Monday, June 29, 2015

Munich Day One

My brother and his girlfriend had travelled from Atlanta to Charlotte, Charlotte to Frankfurt, and finally Frankfurt to Munich. We met the weary couple at the train station when they arrived to Munich on Saturday. Despite the fact that they had been traveling all the day and night before, we took off right away exploring the city. (Americans have to take advantage of our precious vacation days- when we go somewhere, we want to see it all!) Our first stop: the English Garden, which was very close to where they were staying. We stopped at the Beer Garden for some quality German food. This was something I remembered from my previous trips to Munich; the feeling of being constantly full. Bavarian cuisine is very hearty: potatoes, ham legs, sausages, schnitzel, cheese pasta, and plenty of pretzels and bread. It seems no matter how little you actually consume of German food, you still have the uncomfortable feeling of being stuffed. In the Beer Garden, we tried the ham hock, potato salad, several varieties of sausages, and sauerkraut. My brother and his girlfriend are beer drinkers, so they began their trip right with a pint each. My Munich friend was impressed with them. Beer is not my preferred drink, but I do like the Radlers. Radler is a beer and lemonade mix that is much lighter than beer.

We walked the length of the park until we got to the man-made surfing waves. This part of the river that runs through the English Garden was constructed to provide a few waves for surfing. Surfers stand on the sides of the river and take turns surfing one by one on the waves. My friend says there are surfers using this river all year round, even in the winter months.

From the English Garden, we walked to the city's main square, Marienplatz. Marienplatz is an iconic symbol of Munich, home to the famous Glockenspiel clock that performs a musical routine daily from the top of the city hall. We'd have to leave the performance for the next day.

The classic Hofbrauhaus was where we had dinner. This massive beer hall is a must-see stop while in Munich. We squeezed our way into a half empty table. The common seating is something you see in restaurants and beer gardens in Germany, making the most use of space for large crowds. As always, the Hofbrauhaus was full of life, the air heavy with heat and beer aroma. All around our table I could hear English being spoken. It seems every traveller comes here to meet locals or other travellers. We even met a couple of other Americans at our table.

As if that wasn't enough for their first day in Europe, we went to a party at a friend's apartment. He was a friend of our German guide (aka my former roommate) and was having people over at his house. He is Spanish, and therefore, all his group of Spanish friends were getting together at his place before going out. Upon walking through the door of his apartment, I was instantly transported back to Madrid: the bottles of beer strewn about, the cigarette smoke, the loud conversations, and the impressively Spanish way of squeezing as many individuals as possible into one single space. Surprisingly, my brother and his girlfriend met a German guy at this party who had studied a year at The University of Florida. Under normal circumstances this conversation might be prohibited as my brother and his girlfriend both attended Louisiana State University. However, given the fact that we were at a Spanish party in Munich and someone had studied at a fellow SEC school, it was allowed. They tried their best the rest of the night to convince this guy to do another year in the US, but this time at LSU. And so ended their first night of their trip, the girlfriend's first night in Europe. I don't think they were disappointed.

English Garden
First German meal in the English Garden Beer Garden. Prost!

Surfing in the English Garden.
Glockenspiel figures on the town hall.
Siblings in Europe.

Hofbrauhaus for beers and dinner.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Munich: ABBA and my TV break

At the end of April, my husband and I escaped the dreary British days for a spring trip to Germany and Switzerland. My brother and his girlfriend had planned a trip to Munich and invited us to meet up with them there. A good friend of mine, and also previous roommate from Madrid, is from Munich so we'd have our very own tour guide.

We took the short flight from Manchester to Munich and met up with my friend at the Central Train Station. She lives just south of the city, with direct connections on the S-Bahn (above ground train). The night we arrived happened to be a local festival in her neighborhood. An ABBA cover band was performing under a large tented pavilion. There were rows of picnic style tables filled with large steins of beer. Some people were wearing the traditional Bavarian outfits. I was impressed by the energy of the party; people were dancing and singing along on the tops of the tables. My friend assured me this was normal, and if I thought this was a fun party, just wait until I see the Oktoberfest. I have been now to Munich three times: twice when I lived in Madrid and this last visit. I had gone before to visit my friend in Munich during December to see the famous Christmas markets. I also visited her in the summer several years back when I was traveling through Europe on the Eurorail with my other roommate from Madrid. I suppose my next trip to Munich should be for Oktoberfest. Now that I live in Europe, I have no excuse.

