Monday, January 20, 2014

Skiing the Alps ~ Finally did it!! (check!)

One thing I have dreamed of since I learned to ski at the age of 5 . . never thought possible . . . kept trying to get my family on board with the idea . . . will forever cherish the memory . . . SKIING THE ALPS IN EUROPE!!

I had to move thousands of miles away and to a different continent but I finally did it . . . got my dad to come visit me and ski the Alps for Christmas!  Oh what fun we had! Oh the beauty! The Splendor! The vastness!  I probably will never be able to paint a picture pretty enough to describe it in words . . . kinda like when you take a picture of a beautiful sunrise or sunset.  A picture just doesn't capture what you are seeing through the naked eye.

On December 17, 2013 I was able to finally check a pretty high item off the ol' "bucket" list.  Dad and I headed up to ski the Jungfrau region of Switzerland.  Although not even half of the lifts were open yet the three combined ski resorts offered almost too many lifts to take for one day!  I think we did it though . . I think we hit every single one that was open.  This was only possible by the fact that we didn't want to stop for any reason other than attempting to capture the beauty on a photograph and therefore only stopped to share a bottle of water and eat a nutrigrain bar apiece for lunch. Dad kept making statements such as "This is AMAZING", "This is UNBELIVEABLE!", "I can't believe I am skiing at the base of the Eiger!", "Look!  It's the Eiger!" etc. etc. I have to say, I have never skied at the base of glaciers before and it was pretty stinking awesome!!



The EIGER!!




The Jungfrau ski region contained 214 kilometers of slopes against the backdrop of the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau. It is a combination of three ski resorts all connected allowing us to ski from one to the other . . and back again. The three resorts are Kleine Scheidegg-Männlichen, Grindelwald-First and Mürren-Schilthorn.  The Jungfrau is the highest summit at 13,642 feet and is know as "The top of Europe." According to Wikipedia, "Together with the Eiger and Mönch, the Jungfrau forms a massive wall overlooking the Bernese Oberland and is considered one of the most emblematic sights of the Swiss Alps."  Yup . . that is where we skied! :-)




Not more than a few weeks later I was able to ski the Alps once more . . . this time in Austria AND Switzerland with my buddy Sammy!  We were able to take a bus from one of the Army bases nearby . . . boy was that an experience!  We arrived at the bus stop at 12:30 AM only to freeze our deriers off until the bus showed up around 1:00 AM.  There were only four females on the trip (including us) and the chivalrous military gentlemen allowed us the get on the bus LAST!!!  What in the world?!??  They all rushed to the bus pushing and shoving . . like a bunch of 7 year old children!  When we were finally able to board the bus we were met with the smell of alcohol (although strictly forbidden) and a rowdy bunch of males.  Sigh . . . we made it through the 7 hour bus drive and arrived at Ischgl, Austria.



Ischgl is a town in the Austrian state of Tyrol and its ski resort is connected with the ski resort of Samnaun, located across the border in Switzerland. We were literally able to ski back and forth in between the Austrian and Swiss Alps . . how cool is that?!? With both of these resorts combined, it is the largest skiing resort in the Alps. Its 238 km of groomed runs are accessed by over 40 mechanical lifts including cable cars, gondolas, detachable chair lifts and some T-bars. (The T-bar was one lift we were not planning on taking . . we were forced!  Ohh boy . . I am not good at T-bars)  Again, the beauty was amazing!  At one point me and Sam popped off our skis/board and sat down on the tip of a snowy cliff to enjoy the sights along with some well deserved snacks.  We ended up taking a lunch break this day (as the runs were so long and wonderful that we were plum worn out and needed to rest the poor knees) and the lunch was fantastic! We shared a plate of some sort of pancake casserole served with apple sauce and a plate of noodles that reminded us of really, really good mac'n cheese.
 
 

If I had to compare the two resorts I would have to say that Ischgl/Samnaun was definitely larger than Jungfrau but the views were not as majestic.  Don't get me wrong, they were still amazing and beat any views from Tahoe . . . but there is just something about skiing with glaciers to your back.  Both resorts had pro's that the other did not have . . .they were both wonderful!  Since this is my last winter here in Europe I am attempting to hit the slopes a few more times.  YOLO, right Sam??

