Thursday, October 17, 2013

Luxembourg Road Trip

Driving through the countryside on our way to Luxembourg, we observed rolling hills, sweeping valleys, rows of crops and cows grazing in the fields. This landscape is pretty par for the course in Germany so when my friend Katie and I arrived in Luxembourg City, the capital of Luxembourg, we were pleasantly surprised to find a beautiful, old city with grand, ornate buildings and cobblestone streets perched atop a massive cliff. Gone were the A-frame, half-timbered houses that the Germans so dearly love.

Only 4 hours away from Stuttgart, I was excited to explore Luxembourg because 1) I didn’t even realize it was a country until I met a boy from there while studying abroad and 2) despite the fact that the entire country is only the size of Rhode Island, it boasts the second highest GDP in the world and has roughly 500,000 residents.

As always our GPS had some difficultly navigating the car through the one way streets, many of which were blocked off due to construction, so after about 15 minutes of driving in circles, we located our hotel for the night.  Modern, clean, pet-friendly and decorated with modern art, Hotel Simoncini offered large rooms, unfortunately without the comfort of air conditioning, as is the trend in Europe. After dropping our bags off, we ventured out for dinner to Caves Gourmands, a French restaurant that was highly rated on TripAdvisor. We sat at a table outside and ordered off of the special menu that allowed us to pick an appetizer, entrĂ©e and dessert for a set price (one of my favorite French customs). I elected the fois gras terrine, lemon-caper sole and macaroon with berries while my friend ordered pork knuckle, chicken with chanterelles and ice cream with hot chocolate sauce. To drink, I ordered a glass of Chablis that the waiter promptly opened and poured for me. After a few bites of the amuse bouche and sips of the wine, the waiter returned to ask me how I liked the wine. I responded that it was good then he proceeded to tell me that the wine was actually undrinkable due to a rotted cork. This was slightly embarrassing since I hadn’t noticed the problem at all but he suggested a local Pinot Gris that I reluctantly accepted hoping another awkward situation would not occur. On the way back to the hotel we wandered around the town and discovered many hip restaurants and bars packed with patrons, which was surprising to see given it was a Tuesday night.

The next morning we woke up early and set off to explore the city. The first stop was the Cathedral of the Blessed Virgin, originally constructed in 1613 in late Gothic style with Renaissance influence. It boasts bright stained glass windows in wonderful jewel tones and glimmering mosaics. The kind overseer even allowed us to bring in my friend’s dog so long as he was held.

From there, we wandered along the streets that bordered the Cliffside and overlooked the old town below. This path offered numerous photo ops. From there we found ourselves at the historic casemates, the city’s ancient military defense system. While the foundation of the casemates was originally constructed in the 10th century, Italy, France, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Holland and Prussia all took part in expanding the fortifications when each country had control of the city so that they grew to be over 23 km long. Today only 17 km of casemates remain and provide one of the top attractions in Luxembourg as tourists wander through the dark caves and peak their heads out of the holes that used to fit cannons and other weaponry.  While we only had time to see the casements, other tourist sites in Luxembourg City include the Neumunster Abbey and the modern art museum.

From there we drove about 10 minutes outside the city to the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial where more than 5,000 American soldiers were laid to rest, including General George Patton, Jr. White marble crosses and Jewish stars commemorated the heroic efforts of the allied forces as they strove to defeat Germany’s last major counteroffensive in December 1944 in what is famously remembered as the “Battle of the Bulge.”

 After another stop in the beautiful city of Trier, Germany, we headed back home to Stuttgart, just in time for rush hour traffic.  

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Beyond Heineken

In Amsterdam while exploring the Red Light District (strictly for anthropological purposes) my friend Heather and I stumbled across a place that we didn't feel like total creeps hanging out at. That would be Brouwerij de Prael, a hip and fun oasis in the middle of a lot of sex and weed shops. You can take a tour of the brewery then head around the corner to their new bar/restaurant to sample some beers, all of which are named after Dutch singers. While Heineken and Amstel are definitely the most well known Dutch beers, its fun to try some other types of brews that are trying to different things. 

Monday, October 14, 2013

Christmas in Bikinis!

Last year I spent the Christmas holiday freezing my butt off. It was the first winter I had ever spent outside of California in my 29 years of existence and boy did those Europeans make sure it was a doozy. However, it was my boyfriend's dream come true: Christmas markets, gaudy decorations, gluhwein, carolers, skiing and snow...lots of snow.

Kent putting his French skills to work ordering Vin Chaud

Is that Santa scoping out the Christmas market or just a lady in a ridiculous outfit?
 We explored Christmas markets in Germany and France, rung in the New Year in Salzburg and spent a week skiing in the Italian Alps. I wore long underwear and a sleeping bag-esque jacket the entire time.