When the ABBA band was taking a break, a local camera crew approached my friend and asked her if we wanted to be featured on their newscast about the party. When she told them I was American, they asked to do a quick interview in English. With cameras rolling, they asked me what I thought about this Bavarian celebration. The host also gave me a hard time for not drinking beer, insisting that I switch my Aperol drink with his stein. To see my interview online, follow the link and click on minute 3:43:

Following my interview and the conclusion of the concert, my friend took us outside to show us a real Bavarian tradition. She lead us to a long maypole laid on its side. Basically, each town in Bavaria has its own blue and white striped maypole. Groups of young people sign up to guard their town's maypole. They have to fill all 24 hours with security as roving gangs (of youngsters) from other towns will try to steal your maypole. If you successfully guard your maypole from intruders, you can put up your pole on May 1 (May Day/Pentecost). As we went in for a closer look, she warned us not to stand too near the pole. The 'guardians' may become suspicious and try to chase us away from the pole. Everyone around us seemed too busy having their post-concert drinks so we daringly got close enough to touch the maypole. Hashtag rebels.

Later in our trip, we went to Konstanz, Germany for a finance conference my husband was attending. Indeed, we saw a maypole there too. I smiled as we passed, feeling a little more knowledgeable about this regional tradition.

Local Bavarian celebration.
Waterloo, the ABBA cover band.

English interview for Bavarian TV.

Munich city center's Maypole.
Close up of the Munich maypole.

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Exploring England: York

Back in the day (way back, think 1400s), England found itself torn between two warring factions claiming rights to the throne: the House of Lancaster and the House of York. The conflict is known as the War of the Roses and lasted on and off from 1455 to 1485. I am certainly no expert on the subject, but I do know it played a significant role in the history of England. This political shakeup saw the following Kings reign during the period of the War of the Roses: Henry VI (Lancaster), Edward IV (York), Edward V (York), and Richard III (York). If you are really interested, you can research further because this history is full of changing alliances, family betrayals, fleeing to foreign countries, returns from abroad for revenge, bouts of insanity, impersonations: you know, the typical procedures of that time. The end of the conflict of the War of the Roses is generally considered when Henry Tudor (from the lineage of Lancaster) defeated Richard III and assumed the throne. He married Elizabeth of York (from the royal family of York), joining the two kingdoms. Henry Tudor is known as Henry VII, father of Henry VIII (the one we usually know because of his many wives and the creation of the Church of England). 

Relics from the time still remain in Lancaster, where you can find red roses over the city. The red rose is the symbol of the House of Lancaster and the white rose is the symbol of the House of York. Being a transplant Lancastrian, I didn’t want to like York on principle. (I am a sucker for a good rivalry.) 

But liked it I did. One of England’s most historic cities, York’s well preserved buildings and architecture give you the feeling that you are stepping back in time. York has impressive city walls from the medieval ages still intact. In fact, the history of York’s city walls goes even further back: the first walls were built by the Romans in the early ADs. You can climb the stairs to walk the circumference of the city along the top of the city walls. Everything within the walls represents the ‘old town’ part of York. From the walls, you can get a great view of the York Minster, the second largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe. I have seen many a church in Europe, and this is definitely one of the most impressive. We were lucky that the night we were spending in York was the day of the weekly Evensong Service. The Evensong Service allows guests and members to sit in the choir chamber of the cathedral. The choir leads you in music and song, and then there is a short homily. Another interesting thing was that a Spanish priest had been invited to give the homily at the Evensong. Afterward, my husband introduced himself to the priest and was satisfied that the priest could recognize his local Galician accent. (Spaniards are proud of their home regions.) 

York is also regarded as one of the most haunted cities in England. Being the good tourists that we are, we joined a walking ghost tour of the city. I’m not much for these kinds of things, but the tour was actually light-hearted, entertaining, and informative. Our guide was quite the character, making plenty of jokes along the way. In addition to hearing some spooky stories, he always gave us some background about the different buildings in the city. It was good fun.

Another famous product of York is chocolate, the city becoming an industrial chocolate producing hub in the 19th century. Some of the famous brands are Terry’s and Rowntree’s (now owned by Nestlé). We Americans know Terry’s as the maker of the Chocolate Oranges that we eat at Christmas, and the Nestlé factory in York pumps out millions of our beloved Kit Kats. There were plenty of chocolate shops around York that tempted me. While walking the narrow Shambles, York’s oldest street with a long history of markets, we stopped at Monk Bar Chocolatiers. They were selling milk and dark chocolate shots: liquid chocolate in chocolate cups. Amazing. This is not to be missed! 

We ended the day at the Museum Gardens, outside the Yorkshire Museum. There is a river that runs along the gardens with ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey, built in 1088. Lots of young families were there enjoying the space. York is a great place to visit in northern England and full of history!

York Minster, just a little bit impressive.

York Minster for the Evensong Service.

Rambling around The Shambles.
The historic Shambles street is iconic for its buildings that lean in towards each other.
Chocolate shots at Monk Bar Chocolatiers.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Exploring England: Ambleside and Grasmere

In March, my parents came to visit us for the first time since our wedding. The Lake District was of course on our itinerary of places to see while they were in northern England.

