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 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

2 days on the Amalfi Coast

From Florence, we headed south to continue our Italian adventure. Being brave, we rented a car a drove from Florence, through Naples all the way to Sorrento.

A word of caution: for those used to driving in the US or in most of the other parts of Europe, the streets of southern Italy may not be for you. Traffic rules don’t always apply, people will cut in front of you, there is minimal lane discipline- though as long as you keep your cool and remain brave, you should be fine!

We broke journey in Pompeii to explore the city, read more about it in our post about one of Europe’s most compelling archaeological sites.

Pompeii to Sorrento was a very scenic drive, offering gorgeous views of the Italian coast. Be prepared for windy, single-lane roads, which provide the perfect excuse to drive slowly and soak up the views! Definitely recommend it- as long as you dont have a deadline to get anywhere.

With 2 days to spend along the Amalfi Coast here’s what we would recommend: (for what to eat while here, check out our post here)

Day 1: Day trip to Capri

Ferries ply to and from Capri fairly frequently from Sorrento harbor, as well as from Positano and Amalfi. Sorrento to Capri took 30 mins and offered gorgeous views of the majestic Mount Vesuvius.

Street art in Sorrento city center
Sorrento harbour
Capri!

 

On Capri, boat trips to the blue grotto are plentiful, and as touristy and unappealing as they might appear, they are worth the time, especially if the blue grotto is open to visitors. We werent as lucky, the tides werent in our favor, though the trip around the island was very scenic and fun in itself.

The green grotto
Beautiful corals
Impressive stalactites
The dramatic Faraglioni (the three towering rocks)

 

If the waters look tempting- go for a swim! How often do you get a private (almost) beach with a view like that 🙂

Besides the port of Capri, which is bustling and busy, the peak of Monte Solaro offers great views of the island. You can get to it by walking up, there are fairly clearly marked steps  that take you all the way up. It is a tiring climb in the sun, but the views make it worth the effort! You can also get to it by chairlift from Marina Grande. Piazza Umberto offers plenty of opportunities to slake the thirst developed on the climb up!

With the long summer days, there is enough time and daylight to walk around Sorrento city center even after the boat back from Capri. The city has two main streets, lined with restaurants, bars and lemon shops!


Day 2: Drive along the coast, Positano & Amalfi

If you have a car, the drive from Sorrento all along the coast, through the small coastal towns, including Positano and Amalfi should definitely be done. With no car, buses run between the towns and also use the coastal road, so offer the same views, without the anxiety!

Positano: The town has more stairs than streets, so be prepared! It is a quaint little town, so do spend the 1-2 hours wandering around. If its warm, perhaps even go for a short swim!

The Grotto delo Smeraldo (Emerald grotto) can be another pit stop. Between Positano and Amalfi, you could get to it either by road or by boat from Positano or Amalfi. Worth a quick stop, especially if you havent been inside the blue grotto, it is also cheaper than the blue grotto and access to it doesnt depend on the tides.

Amalfi: While only 20km away from Positano, driving to Amalfi takes about 45 mins. Amalfi was bigger than Positano, but no less quaint. Also since the sun had finally come up, it was the much awaited beach stop! The restaurants that line the beach look touristy and expensive, but are not! For 20EUR, we had a bottle of wine and a meal for two, and access to a private beach, and beach chairs! Worth it, we would say!

If you can manage it, take the boat back to Sorrento. Driving back will take you along the same roads with their ocean views, but the boat provides a whole new vantage point and the towns perched precariously on the hills, make for great sights.


While, as with most places, there is enough to do for a week along the Amalfi coast, two days were just about enough to give us a taste of what the place had to offer and leave us wanting more!

New Year’s Eve in Cartagena, Colombia- Walking the old city & fireworks!

Combing the streets of Cartagena!

Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that is almost a gateway to South America. Located in the northern part of Colombia, it has a very European feel to it, yet is as South American as they come! Always warm and inviting Cartagena is known for it’s ‘magical realism’.

cartagena magical realism

Its a wonderful city to walk around with interesting neighborhoods like Getsemani, San Diego and Centro inside the walls. There were more developed Miami-like beach areas which we avoided, preferring to get a feel for the real city, not only the touristy parts.

IMG_5067

To get a real feel for the city, we would recommend walking along the walls of old city Cartagena. Get lost exploring- walking through Centro and San Diego neighborhoods. This can take ~3-4 hours and along the way you can see many shops and restaurants or small cafes which provide a refreshing respite from the hot sun! You will walk past colorful houses, interesting street art, statues and murals.

The city looks even more beautiful in the evening as the sun sets. You can see the main gate all lit up and enjoy views of Christopher Columbus’ ship which is now a museum.

IMG_0133IMG_0132IMG_0142IMG_0139

If you still have energy left, Cartagena is famous for its buzzing night life, which starts only after 10 pm. Cafe Havana is one of the famous places to visit. It is supposed to have great music and drinks, but since it was New Year’s Eve, and we were completely unprepared (no reservations), we didnt get a chance to check it out.IMG_0099

New Year’s eve in Cartagena was another special experience! The whole city came to a standstill. Restaurants were completely full, as were the streets, and from the crowds it was clear that New Year’s eve celebrations and the fireworks were a family event, to be celebrated with everyone, children and grandparents included! We waited along the wall, like most of the locals, to see the fireworks.

While we called it a night after the fireworks, the city and its inhabitants carried on well into the wee hours of the new year 2016!

Oktoberfest!! And 48 hours in Munich, Germany 

Experiencing Oktoberfest had been on the to-do list for many years, considering how much we liked beer, how could we not attend the festival solely dedicated to it! Finally everything fell into place and in Sept. 2015, K, conveniently, had a work trip planned in Germany and Norwegian airlines had a great ticket to Oslo, so we gathered the troops and made it happen!

The extremely affordable Oakland-Oslo ticket, allowed 24 hours to explore Oslo, an added benefit.

Day 1 was spent exploring Munich and its sights, Marienplatz, the Deutsches museum, BMW museum and Olympic village, ending with dinner at the Viktualenmarket2.jpg
We warmed up for the next day with a few beers and kaiserschmarrn (a delicious dessert of caramelized pancake) at a local pub Nihar found and loved. He might’ve over-indulged just a little- the next day didn’t begin as well for him!1.jpg

The next day, we explored the Englischer Garten and soaked in some sunshine before an afternoon/evening of debauchery!

Finally, it was time! The train to Theresienwiese transported us to what felt like a city unto itself. Large beer tents, fair rides and games, food stalls and more people than would’ve been imagined. Needless to say, we were delighted! The evening saw us in the tents of Hacker Pschorr,  Spaten and Paulaner. Since we had no reservations anywhere, finding a table was often a challenge but we did get to know a few interesting people in the process, our and their friendliness, no doubt, fueled by all the beer.

With all the joy-rides and games stalls beckoning, a few of the braver souls rode the roller-coaster and claimed that they loved each of the 4 loops it took them on! Emma and Teja also shot targets and won a rose each.

The fest really ended for us, with an extremely satisfying meal from McDonald’s- probably the best we’ve ever had there!


While the next morning was not much fun, it was a great experience and highly recommended, if you’d like an evening of beer, music and some drunken singing along, lots of people, a roller-coaster ride and some more beer!

Powered by WordPress.com.

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: