Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Konstanz, Germany (not at all off the beaten path)

Why is Lake Constance also called the “Bodensee”? I don’t know, but highly recommend this region south of Stuttgart for as long as you can stay. We had a three day weekend, and stayed for two nights, which is not enough…but if that’s all you have, go!
250 varieties of Dahlia in bloom, early October
From Kaiserslautern, it is a 5 hour drive, realistically. Online maps will say 4, but that is most likely not going to happen. The hotel tax in Konstanz gives each tourist a free bus pass, which we used to travel from old town to the island of Mainau (15 minutes). I was pleasantly surprised that we walked around Mainau for 4 hours, and could have stayed longer. The flowers and trees are beautiful, and the butterfly greenhouse was fun. Of course there are snacks to be had everywhere, from a nice café in the palm tree greenhouse next to the palace, to a modern restaurant near the harbor. 
My new favorite: the glass winged butterfly!
We departed Mainau from the harbor, taking a boat across the lake to Meersburg, then back to Konstanz. We’d like to return and take day trips by boat to towns around the lake. Most shops in Germany are closed on Sunday, but we lucked out with a special shopping Sunday in Konstanz. We snagged some superb Swiss chocolate, and perused unique clothing and book stores. There were also temporary tents with hand crafted items around the harbor area in Konstanz.
The food was very good, if pricey. We ended up at only one vegetarian restaurant, Sol, which was terrific, but were pleased with the vegetarian choices at regular places (including Mainau). The border to Switzerland is at the end of the harbor area of Konstanz. You can walk through to the other side and save the 50 Euro sticker for your car. We didn’t spend much time on the Swiss side this trip, but would like to return and stay much longer all around the lake.

Monday, October 9, 2017

Metz, France (again)

This post is really just an excuse to share more photos, and hopefully contribute a few tips. Someone at my office suggested that the parking garage next to the Metz train station would have larger spots than the downtown underground one, and that was definitely the case! The spots were luxuriously large by European standards! There is a museum of contemporary art across from the garage, and the train station architecture is beautiful. It’s a pleasant walk into Metz, just don’t go on July 14th, because every store will be closed in honor of Bastille Day.
Good thing cafes and restaurants were open, as we enjoyed yummy quiche and salad. Later on, we stumbled across “Paul”, where I had previously had a spectacular pastry (individual blueberry pie), and another stupendous pastry was consumed this time (“Millefeulle”, custard pastry with raspberries).
With perfect timing, we approached the cathedral in time to see a parade of antique cars! The weather outside was sunnier this time, which brightened the inside of the cathedral. Truly stunning!
FYI, the Cora grocery store between Metz and Kaiserslautern is closed on July 14th, too. But it was worth the trip despite holiday closures, and I’d recommend Metz again.

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Prague, Czech Republic (again)

New photos in this post, due to 2 day trips outside of Prague, though at least one view of old town is a repeat from last time. Please note that Prague is really hot in the summer, and no place except the hotel room had air conditioning. We are talking 97 degrees (F) and high humidity. The food was delicious, but fairly heavy, with limited healthy options, so I’d recommend a spring or fall visit if you can (in hopes that the heavy food doesn’t impact you as much during cooler weather). After two substantial Czech meals of dumplings, cabbage, duck, and beef, I had a wonderful salad at a Mexican restaurant, and we also enjoyed 2 vegetarian restaurants.
The first day trip was to Karlstejn Castle. It was worth the hour commute from Prague. If you go, wear shoes that will support the 20 minute uphill walk on uneven cobblestones and rocks. The views were terrific, and it was interesting to learn of the history and culture of the area.
The second day trip was to Kutna Hora. I would recommend that a train trip might be the best way to go, as the 6 hour tour from Prague was too short (over 1 hour drive time each way). The Cathedral of Saint Barbara (Barbora) was lovely, and the town has a silver mining museum that we did not have time to see. I did not go into the church that is decorated with human bones and skulls, but it was part of the tour.
Back in Prague, we used the efficient metro and tram system each day, after purchasing and validating a 3 day pass. The Basilica of St. Peter and St. Paul was very nice, and Petrin Hill (mini Eiffel Tower) was fun but hotter than hot. Please note there is no air conditioning on the trams or the Funiculaire up the hill. Or in shops, including large department stores. Fruit shakes are made without ice. I don’t mean to sound like I am whining, this is just a head’s up if you plan to go during the summer. However, the ice cream place at the bottom of Petrin Hill is outstanding.
The Apple Museum was interesting (you know you are old - no offense-  when you say, “oh, I had that ancient mac computer in college”…or, “wow, I forgot how clunky my first laptop was during grad school- about the size of Webster’s Dictionary”). I am unsure of the connection between Apple computers and Prague, but it is worth the stop.
We flew from Frankfurt to Prague, as we've done enough long road trips to last a lifetime (Switzerland, Austria, Poland, East Germany). That is, until the next road trip!