We started the morning with the quick train ride to Windermere. From Windermere, we took the gentle walk to the lakefront in Bowness-on-Windermere. I had read about a specialty gingerbread store in Grasmere, just north of Ambleside, that I wanted to take my parents to.

There is a bus pass that you can buy that takes you up and down the southern lakes, which is a great way to see several of the Lake District villages in one day. We hopped on the bus at Bowness-on-Windermere and rode north to Ambleside for some lunch. We admired quality leather goods and hiking gear in the local stores. The Lake District is known for its hiking trails and there is no shortage of outdoor athletic attire in the village centers. Even if you're not an outdoorsy person, a wind-proof jacket with a hood is essential for day-to-day life in northern England. My insulated hooded jacket was the best purchase I've made since moving here.

My American parents are quite fond of the friendly British pubs, so we grabbed some pies and pints for lunch. They came to find out that they are a big fan of Carling beer, a very popular lager in the UK. I actually do not drink beer, so I usually go for a cider instead. Ciders are also very popular in the UK, with many local and imported selections.

Ambleside, a charming little village.
From Ambleside, we used our bus passes to go to Grasmere, possibly one of the most quaint villages in all of England. Grasmere is connected with the British poet, William Wordsworth, who spent many years living in the village and using the Lakes as inspiration for his poems. You can visit his home, Dove Cottage, as well as his gravesite in St. Oswald's Church. Grasmere has a little river that runs through the town's majority 19th Century buildings. There are plenty of cute places to get a coffee or some sweets while you pass through the Wordsworth Daffodil Garden. 

The main reason for our coming to Grasmere was to taste Sarah Nelson's Gingerbread. This gingerbread is known throughout England and was started back in 1854 in the same house where it is still made and sold today. The owners are really proud of the history of their product and the legacy of its creator, Sarah Nelson, and only sell Grasmere Gingerbread in their shop and from their website. They do not sell to any supermarkets, so the best way to taste the freshest gingerbread is to go there and get it! It really was good; very crunchy and spicy. It was different than the gingerbread men I had eaten during Christmas growing up in the US. We were glad we made the trip to Grasmere to try it! But, let's be honest, I'll travel about anywhere to try specialty sweets. (Soon to come: I recount my trip to Cartmel to try the original sticky toffee!)

Grasmere, a good place to stop when visiting the southern lakes.
Try Sarah Nelson's authentic Grasmere Gingerbread!
Feel inspired by William Wordsworth's legacy in Grasmere.
To find out more about the Lake District and Sarah Nelson's Gingerbread, follow the links:

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Exploring England: Southern Lake District

I was 15 the first time I visited England. Every year, my high school takes the upcoming senior class on a European trip. The itinerary for our trip was: London, Paris, and Barcelona. We spent a few days in London, took the Chunnel to Paris, saw Paris and Versailles, and finished in Barcelona. 

My first trip to Europe was great. Since then, I've obviously covered a lot more ground. While living two years in Madrid, I took advantage of budget airlines, Euro Rail train passes, and one Mediterranean cruise to see a bit of the European continent. To date, I have visited the following European countries:
Czech Republic
Gibraltar (they actually stamp your passport!)
Morocco (in Africa, I know. But I include it here because I visited during my residence in Spain.)
Spain, including the Canary Islands and the Balearic Islands
United Kingdom (England and Scotland)

Since moving to northern England, I've been able to explore more of the surrounding areas. Most American tourists don't get the chance to see much more of the UK than London, Edinburgh, and perhaps Cambridge or Oxford. I feel like living here and seeing the smaller towns gives us a more authentic feel of British life.

Just 30 minutes up the road from our town is the famous Lake District National Park. One of England's oldest National Parks, the Lake District sees some 15 million visitors per year. The hundreds of parkland includes ample lakeside trails, mountains, fells, and valleys for biking, hiking, or casual strolling. Sprinkled throughout the park are quaint, charming cities with lots of character. 

Map of Lake District National Park

The first time I visited the Lake District was one chilly October morning to go biking with my husband. We started in the southern Lakes, by Bowness-on-Windermere. We rode north along the lake to Ambleside. It's amazing just how green and lush the English countryside is. Probably due to the high amounts of rain they receive. 

We biked north to Bowness and Lake Windermere.
Windermere and neighboring town Bowness-on-Windermere reminded me of little ski towns. They were compact, with cute coffee shops and outdoor athletic wear stores. There are ample options of B&B's and elegant lakeside hotels for all the visiting families. You can also take a ferry from Bowness-on-Windermere to the northern end of the lake. I bet that's a favorite for summer.