The town of San Cassiano, Italy
This year I will be wearing a bikini. After much deliberating and kayak-ing, we selected Belize for our winter getaway, followed by a week in Florida visiting Kent's parents. I am beyond excited. My family has somewhat of a tradition of spending Christmas in warm/tropical places like Costa Rica, Mexico or Hawaii, so this is exactly what I think of when it comes to the holidays. Kent will adjust, I'm sure.
Glover's Atoll in Belize

Sunday, October 13, 2013

3 days in Firenze

I'm not sure which was more startling the first time I visited Florence: the massive, amazingness of the Duomo or the insane hordes of people everywhere I turned. I thought that by September the tour groups would have subsided but no, September is the new August apparently. While Florence is a beautiful, old city, the vast amounts of tourists and college students studying abroad did put a slight damper on my experience. However the city more than made up for it with the grandeur of its art and cuisine.

View of the Duomo from the top of Giotto's Campanile

Crowds of tourists in front of the Piazza del Duomo 

The Arts

  • The David: Had my dear travel companion not purchased advanced tickets to the Gallerie dell'Accademia, I probably would have passed on waiting in the insanely long line to see some sculpture. But once I laid eyes on Michelangelo's most famous work of art, I was blown away. The way that the artist manipulated marble to create an incredibly majestic and realistic sculpture of David, the biblical hero who slayed Goliath, is beyond impressive. Besides the David, there isn't much else to see at this museum, or at least that's what we wanted to believe so we could ditch the crowds.
  • Uffizi: This was another museum that my friend purchased tickets for in advance. We had to wait in a 15 minute line to get a different ticket and then another 10 minute line to get into the museum. I felt ambivalent about this one. One the one hand, it was wonderful to see the extremely gorgeous Botticelli paintings, "The Birth of Venus" and "Primavera," but shoving my way through about 20 oblivious Asian tourists to see it was almost not worth it. I would only recommend going here in the off-season and perhaps getting a guided tour that highlights the stand-outs because there is a ton to see. 

Botticelli's The Birth of Venus

  • Piazza del Duomo: Its impossible to go to Florence and not fall in love with this piazza that includes the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore (that supports Brunelleschi's Duomo), Giotto's Campanile and the Baptistery of St. John. The green, pink and white marble exterior of the buildings is breath-taking and the 15 minute climb to the top of the Campanile will literally take away your breath. A 10 Euro ticket- good for 24 hours- will buy you admission to the Baptistery that boasts shinning golden mosaics, the Campanile, which offers stunning views of the Duomo and the city, as well as the Duomo museum so you can learn more about this incredible structure that was created nearly 600 years ago. 

View of the Basilica, Duomo and Campanile

View of Florence from the Campanile

The Eats
  • Zeb: I found this place based off a T&L article and it did not disappoint. Across the river from the main tourist attractions, Zeb is tucked away in a quiet part of the city. After reading us the daily specials, the chef helped select the best glass of wine to accompany our food selections, which were the ricotta stuffed ravioli with a pear compote and vegetable ravioli with a fresh tomato sauce. For dessert we shared a special cake made with grapes that is only available in the fall. It was rather unique because the grapes still had the seeds in them and that made the cake crunchy, but it was still good. Especially with an espresso. We struck up a conversation with the woman sitting next to us at the bar counter and she said she eats at the restaurant almost every day. She gave us some other restaurant recommendations but sadly we didn't have time to try them out before we left. Overall the experience at Zeb was wonderful and just what we were hoping to find in Italy. 

Delicious grape "cake" at Zeb
  • 4 Leoni: Also located on the other side of the river, this bumping restaurant sits on a delightful little square that features a wine bar, gelateria and other casual restaurants. This place came recommended by one of my good friends who studied abroad in Florence and returned a few years later to run the Florence marathon. The word was definitely out about this restaurant because all tables around us were filled with other Americans but we still had an authentic Italian meal consisting of grilled veggies with burrata, bruschetta with fresh tomatoes and big, thick, juicy, barely seared piece of Florentine beef. The waiter warned me it would be very rare and it sure was! I would say it was comparable to the steak I ate in Buenos Aires, which is a huge complement to the Italians.   

    My friend enjoying a glass of wine before dinner at 4 Leoni

    Overall I had a wonderful experience in Florence and would definitely wander through the city again but only in an off-peak tourist season when all the American college students have gone home (no offense to my friends who studied abroad in the city). 

    View of Florence from Piazza San Michelangelo 

    Wednesday, October 9, 2013

    Zanzibar: Sleeping in Stone Town

    As I sit down to write this post about Stone Town, I can’t help but mention the recent attack on two British girls that were in Zanzibar for volunteer tourism. The girls were on their way to dinner one night when someone drove by on a motorcycle and threw acid on their faces and bodies. Reports speculate that the girls got into a dispute with a store owner and this was his gruesome form of retaliation. While many say that this is uncharacteristic for the island, I think that if it had happened before our visit and I knew about it, I definitely would have felt less secure about wandering aimlessly through the city. Kent was already on edge as we tried our best to navigate Stone Town, which is very old and made up of twisting streets and alley ways, virtually all indistinguishable, and even worse after dark. I kept assuring him that no one was following us or out to get us and we were perfectly safe because the locals depend on tourism for survival and would not do anything that would put tourists at risk. However after this attack, I would encourage tourists to make sure they know where they are headed when going out at night and that women be very respectful of local culture by properly concealing their legs and shoulders in public.  

