Start from the top floor and make your way down, it felt like a more complete story doing it this way. Also the floor is glass, so maybe dont wear a skirt!

Now that you know all the history and have seen what the separate pieces look like, time to ascend to the Parthenon. (The hill with all the structures is called the Acropolis and the big temple on the top is the Parthenon).

You can get official guided tours, we didn’t, but I’m sure the stories would’ve been quite interesting. Climb up the Acropolis, soak in the views and feel the awe of being surrounded by stones that are more than 2000 years old!

Odeon of Herodes Atticus

If you havent had your fill of views, try to get to the top of Lycabettus (also known as Lycabettos, Lykabettos or Lykavittos) in time for sunset. The light guilds all the ancient structures, making them look even more impressive than they already do!

With more time in the country, definitely try to visit one (or many) of the islands. We only had a couple of days, so chose to visit Hydra (Idra) which was closer to the mainland than most, and really enjoyed our time! Read more about it in the post on Idra (coming soon).

To us, Athens felt so much like home- the warmth of the people, the summer heat, the traffic, the organized chaos- we loved every minute!

2 days in Paris: Top 10 things to do

One trip is never enough to explore all of Paris, but if you have a time-crunch (like most of us do) these are the 10 must-dos in a 2 day trip. In no specific order:

1. Montmartre and Sacré-Cœur: Wander through the narrow alleys in Montmatre, admire the work of the street artists and finally ascend to the top and visit the basilica.


2. Louvre: Two days are barely enough to explore the entire museum, but even if you can only spare a morning, this museum cannot be missed. With only a few hours, carefully choose the areas of the museum that are most interesting to you, otherwise you can get caught up somewhere else, and before you know it, it’ll be time to leave.


3. Eiffel Tower: Opinions of the Eiffel tour seem to vary, with some people love it others think its a monstrosity. When in Paris though, it is impossible to miss it, you can see the tower from almost everywhere in the city. We really enjoyed our visit, including the ascent to the top and would recommend visiting it, by day and night!

4. Notre dame: Another iconic structure in Paris, this Gothic cathedral is awe inspiring! Take the time to admire the work on the doors, the gargoyles all around the structure and the magnificent insides.

5. Arc de Triomphe and Champs-Élysées: While there is a similar looking arc in most French cities, this one is special and warrants a visit. Also getting to it could mean walking down the Champs-Élysées, giving you a chance to ogle at all the fancy designer stores in the city of fashion!

6. Moulin Rouge: Made more famous after the musical and film, it is still a Paris landmark. Not just the windmill theater, in which, if you are lucky enough, you should try and watch a show; but also the metro station outside! A replica of the station can be found in Montreal, Canada!

Since this is a list of must-dos, and sampling the local food and drink feature prominently on our list of things to do, here are some food recommendations!

7. Desserts at a local patisserie/boulangerie: While French desserts look beautiful, they might seem small and insubstantial to the untrained eye (like us). However, once eaten, they are just the right size to leave you satisfied and yet craving for a little more!

8. Eat Escargot: Not for the squeamish, but in butter and garlic, with basil pesto, they are actually quite tasty!


9. Drink the wine: When in France, how can you not!


10. Walk along the Seine and ice cream at Île Saint-Louis: Following the lead of a local friend, we found that this was a really fun experience. Berthillon is quite famous and though the line was long, it was totally worth it!


If you have had enough of the big city, take a day trip to Versailles. Read more about it here

 And at the end of it all, come back, with a little more time, to soak in more of the vibe in the city that styles itself as a global center for art, fashion, gastronomy and culture!

Czech Republic beyond Prague: Plzeň & Český Krumlov

While Prague is undoubtedly an important city to visit in the Czech Republic, smaller cities/towns around are also charming, have interesting sites and great food and beer!

We spent a day in Plzeň and another in Český Krumlov, and would definitely recommend both for day trips out of Prague.

Pilsen (Plzeň) is about 1.5 hours outside Prague and is home to the famous Pilsner beer, brewed by Pilsner Urquell Brewery, specializing in bottom-fermented beer since 1842. Being beer aficionados, it was impossible not to visit the city!

