Monday, November 30, 2015

Heidelberg Christmas Markets by train from Kaiserslautern

We debated driving just over an hour to Heidelberg, or taking the train for 1 ½ hours. When we woke up and saw thick fog and just barely-above-freezing temperatures, we unanimously voted on the train. Tickets were not available online, but the schedule was, so we drove a few minutes to the “Hauptbahnhof” in K-town and parked our car (6 Euro fee at departure).
The train ticket machine had a handy British flag and the instructions popped up in English. We bought one-way tickets to Heidelberg-Altstadt because the larger Christmas markets are in the old town. We didn’t see any option to buy a round-trip ticket (9.70 Euro per person each way). Not sure how much a parking garage in Heidelberg would have cost, but the fog and potential for rush hour traffic on the way home made the train tickets worth it to us, plus on street parking was about non-existent.
We had time to stop at the bakery in the train station before going to our platform shortly before the train pulled into the station. We found seats and had our tickets ready to be stamped, but no conductor came through during this leg of the trip. 

The scenery was nice, and we read books most of the way through 20 or so stops. The train got more crowded the closer to Heidelberg that we got, but we were past any morning rush hour there might have been, so it was never over-crowded.
We walked a few blocks from the train station to the first of the Christmas markets, which included a small skating rink, plenty of sausages for sale, and potato pankakes (Reibkuchen) with apple sauce. They tasted great, of course. We passed on a 50 cent toilet trailer. The next market was just a block away, and had many vendors of gifts/crafts, as well as food. We had lunch at an Italian restaurant that didn’t charge for tap water- a big thank you for that! All the customers at the time were Americans. We did not see a whole lot of vegetarian/health foods at the market stalls, and restaurants/cafés of course have heated bathrooms.
 We started down the world’s (allegedly) longest pedestrian shopping street, and checked out an apple store (no new ipad today!), and an ice cream/dessert shop with a large sticker of Sesame Street's cookie monster on the glass door. Several churches were open for people to stop in, light a candle (50 cents donation), and sit for a moment. We came upon another market area, and bumped into some people we knew from Ramstein Air Base. One indoor Christmas ornament store was playing American carols at full volume.
Providing excellent customer service is something that small German shops pride themselves in. Jeff’s wallet had been disintegrating over the months, and when we stopped at a leather shop, the salesperson showed Jeff a dozen men’s wallets and narrowed down his options based on his preferences for size, color, style, etc.
A stupendous hot chocolate followed at nearby "Schmelzpunkt" and we stocked up on shower gel at “Lush”. A cute gadget shop yielded stocking stuffers, and another small market stall area included more food and arts/crafts that we didn’t get this time around.

We ended our day trip at “Red”, a vegetarian restaurant closer to the main train station. Even if you are not vegetarian, the healthy and delicious choices at the hot and cold buffets are worth the expense. We walked to the Hauptbahnhof, bought return tickets at the machine, and didn’t even have time to look at the shops as we jogged to our train. Our tickets were checked just as soon as we pulled out of the station. It was a full train most of the way back, but everyone had a seat. During one short delay, the announcer informed us of the reason and apologized for the inconvenience. All in all, we’d take the train again to Heidelberg. Due to the fog, we didn’t go up to the castle this time, but we heard that there is another Christmas market at the castle.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Way off the beaten path in France (the Alsace region)