Saturday, September 23, 2017

Way off the beaten path in Spain: Santiago de Compostela

Tucked “over” Portugal in the north-western corner of Spain is the historic town known for its Cathedral, which is the end of the “Camino” (a pilgrimage walk across Spain). We did not walk to Santiago, but did take an extra day off work before the Labor Day weekend to fly to Spain and check out the region. Apparently, plenty of people do walk to Spain from Germany and France, or even further away!
The old town area is a maze of narrow streets, complete with interesting architecture and souvenir vendors. Our walking tour included a number of churches, historical buildings, and interesting anecdotes. The market has live fish and freshly plucked chickens (with heads and feet), along with outstanding cheeses and of course fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
We noticed that in this area of Spain, restaurants understand “vegetarian” to exclude only red meat, not fish. One restaurant provided the vegetable sandwich listed on the menu with tuna mixed between the lettuce and tomato, and another place answered the question “what can we order without meat” to list all the fish dishes. This is not a vegetarian-friendly place, unless you like salad for every meal. Two vegetarian restaurants were closed entirely, another two started serving lunch at 1pm, and the last one we went to twice! That said, the salads with fish on them were outstanding!
The superb shoe stores were a joy. Beach destinations are available by train, to the south, north, and probably in other locations as well. 20 minutes south of town includes a beach made up of naturally crushed seashells, so not very comfortable to walk on barefoot (for city dwellers). It was nice to hear the small wavelets lapping at the shore and discover a plethora of tiny sea shells. A dolphin swam in the cove, along with some hearty locals.
We’d recommend Santiago de Compostela for a few nights, or at the end of your camino pilgrimage.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Off the beaten path in northern Finland!

I didn’t write a post about our day in Helsinki during the cruise in 2015 because it rained so much that I didn’t take a lot of photos in that port. We enjoyed the day 2 years ago despite the rain, and this year, we decided to venture beyond Helsinki. We are so glad we did, because we weren’t as crazy about Helsinki this time, due in part to less positive food experiences, although we had terrific meals elsewhere in Finland.
That said, we wouldn’t discourage anyone from going to Helsinki, but we would strongly urge that you add other destinations in Finland, if possible. We continued our tradition from Sweden and Norway by taking a day trip by train, in this case, to Turku. A fantastic vegetarian restaurant (one of several there), filled us well in Turku, and the museum of modern art included an amazing basement excavation of the ancient town. It is worth the price of admission just for the lower level! Excellent tea and cake in their café.
We stepped into the simple cathedral in Turku, and were thrilled to have entered moments before a rehearsal for an upcoming organ concert. What could improve a visit to a church but thundering Bach, well played? Nothing! The ice cream in Finland is tasty, and we strolled along the riverbank in Turku in the sunshine. Dinner before the train ride back to Helsinki was also great (Italian).
We were ready to fly north the following day, to Oulu! We didn’t quite make it into the arctic circle, but we really liked Oulu. We rode bikes around the interconnected islands, learned a few things at the interactive science museum on a rainy day, and breathed the fragrant air in the nearby forest. You can shop if you want to, and you can relax in the park along the river with many other picnickers. The farmers market yielded giant raspberries and superb strawberries, along with other fruits, veggies, fish, cheese, etc. 

Sunday, August 20, 2017

Leipzig and Wittenberg, Germany

From the Kaiserslautern area, it’s a 5+ hour drive to Leipzig, depending on highway rest stops for meals, gas, and traffic. There are vegetarian restaurants in Leipzig, along with plenty of traditional places, and a nice cafeteria at the top of the Kaufhof department store.
There are a variety of hotels to select from, and many pedestrian areas in old town, featuring beautiful architecture, shops, and churches. The Bach museum is small, but a treasure trove of information and music.
Bach played the organ here!!!
We elected to stay 2 nights in Leipzig, with a day trip to Wittenberg in between. Since it was only a bit over an hour drive to Wittenberg, we drove, but would encourage others to consider taking the train. Public parking in Wittenberg is not great, although we lucked out by finding an on-street spot very close to the Lutherhaus.
We spent 2 hours in the museum and attached café, learning about Luther’s work and family life. Next, we strolled through the streets to churches and parks. How nice it was to find a small meditation room, to sit in quietly for a few minutes. More lovely architecture, and shops galore. Also of note is a small history museum about life in East Germany. Felt like a step back in time to see older furniture, crowded conditions, and food rationing. Wittenberg got very quiet after 6pm on a weeknight, and we were ready to head back to Leipzig. There may well be many more evening events in the fall. We did not go to every museum in Wittenberg- if you would like to, then an overnight may be needed.
We could have stayed in Leipzig longer, and would recommend more than 2 nights if you have time to relax and enjoy the area.
The famous church where Luther's 95 Theses were posted on the door!

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Luxembourg City

From the Kaiserslautern area, Luxembourg City is an easy day trip, though I wouldn’t mind staying overnight for a weekend/long weekend. We left late morning, and arrived in time for a nice lunch in one of the market squares filled with outdoor restaurant tables. There are a few parking garages, and there are also trains from K-town. As you approach the old town, there are well marked signs along the road indicating parking garages and how many spots are still available. We paid 12 Euro for nearly 6 hours.
We walked up and down the pedestrian shopping streets, complete with many familiar brands, and some unique finds. A stupendous chocolate shop on the “Market of Herbs” Square yielded many spoons to make hot chocolate at home (there is a chunk of chocolate like a popsicle, but not frozen, on a wooden stick that you stir around in hot water or milk). This place had many flavors! A British book shop was filled with English novels and non-fiction, then a unique ice cream store made flowers out of ice cream on a cone.
Speaking of flowers, amazing florists had gorgeous bouquets ready to go, and on my next trip to Luxembourg City, I will bring a bucket with some water in the car so I can bring some home. Another chocolate shop had Neuhaus, a fantastic brand indeed. Finally, a French book shop had the most adorable notebooks which came back with me, along with many other stationery and literary items that were not purchased this time.
We walked along the city walls, viewing preserved ruins, viaducts, and the lower city. Churches were lovely, and the weather was perfect. We saw some Segway riders going by on a tour, so we’ll do that next time! 
There is much more to see in the City and surrounding countryside. I’d like to check out some museums, parks, and historical sites next time.