With about half a day in Pilsen, a few must-dos include:

Pilsner Urquell Brewery: visit the brewery to soak in the atmosphere! We did not take the tour, but if this is the first brewery you have visited, the tour is supposed to be quite informative and fun. Definitely go to the beer hall and drink a beer (or two)! We tried the regular Pilsner and a dark, stronger beer called Master. They were both delicious!

The brewery is connected to the town by a footbridge and clearly marked walking path, making is very convenient. Park in the brewery, and after a few beers wander into the town!

Pilsen has a small but pretty city center. It is famous for the colorful and highly decorated facades of the houses that line the street.

The cathedral of St. Bartholomew is an imposing Gothic church right in the main square. Probably established in 1295 it is home to the statue of the  “Madonna of Pilsen” which is considered to be a European masterpiece and the town’s most treasured artifact. A replica of the statue can also be found outside the church.

Pilsen is also where the third largest synagogue in the world can be found, the first two being the ones in Jerusalem and Hungary.

Having built up an appetite, feast on local specialties, washed down with delicious beer! Read more about the great Czech food we tried here.

We couldn’t squeeze it in, but a walking tour of the city will be a great way to get to know the place better and learn more about all the interesting stories!

Český Krumlov: After spending a few days in Prague, we drove to Český Krumlov. Although it is about 4 hours away, the route is very scenic, making the drive fun. 

Move over Shah Rukh Khan, there’s a new hero in town!

The city (or town) is picturesque and small enough that nothing is more than a 15 mins walk away. The center is also clearly signposted (the red and blue strips below) so its difficult to get lost.

Spend the time walking around and marveling at the views, which get better at every bend in the road!

Although not as large or imposing as the castle in Prague, the castle in Český Krumlov is pretty and steeped in history, so it is definitely worth paying visit to it.

Also, they have a real live bear in the moat outside!

The walk to the top is hard work, but the views make it worth the effort. Also the gardens are quite pretty!

Having thus built up a thirst (and an appetite) walk over the the Eggenberg brewery. They have delicious, refreshing beers, and the food is pretty good too!

As night falls in the city, the lights add to the beauty of the place. Do continue to wander even after dark- the starry sky and soft music played in the main square, make it a very romantic setting!

The great little apartment we found on Airbnb and our wonderful hosts definitely enhanced the experience! Check out the place we lived in here.

While visiting the big, well known cities is definitely a great experience, exploring smaller towns that are off the beaten path, makes it a more ‘real’, less touristy experience, giving the visitor a real feel for the place and the wonderful people living there!

Food Guide: Athens, Greece 

Like Italy, one of the highlights of our Greek trip was the food! Heavily influenced by Turkish cuisine, Greek food was really delicious and very affordable. Some of what we tried and would definitely recommend include (we ate a lot- this is a long but tasty post!):

For appetizers:

Greek salad: When in Greece, how can you not?! The vegetables are some of the freshest, the tomatoes are flavorful and the fresh feta is delicious!


Tzatziki: In the land of the best yogurt in the world, anything made with yogurt is delicious. Fresh tzatziki with warm bread could absolutely make a meal on its own.

Eggplant salad: Also made with yogurt, but this time with smoked eggplant- how can one go wrong!


Saganaki cheese: Pan-seared hard yellow Greek cheese, eaten with a drizzle of lemon, sounds as delicious and sinful as it tastes!


Kopanisti: Made with sharp tasting cheese from the Cycladic island of Tinos, with sun-dried tomatoes and yogurt, it had a strong taste- not necessarily for all palettes, but we really liked it, especially washed down with ice cold Ouzo!

Spinach and cheese roll: Inspired from Turkish food, it also made for a great breakfast.

Given a chance to go to one of the islands, sea food starters are:

Seafood soup/stew: Made with a tiny local fish (with an unpronounceable name) it was tasty, heartening and extremely comforting.