When Jeff travelled to Texas for a work conference, I asked around over here about a day trip while he was gone. My colleagues immediately organized a tour of several towns on the western edge of France, not far from where we are in Germany. We piled into one car together on Saturday morning, and headed south to Soufflenheim. This village is known for its pottery, but I did not buy any. It was very nice, but our kitchen here is so small that we gave a away a bunch of things when we arrived, and anything new has to be truly needed. We enjoyed a lovely, relaxing lunch as the town shut down from noon to 2 pm (we know all about that!). FYI, "limonade" is pretty much sprite.  
The village of Riquewihr, France
After lunch, we proceeded to Ribeauville, where a fortunate wrong turn off the highway led us directly into the parking lot of a chocolate factory outlet store! Gee whiz, it’s about time for a rest room break, and might as well check out the chocolates while we are here. These folks have a lot to learn from the Cailler factory in Switzerland, because we got ABSOLUTELY NO free samples in the store in France, which made it harder to spend big bucks on boxes of chocolates. We’d still recommend stopping at the Chocolaterie due Vignoble Daniel Stoffel, as they did give everyone a free sample AFTER making a purchase- literally on the way out the door, and that sample was GOOOOOOD! I would have bought way more if they’d had the samples at the front door rather than the exit.
The search for tablecloths for 2 office-mates continued in the next town of Riquewihr, which was gorgeous but did not host the famous table cloth store they were seeking. There were plenty of Maracons (both kinds- coconut macaroons and French macaron cookies), pottery shops, and textiles such as napkins, towels, and bolts of cloth. We strolled through cobblestone streets with lovely architecture, and had a wonderful roll with an ok bowl of soup. Too bad we were too full thereafter to partake of the luscious pies at the café.
Sunset, soup and roll

We had planned to continue driving south to Colmar, but that will have to wait for the next time. It was getting late and we still had a 2 hour drive home. We drove right past Strasbourg, France- another place to return to.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Off the beaten path- Russia!

We did not step one toe off the beaten path in St. Petersburg, but going to Russia in the first place was relatively off the beaten path! This was the only port where we booked tours through the cruise line, in part because obtaining visas to travel outside a group is a lengthy process.
Tourists get a nice tour bus, and I noticed discrepancies between how we were treated, and regular people's lives- see tram above. The historic buildings we stopped at were amazing, but regular apartment buildings had boarded up/barred windows, and some had peeling paint & rusting window frames. Most tours included a stop at an official souvenir shop, which felt like a gimmick because there was nowhere else nearby to go except into that shop. On a half-day tour, it seemed oppressive to spend 20 minutes in an overcrowded shop with higher prices.
One tour bus stopped for “lunch and shopping” across the square from the Russian Museum, which was well worth the $5.29 entrance fee, payable in Rubles or credit card (the amount quoted here was based on the exchange rate that day). The museum, formerly a palace, had very nice artwork on display in magnificent rooms.
An evening at the ballet was wonderful. I didn’t know that the ending of Swan Lake had been re-written at some point, because the original ending was so tragic.
Look at these magnificent mosaics! Millions of pieces of glass! This is the interior of the church pictured above.
We didn’t go to any American fast food restaurants. This trip was an amazing opportunity to a historic city.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

European money is interesting!

When I was growing up in Germany, I loved collecting coins from nearby countries that we visited, such as French Francs, Italian Lira, etc. The “Euro” replaced Deutsche Marks and many other European  currencies, but there are still unique bills and coins to be found! The Euro and the US Dollar are not exactly 1:1, but  fairly close. Some of the coins have unique reverse sides with distinguishing information from countries within the European Union. 

Our first trip outside of Euro-currency countries was to the Czech Republic. This $100 Koruna note is worth about $4. The coins are interesting and beautiful! It was slightly challenging to do the mental math for conversion; 25 Koruna are about $1, and the silverware set that Jeff admired was $4,000 (there were so many zeros on the price tag in Korunas I thought it was a bar code number). OK, no new silverware for us today!

Our next trip to Switzerland introduced us to colorful Swiss Francs and pretty coins. The Swiss Franc, the Euro, and the USD, are not that far apart in value, though they are not exactly equivalent. We had to buy a windshield sticker upon entering Switzerland, instead of paying a toll every so many miles on highways, but the roads we travelled on were very well maintained!
Just for you, we will continue to travel, collect interesting coins, and post here!