    Typical street scenes and traditional door in Stone Town
    Our first 3 nights in Stone Town were spent at the DhowPalace, a beautiful, historic hotel with roots that can be traced back to 1559 when it belonged to Sheikh Mushin bin Mujbia. It was located in a quieter part of the city and right on the main road of Kenyatta, which was nice because we didn't get lost wandering around the twisty streets of the old town looking for our hotel at night. The Dhow Palace was decorated with incredible antiques, including a wonderful old gramophone, white washed walls and dark wood ceiling beams but the stand out attraction was the brightly colored stained glass windows that decorated the interior courtyard of the hotel.

    One of the two beautiful interior courtyards at the Dhow Palace

    Hallway at the Dhow Palace

    We had some interesting encounters with the hotel staff, who were decidedly less than professional.  When we first checked in, the front desk attendant immediately offered us a variety of excursions while the bell hop who escorted us to our room offered the same trips at the lower price. We had to constantly remind the concierge of the current conversion rates of shillings to dollars because some days he would charge us a higher rate for our excursions and we had to correct him in order to not get screwed out of our money.  Also I’m pretty sure that the man who made omelets at breakfast hit on me when he asked if I was here by myself. “I’m with my boyfriend,” I said pointing at Kent who was never more than 5 feet away from me the entire time we were there.  

    Beautiful stained glass windows in Dhow Palace Courtyard
    Our last night in Stone Town we decided to stay in a different hotel, the Jafferji House. Upon checking in, we were greeted by the concierge in a way that I can only describe as sensual, i.e. lots of eye contact and soothing vocal tones. We were told our room was being upgraded to the Sultan’s Suite, which meant an extremely large bedroom, enormous enclosed patio and outside bath tub. The hotel was owned by a famous photographer who published multiple books on Zanzibar and is credited with putting it on the map as an international tourist destination. While the staff at Jafferji House was incredibly helpful, the experience was clouded by the fact that my boyfriend and I discovered that our entire bodies were covered in insect bites the day we left. I’m not sure if we contracted them from the Sultan or from the skanky massage parlour that we were fooled into patronizing because of its must-do rating on TripAdvisor. 

    Sultan Suite at Jafferji House

    Tuesday, October 8, 2013

    Zanzibar: Dolphin Time!

    The sky was turning a pale shade of gray as we drove up to the small village of Kizimkazi. Our driver stopped the car and as we emerged several local men ushered us to some beams of wood that held snorkel equipment of various shapes and sizes. One man thrust a grungy pair of goggles and snorkel at me. “No,” I said adamantly and pointed to the black mold growing inside the mouthpiece. “Here,” he shoved another at me. “Fine,” I said. At least I couldn’t see all the bacteria lurking inside on this one. The other people in our group got their things and we were shown to a boy who motioned for us to start walking out into the shallow bay.

    Kizimkazi Bay in Zanzibar, Tanzania

    Unfortunately not the shadiest dive rental store I encountered in Zanzibar

    “I’m not liking this,” I complained to Kent as I trudged through the water jumping to avoid the small blue Portuguese man o' wars that were waiting to bite my toes. We arrived at the rickety dhow right as the rain and wind were starting to pick up. I was definitely regretting my decision to bring my nice camera on this excursion but luckily the second mate grabbed my bag and stuffed it under a plastic tarp. "That won't help us if we capsize," I thought to myself as the captain engaged the motor and began to maneuver the dhow out of the relative safety of the bay and into the open water. 

    Kent helping to carry the gear as I have a nervous breakdown about jellyfish 

    Our captain, who looked no older than 20, instructed us to put on our fins and snorkel gear and jump into the water as soon as he said “Go!” "No way in hell am I blindly following this guy’s instructions," I whispered to Kent skeptically as the boat bobbed up and down over the waves. However moments later we caught up to 2 or 3 different boats filled with people and I saw the first glimpse of dolphin fins peaking in and out of the water. 

    Our crew

    “JUMP!” the captain yelled. Flustered, I began to assemble my equipment and several minutes later jumped into the water just in time to see in the distance the fins of the dolphins quickly swimming away from me. I waited for the boat to circle back around and dejectedly crawled back onto it. “Now you believe me?” the captain smirked as we drove off in another direction. 

    The next time I was ready when we spotted the magical dolphin fins in the distance. “GO!” I hurled myself over the side of the boat and began swimming like I did when I was 12 and desperate not to come in 6th place in the 50 freestyle. I looked around me and was amazed to be surrounded by at least 30 beautiful, muscular, light gray dolphins.  I was so close that I could have touched their strong bodies and frankly, I was surprised that they hadn't smacked me in the head as I tried my hardest to keep up with them. I couldn't see Kent or any of the other divers. It was just me and my pod of dolphins. I didn’t care what direction I was swimming in or the fact that I was in the middle of the East African Ocean on a shady boat with a teenage crew. It was just such an amazing experience to see these wonderful creatures up close playing around with the silly humans who kept haphazardly throwing themselves into the water. 

    Kent on the hunt!