Fried calamari: Yes, you can get them anywhere in the world, but how often can you eat them right next to where they were caught?!

For mains:

Gyro: Almost ubiquitously available, this meat and salad wrap, with fries, slathered in delicious sauce is messy, filling and delicious! We even took a couple to the airport for one last taste of Greece before we left.



Souvlaki: Also another form of kebab, this time on a skewer, it is normally served with fries, salad, and warm fresh pita bread. With the spicy sauce or tzatziki, it is finger licking good.

Kebab with yogurt: With pita at the bottom, kebabs and vegs in the middle, covered with yogurt and spicy tomato sauce, we really licked the platter clean!

Moussaka: One of the better known Greek dishes, the moussaka in Greece was probably the best we’ve ever tasted.

Saffron risotto: Saffron from Greece is world-renowned and when added to risotto, definitely made the dish something special.

Lamb shank: The Greeks pride themselves on eating only the most tender, well cooked meat- and true to form, the meat was delicious, juicy and literally fell off the bone!

And then the sea food…..

Lobster with spaghetti: A delicacy, sold in most restaurants by the weight, we were lucky enough to have it cooked for us in a Greek friend’s house, and oh was it d-e-l-i-c-i-o-u-s! Definitely a must have! Even if it isnt home-made, especially for you..

Hydra Octopus: Made specially on the island of Hydra (Idra), the olive oil and tomato sauce, along with the juicy octopus, come together really well!

Saganaki mussels: We tried this in Hydra, but might be available wherever there are mussels. Made with feta cheese, pump mussels and butter- what’s there not to love!

And finally, for dessert:

Greek yogurt with thyme honey: Simple and delicious, I could’ve eaten it for every meal! The yogurt is thick and creamy and thyme honey (honey from bees who visit only thyme flowers) has just the right amount of sweetness… ah heavenly!

Baklava: Also influenced by the long Turkish rule, they have baklava with pistachios, almonds, walnuts and even chocolate!

Orange cake: Made from Seville oranges, that are too bitter to eaten on their own, and sweetened with honey, this was oozing and moist and yummm!


Lemon coconut cake: We were offered it, on the house, in one of the restaurants and would definitely recommend ordering it! Tart and coconut-y, it made for a very interesting dessert.


Fresh fruits: They are everywhere, gorgeous to look at, and so cheap! Peaches, nectarines, strawberries, cherries.. all for only about 1 EUR per kilo! I wish I could’ve brought some back with me!

Drinks (of course):

Frappe: Reading about the frappe culture, is nothing compared to actually seeing it- everyone drinks frappes, all the time! Its a great way to consume coffee- unsweetened or sweetened if the coffee is too strong, iced to beat the heat, it can keep you going all day long!


Tsipouro: Greek brandy, the clear version is drunk before a meal as an aperitif and the aged smoky kind is drunk after meals.

Ouzo: Also drunk as an aperitif, tsipouro with anise came to be called ouzo. It was once called “a substitute for absinthe without the wormwood”. Clear in the bottle, it turns milky white when mixed with water.

Most locals will warn you to be careful when drinking ouzo, and they always recommend drinking it with food. It is generally considered poor form to drink ouzo ‘dry hammer’ “ξεροσφύρι”, xerosfýri, an idiomatic expression that means ‘drinking alcohol without eating anything’ in Greece. This is because, the sugar in ouzo delays absorption of alcohol in the stomach, making the drinker believe that s/he can drink more without feeling tipsy. Then the cumulative effect of ethanol appears and the drinker becomes inebriated rather quickly!

Go to Greece and eat! καλή όρεξη

2 days in Dubrovnik- Game of Thrones and the old city

Croatia had been on our travel list for many years. But it wasn’t until Game of Thrones came along that it really bubbled up to the top. Dubrovnik, famous for being Kings Landing, is as beautiful as you would expect.

With 2 days in Dubrovnik, the 2 things we recommend are the Game of Thrones tour and walking along the old city walls, of course well lubricated with local food and drink, and interspersed with some beach time!