Monday, August 10, 2015

Cold Cucumber Soup

The first time I had gazpacho (cold vegetable soup) in Spain, I was amazed by the amount of garlic in it! I typically feel too lazy to chop up so many fresh vegetables for home-made gazpacho, but I enjoy ordering cold soups in restaurants- especially cold fruit soups.

I’ve been on a cucumber kick since moving to Germany, especially since cold sliced cucumber salad is readily available in several grocery stores. It’s been so hot recently, and as we are missing our former air-conditioned home, I’ve been thinking of cold foods to have for dinner. This recipe is modified from the many-ingredient version in “New Basics Cookbook”.
Guess where? A German chocolate bar to the first person to comment on this location.
Peel one large cucumber or several smaller cucumbers, and cut into 1 inch slices. Place in a blender along with 2 cups plain low-fat yogurt and 1 cup chicken stock. If you like garlic, I encourage you to run one clove of raw garlic through a garlic press before blending! Our new German blender is excellent, but doesn’t pulverize things like our Vitamix (in storage) did. My mouthful of garlic alerts you to not put a whole raw clove into your blender! A few twists of pepper before blending is also welcome, to taste. Next time I will make every effort to roast a head of garlic and use one clove of roasted garlic in this soup. Chill and serve (2 bowls worth).
In an update to this brownie cheesecake cupcake recipe, I planned to make it again today, but discovered that I had previously purchased a large (“family size”) box of brownies for a 9x13 pan. I decided to go ahead with the recipe in a 9x13 pan, and wanted to let you know how it worked out. The original recipe for a round springform pan called for 2 packages of cream cheese. I had hand-written (years ago!), that a thin layer of cheesecake was fine with 2 packages, but if you want a thick layer of cheesecake over the brownies, increase the recipe proportionately to 3 packages of cream cheese. I stuck with 2 this time. I sprinkled mini chocolate chips on top of the cheesecake but did not melt and stir them because the layer of raw cheesecake batter was fairly thin and the brownies had not completely baked through. Next time I will stir the mini chocolate chips (without melting them) into the batter, because sprinkled on top, many stuck to the knife when I was cutting the brownies. Modifications to previous recipe with larger pan:

Increase baking time to 20 minutes for the brownies, and 20 minutes more for the cheesecake.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Cauliflower Casserole

I’ve been singularly uninspired to cook for months (February packed up and sold house, March in temporary quarters, April unpacking boxes of stuff, May getting used to new job/schedule, June travel, and here we are!). I was finally motivated to haul out the garlic press when I read an interesting recipe for cauliflower casserole in the military newspaper for the base where I work. The original could be labeled a “cholesterol special” and didn’t include garlic, so of course I made modifications.
Here’s what to do: cook a head (or two)  of cauliflower, or use a bag (or 2) of frozen/thawed. Boil noodles in the proportion that you’d like for the meal- if it’s a vegetable side, a main meal, and how many heads/bags of cauliflower you used. 2 cups of raw macaroni or 3 cups of larger pasta could be a starting point for the amount. Sautee onion, garlic, and any real meat you’d like to use (hamburger, turkey, bacon, ham, etc.)- I didn’t use any meat in this casserole. Finally, whisk 4 eggs and 1/3 to ½ cup low fat sour cream or milk (the recipe calls for a “small jar” of cream). Have ¾ cup of grated cheese on hand- of course I used Gruyere, therefore omitting additional salt or pepper in the recipe.
Bern, Switzerland
Spray a 9 x 13 baking dish if you used 2 head/bags of cauliflower. Spread cauliflower out, then cover with drained noodles. Add onion/meat mix, then pour egg mixture over it all. Sprinkle with grated cheese. I was instructed to bake at 180 Celcius for 30-40 minutes, which worked fine. I’m guessing 350 degrees for 20-30 minutes- check if cheese is gently browned on top. Next time I will mix everything together, since the layered noodles were a bit too crispy for me this time.
Mail delivery in Bern, Switzerland

Since photos of cauliflower and raw noodles are not that exciting, here are some travel photos along with one of the done casserole. Enjoy!