Views of Lake Windermere from our ride.
Mental note: research this cute B&B to return.
On the way to Ambleside.
At Ambleside, we tried our first full English breakfast. Having biked all morning, we were quite hungry and, at the time, eating a heavy farm-boy breakfast seemed like a good idea. English breakfast is delicious when you are eating it. Fried eggs, sausages, bacon, toast, sometimes black pudding (sometimes not if you're American and have an aversion to eating blood), a stewed tomato, and beans make up this "fry-up". The English breakfast does satisfy a starving adult, however you are left to deal with the bad conscience of just how much grease you consumed at one sitting. We were so full, I'm not even sure we ate dinner that night. 

Dockside at Ambleside.
Can you handle this? This was the "vegetarian" version. Still enormous.
Here's a pic of a quintessential English Breakfast for anyone who hasn't experienced it, complete with blood sausage (those black medallions) 
All that being said, definitely check out the towns of Windermere, Bowness-on-Windermere, and Ambleside if you are exploring the southern Lakes. Take the English breakfast at your own risk, or opt for a nice icecream instead. (What? I'm assuming if you're in the Lakes you're on vacation anyway!) Rent a bike and go exploring. Don't forget gloves if you're going in the fall, winter, or spring! 

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Tres Reyes

The final holiday event in Spain is January 6, or Three Kings' Day. Three Kings' Day represents the arrival of the Three Wise Men to Bethlehem. It's also known as Epiphany in other parts of the world.
On this day, Los Tres Reyes Magos bring children presents, just like they brought to Baby Jesus. I actually like this tradition a lot. It's more symbolic to the Biblical story of gift-giving than our Santa (although I still support him too!). All the children of Spain wake up to see what gifts the Kings have left them in their shoes. My little niece didn't like the idea of strangers coming into their house at night, so she asked my sister-in-law if the Kings could leave the gifts at the doorstep.

Usually, each town will host a Three Kings parade and throw out candy to the children. The parade in Madrid is the biggest, and competition for candy is fierce. Several veteran candy catchers bring umbrellas turned upside down to catch the candy as it showers down.

In my husband's family's town in northern Spain, the Three Kings also make an appearance in the town square and pass out little toys to children. So back we went to the square to see the Kings. The crowd was even bigger this time than when Santa was visiting. Later that night we caught candy and waved at the Kings and their entourage of characters during the parade.

Meeting Los Reyes Magos.

Three Kings Parade
And Spongebob?? Don't remember him in the journey to Bethlehem.
Finally, you must eat a roscón de reyes on January 6. Similar to a King's Cake, the roscón is a baked, bready cake with sugar and candied fruit on top. Hidden inside the cake is a small porcelain baby Jesus or Wise Man. There is also a dried bean hidden. Whoever gets the slice of cake with the baby or the Wise Man, gets to be the king of the party- a paper crown is included with the roscón! Whoever gets the bean has to buy the cake the next year. I got lucky this year and found the figurine!

Queen of the party! 

Monday, May 11, 2015

New Year's Eve: Grapes and Good Luck

Many Americans have a love/hate relationship with New Year's Eve. There is so much pressure to do something "awesome" to celebrate the new year that people spend too much time stressing about it. In Spain, there is a pretty set celebration itinerary that is repeated year in and year out.

To start off New Year's Eve, young people usually eat dinner at home with their families. At midnight, everyone in the nation turns on their TVs to watch the clock strike the new year broadcasted from the heart of Spain, Madrid's Plaza del Sol. For each of the 12 chimes of the clock, Spaniards eat a grape for luck. Legend has it, if you fail to eat all 12 grapes before the clock strikes midnight, you will have bad luck in the new year. This tradition of grape eating is so serious that residents of Madrid gather the night before to do a practice run on December 30th! A small disaster occurred this year on a local Spanish channel. By mistake, the broadcasters cut to commercials during the midnight hour. When they finally returned the coverage, several chimes had been missed. Having no warning the clock was striking midnight, the viewers were caught totally off guard. Some began popping all the grapes at once, hoping to catch up. Others just sat is bewilderment, not grasping the fact that the TV programmers had bungled it and caused the misfortune of a whole Spanish town. Pobrecitos.

To see the bungled New Year's Eve broadcasting and a compilation of people's reactions, click below:

After (hopefully) putting away the grapes and gaining a year's worth of luck, the Spanish youth put on their fancy outfits and meet with their friends around 2:00 or 3:00 AM. A few hours are passed with friends at a house party until it's socially acceptable to hit the discotecas around 5:00 or 6:00 AM. The whole night ends when the discotecas clear out and partiers head to the local cafes for churros and chocolate.

My first Galician New Year's Eve was pretty spot on. The frigid temperatures did not put a damper on the festivities. Living up to expectations, my husband and I made it home at 9:00 AM. (Yes, 9:00 AM!)

Eating our grapes out of conch shells seemed appropriate in coastal northern Spain. 
Churros and chocolate at 8:00 AM. Hashtag Success.