Friday, January 17, 2014

The overseas visit of some very dear Friends :-)

When my childhood buddy, twin, inseparable companion first told me of plans to visit me in Europe it was a dream . . . I couldn't quite believe it, although I wanted to desperately!  From about the ages of 10-16 me and Mish were combined at the hip.  Every Sunday was a play day with us . . . sleep overs, horseback ridding, cowboy and Indian playing, recording our own plays, sleeping in the shed with a 5 gallon bucket close by in case of a "nature" emergency . . . we did everything together.  Since that time we have grown apart, but only in terms of distance.  She has been living in Pennsylvania for the last 5 years or so and I have now moved to Germany . . . but she is still my buddy!!

As the time drew closer I realized that it was indeed going to happen!  She was coming to see me and bringing her precious family with her!!  Oh what fun we had!!  Walks through the country side, cookie making, castle visiting and a beautiful day at and around Lake Constance and Stein am Rhein, Switzerland.  It was sooo good to visit, laugh and explore once more!

 
Being goofy at the Rhein Falls ~ the largest plain waterfall in Europe.  It was exciting, fun and WET! Unfortunately, because of the tide, we were not able to take the boat ride up to the rock you see in the background and explore . . . but the boat did circle the falls thus insuring we were drenched and pleased with the experience :-)


 
Buddies!!

 
The beauty on the Island of Mainau was shocking!  The crystal clear ponds, freshly groomed lawns, the exotic butterfly house . . . it was incredible!



Village of Stein am Rhein in Switzerland was quaint, cute, cozy and beautiful all at the same time . . . and Expensive!!!  We ended up paying close to $30 for two small frozen yogurts and a water bottle.  I just about had a heart attack!!
 
 

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

European Christmas Markets, how I will miss you!

One of my absolute favorite things about living in Germany is the Christmas season . . . boy do they know how to celebrate properly!  The fall season may be skipped completely (no thanksgiving, no apple cider stands, no decorations) and other well know US holidays may be M.I.A . . but not Christmas!!  It is definitely a wonderful time of the year here in Europe!

Almost every "large" village hosts a Christmas Market every year.  Some of them are certain weekends only, some start at the end of November and continue through January, and others are only for two or three weeks before Christmas . . . but they are lovely indeed!

We have been to multiple markets in the last two Christmas' here spanning Germany, France, Czech Republic and Austria.  Most of them are comprised of multiple "booths" set up displaying everything from handmade scarves and mittens to Christmas ornaments and art pieces.  They also have some of the best, if not very healthy, food items around.  Both years we have traveled down to Rothenburg O.d.T. to enjoy the "half-meter" hot dogs.  There is also Gluhwein a'plenty (a hot mulled wine drink) and an alcohol-free cider for kids (as well as those that do not drink alcohol . . ahem).  Clayton enjoyed the Nutella crepes a little too much (at least one or two a market).  There were pretzels, cookies and candies galore! Potato spirals and a cinnamon/sugar bread roasted over a fire that was almost to die for! Needless to say, we did not go hungry.

 
 
The "all too famous" Nutella crepe
 
 
 
 
 
Kinder-Punsch (our substitute for Gluhwein)
 
 
Candies!! 
 
 
 
 
Delicious "half-meter" hot dogs
 
 
The atmosphere of the Christmas Markets is one of holiday cheer and warmth.  Many have Christmas music playing softly or the occasional live musician playing a universally recognized Christmas song.  Some have outdoor ice skating rinks while others have live nativity scenes.  All have a beauty that can only be captured by attending one in person. 

Here is a small re-cap of some of the Markets we attended this year:

Bernkastel-Kues ~ a small medieval city located on the Moselle River in Germany.  At first we thought the market was rather "small" and even asked a shop owner, "is this it??" . . . we then felt a little stupid as we started exploring the small alleys and cobblestone pathways.  The market kept going and going!  
 




 
Castle lit up on the hill above the city . . beautiful!

 
 
Eguisheim, France ~ Located in the Alsace region in north-eastern France.  In May of 2013 this little village was voted the "Favorite French Village."  It was not as highly populated as other markets we had attended (of course we also were there during the day and not at night) but it was so quaint and beautiful! 








 
Frankfurt Germany ~ one of the oldest Christmas Markets in Germany!  There has been a Christmas Market in Frankfurt for over 600 years!  It was huge!  We went on a Sunday and there were thousands of people attending!  It was definitely an experience!