We spent our first day on the Game of Thrones walking tour. It may sound tacky but it’s a must do if you are a fan of the show and also a great way to get some local stories of the show and the city.
We started at Black Water Bay – where the battle was filmed and saw the area where all the bastards were purged in Kings Landing.


Across from the famous walled city of Dubrovnik is the Lovrijenac fort or St. Lawrence Fortress. The fort is built to withstand attack from the seas and the land, with 39 feet thick walls and is often called Dubrovnik’s Gibraltar. Two drawbridges lead to the fort and above the gate there is an inscription Non Bene Pro Toto Libertas Venditur Auro (Freedom is not to be sold for all the treasures in the world). A lot of scenes from Game of Thrones were shot in here- the Dog saving Sansa from being raped, Joffrey’s name day.

The fort also offered great views of the city and played an important part in the (real) history of Dubrovnik and its many sieges, right up to 1991, after the break-up of Yugoslavia, when the city was under siege for 7 months!

Then we walked into the main city. It still has a drawbridge to limit how many people enter and of course, was another important site in King’s Landing.

This gave us a good idea of the layout of the city and whetted our appetites to walk on the old city walls the next day. The city belongs to the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites and has been maintained to retain its old charm. Walking on the walls provided a panoramic views in all directions and was definitely worth the time and effort.

2.JPGWith the close proximity to the water, how could any visit be complete without some beach time!

3.JPGDelicious local wine and fresh sea food was the icing on the cake!

1.JPG

Food Guide for the Czech Republic 

When thinking of the Czech Republic, while beer would probably be one of the first thoughts, food would possibly not feature on the list. However, for us, food is an important way to better learn about a new city or country, so doubtless, our explorations of the Czech Republic included culinary adventures!

Meat, especially beef formed a major part of Czech food (sorry veggies, this post is quite meat-heavy). Some of the food we sampled, and quite liked, included:

Goulash: Available in almost all restaurants (especially those catering to tourists) goulash is like a spicy beef stew with a thick gravy. Originally from Hungary, it has comfortably integrated itself into Czech cuisine. We had it served with dumplings, which were bland and unsalted when eaten plain, but served very well to mop up the last of the gravy!

Beef tartar: One of our first forays into the world of raw beef, and oh was it worth it! We were asked whether we wanted to mix the meat, eggs and spices ourselves or wanted it done in the kitchen- fortunately we chose the latter, and recommend that you should too! As a part of our preparations we had come across a food blog that very rightly said- why should you do the job you’re paying the chefs to do?! When served like the photo below, the way to eat it is: rub the clove of garlic on the toast- it is crisp enough that it serves as sandpaper and gets nicely coated, then slather on the meat and dig in!

We’re still hunting for tasty and affordable beef tartar outside the Czech Republic!

Stuffed dumplings: Coming from the bay area, we were used to stuffed dumplings being a part of dimsum, not European food, so this came as quite a surprise. These were stuffed with pork, and dipped in mustard, they were delicious! Move over XLB, there’s a new dumpling we like!

Soups: Apparently hearty soups also feature often on traditional Czech menus. In the harsh winters, they can be very heartening. We tried a pea and bacon soup and a potato soup in a bread bowl, both were tasty and comforting!

Fried cheese: What’s better than a tasty cheese, the fried version of the same cheese! Breaded and fried, it was sinful and yum 🙂 Apparently it makes a great late night snack after an evening of drinking, and we can completely understand why!

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And for dessert, Trdelnik. It is made by spirally winding dough on a spindle and slowly roasting it over hot coals. The fragrance of the cooking trdelnik is hard to miss and harder to resist! Once cooked through, it is covered with sugar (powdered or granulated, either works as well) and can be eaten plain, filled with molten chocolate or ice cream. We tried one with ice cream and another with chocolate, and they were both absolutely delicious! (my mouth is watering at the remembered taste, as I write this post).


Of course, no Czech meal is complete without copious amounts of beer, but there is so much to say about the beer, that we have a separate post about it!

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