 
Prague, Czech Republic ~ We visited the Christmas Market in Old Town Square on Christmas Day . . . it was stunning! St. Nicholas Church was absolutely wonderful! Live music greeted us as we entered and the enormous crystal chandelier in the center caught the attention of everyone present. The Church of Our Lady before Tyn is the main attraction in the square and it hard to ignore.  Unfortunately the 14th century Gothic church was closed and we were not able to enter at the time.  The Astronomical Clock was also a focal point and we watch as it came alive at the strike of one o'clock.
 
 
Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Germany ~ Home to one of the most romantic Christmas Markets in Germany and known for it's medieval setting.  The cobblestone streets, half timbered houses and stone walls securing the city take you back to another place in time.
 
 
(half-meter hot dogs)
 
So in conclusion, I would just like to say that I will miss these dear Christmas Markets and the joy and warmth they bring when I return to the states this next November.  This is one part of "European Living" I will miss the most . . . there are many parts I will not miss . . ie the trash system, the speed cameras, the gas prices, all stores closed on Sundays, no good Chinese food, the conversion rate of the dollar to the euro . . I digress . . this is another post entirely . . .
 

Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Bringing in the New Year with a bang . . . and another bang . . and a boom . .


Wow!  What to say about New Years in Germany . . . . not sure where to start!  Last year we were in Wiesbaden during the New Years for a special "watch night service" which was severely disturbed when 12 o'clock am hit . . . we were in awe!!  The fireworks we loud . . . they didn't stop . . . the inside of the small building was lit with multiple colors!  How could we possibly miss this!!  Clayton and I ran outside to see the madness (as well as to make sure our car was ok).  We could not believe what we saw!  People were lighting what would be "very illegal fireworks" in the states right out in the streets!  Debris from fireworks was raining down upon us from all sides . . . a bottle rocket hit a street light and sent sparks flying . . . some sort of firecracker made it's way under a car and sent the alarm into panic . . . it was unbelievable! We were half shocked, half frightened . . . half laughing and half crying!  When we drove home that night it was as if we were driving through a mine field that had already be detonated.  We were finding our way through piles of debris . . . never sure what would go off at any moment.
video

This year we had wanted to go to a big city for New Year's.  Berlin was our first thought . . . thanks to Community Bank, however, that idea was shut down (Clayton was forced to work a half day on New Year's Eve).  We then thought about Trier, Frankfurt, Cologne, etc.  Unfortunately I had eaten something a couple days before that my body did not enjoy and therefore we had to stay at a safe distance from home.  We decided on Burg Lichtenberg located in Kusel, Germany.  This amazing 13th century castle is only about 15-20 minutes away from our humble abode and is located on the top of a very large hill which would give us prime viewing of all the chaos below.  We had been there on several occasions and it has become sort of a "friend" to our family.  We were not disappointed!  The madness started way before 12 o'clock but as the clock struck midnight the hill and the surrounding valley became a battlefield of lights, sounds and sparkles!  Bottle rockets were surrounding us, a man aimed a gun-like mechanism in our direction only to see us at the last second and send his rock slightly to the right.  Something jumped up and bit my posterior.  Clayton mused if this was a small example of how it might have felt during WW2 . . . with explosions surrounding us, the sky being lit up with magnificent lights and the streets free of moving vehicles.  It is as if the calm, well mannered (if not slightly unfriendly) residents of this country decide that one night a year there are no rules and everything goes.  There was not a Polizei to be found (police car).  Who needs organized firework displays when anyone and everyone can go ahead and purchase these same fireworks at the local hardware store to enjoy themselves in their own small little village.  Some 40 minutes past midnight we attempted to make our way home through the wreckage.  We had to be careful as there were still live firecrackers going off in the streets and people running about from one side of the road to the other.  We finally found a car to get behind and follow most of the way home.  When we returned to our village we found that the once clean streets were cluttered with ash and remnants of and "explosive" party.  Mika and Milo even found their sacred "potty-ground" had been the landing site of several bottle rocket stems.  What an adventure the evening was!  One thing I will say about these Germans . . . they know how to celebrate both Christmas and New Year's right!  Sadly, this madness would never be allowed back home . . . but probably for good reason . . . made me think what the injury rate is for this one night a year . . .