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Meg + Dan’s Weekend in Würzburg

Just a few days after my parents packed up for home, my sister and brother-in-law arrived!  Megan and Dan stayed with us in Würzburg for 4-days before setting off to Spain and England.  We had splendid weather for their visit and Würzburg was busy with weekend activity.  We showed them a few of the local sights:  the Residenz, Festung Marienberg, and the Rococo Gardens in Veitshöchheim.

We spent the weekend relaxing at the Stadtstrand “city beach”, biking, eating, drinking, and dancing ’til dawn. These two bring fun and lightheartedness wherever they go!

Below: The pedestrian bridge– Alte Mainbrücke ; Relaxing at Wurzburg city beach

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We ate at a few of our favorite places, including pizzas at Locanda.  Dan and Meg are beer aficionados and like to sample —  they ordered a Doppelbock from the Franconian brewery Keiler.

Yup, that is half of a pizza!

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We ate Würzburger bratwurst in the Marktplatz on Saturday morning and scoped out the weekend activity, a rubber duck river race for charity.

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We rented bikes for the day from the local bike shop and peddled along the Main river.  We passed through Veitshöchheima village not far from us where the Schönborn Bishop-Princes built their Summer Residenz and Rococo gardens in the 18th C.   Afterwards, a biergarten.

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… And a little bit of Eis.

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Late in the day we walked up to the fortress grounds to lookout over the city.  We brought one of the wines we enjoy from the vineyards around Würzburg,  Consilium Silvaner.

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We introduced Meg and Dan to the Döner kebab sandwich shop in our neighborhood.   Two more converts who are puzzled as to why savory Turkish-style street food has never made it to the USA Midwest. Someone please open a dang Döner shop!

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Back with our feet in the sand at the Stadtstrand – the city beach, followed by a delicious dinner at our preferred spot for Fränkisch regional cuisine, Alte Mainmühle. Mmm, lecker!

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What a great weekend! Thanks to Dan and Megan for spending a few days with us, wonderful memories, and for sharing many of these great photos!

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Hike in the Alps with Molly and Alex

Molly and Alex were our first visitors of the year and stayed with us for nine days at the end of March!  We knew that they would be great companions for an all-day hike in the mountains so we began planning a short getaway to the Alps.

The morning after they arrived we packed-up the car and headed south for what was expected to be a spring-like weekend in the Montafon valley of Austria. It was Molly and Alex’s first visit to the Alps, and our first to the Vorarlberg.

This corner of Austria shares a border with Germany, Switzerland, and Lichtenstein and is a popular area for skiing and winter activities. We stayed in Bartholomäberg, a mountainside village that overlooks the small city of Schruns in the valley. The hills of Bartholomaeberg are grassy pastureland that are home to residences and several small farms. Higher there are wooded hiking trails with rocky terrain near the top.  It had several options for Winterwandern ‘winter hiking’ (snowshoe trails and groomed winter hiking paths) which made it the perfect base for the next few days.

 

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We were there during the last week of March, a quiet time to visit.  Some of the Alpine Huttes and Gastofs that serve as hiking destinations were closed for a week of ‘spring break’ before re-opening for the summer tourism season.   We were in search of a traditional Austrian house to stay in and found a cozy two-bedroom apartment in the lower level of a country home. The family operates a small farm with cows and small animals. They gave us a genuine welcome and shared that we were their first visitors from the USA!  It was an extra treat when Sabine baked us the most amazing loaf of spelt bread on our last night.

 

Hiking Day 1: Wannaköpfle

The next morning we packed lunches and set off early for a day-long hike. We began from the town center of Bartholomaeberg (1087 m) and reached the peak at Wannaköpfle (2031m) a few hours later.   The valley was clear of snow so we decided on a snowshoe trail that would take us through the most scenic hiking areas.

There was snow sooner than we expected!! We alternated taking the lead to forge a path for our not-so-waterproof hiking boots.  The snow was losing it’s density from the morning thaw and the unpredictable depth created a number of humorous challenges and surprises!   The winter trails stopped with the peak in sight, so we finished our climb through unchartered snowbanks.

We were the first ‘spring’ hikers to Wannaköpfle!

Really, our “hike” was a lot of climbing through snow drifts and the tripping, falling, and laughing that goes with it — or Molly helping me rescue my foot from a deep snow well.  (Snow shoes should have been essential at this point!)   Thanks to the thaw we were able to walk on gravel part of the way which was a nice break for our damp feet.

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(Below) Halfway there— Time for a rest and a snack.

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Wannaköpfle (2031m)

Our destination! We found some mossy rocks where the snow had melted and made it our seat for lunch and munched while we took in the surroundings.

It was one of the mildest days of the month, and though we were surrounded by snow, the midday sun made the mountain perch a warm oasis. It was sunny, breezy, and nearly 60°F. We snapped photos and watched paragliders float over the valley.  It was a memorable moment for all of us — the views were completely worth the climb!


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Hiking (+ Beers) Day 2 

The next day, we all slept in. With sore legs and sopping wet boots, we opted for an easier ascent by taking the St. Gallenkirch Valiserabahn (a ski gondola) to another scenic Winterwandern path.  We were now on the other side of the valley in a ski area.  The path turned out to be less than 1km of hiking so we decided to spend the afternoon drinking beer at the Alpine Huttes!

We met a lively German man who took our group photo and recalled his trip to California as a young man in the 1970’s.  When he was there he bought a Mercury convertible to drive along the coast.  He laughed at his impulse because he had no idea how he would ship his new car back to Germany, but it all worked out and the week prior he had been cruising from his home near Lake Constance through the Alps!  🙂

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NachtRodeln 

Afterwards we rented Rodel, the traditional wooden Austrian toboggan. One winter attraction of the Montafon is a place that offers NachtRodeln a few evenings during the week, where you buy an inexpensive chairlift pass and ride to the top of  a 5km toboggan run.   We rented our Rodel on site where the tradition is to drink a shot of Schnapps before you set out.  You can watch a few clips of the action in Molly’s video below!

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Relaxing in Bartholomaeberg

Our accommodations were in a serene, quiet part of Bartholomaeberg. The village is referred to as the sun balcony of Montafon because of its southern exposure. The location had nice panorama views of the valley and we could have happily camped out there for the rest of the week!  For Derek and I, it was our last visit to the Alps for the foreseeable future which made it all the more special.  We were happy that we were able to share this memorable time with family.

After our trip to the Alps, we spent the next few days in Würzburg with Molly and Alex. They are a ton of fun and we loved having them as visitors!!

 

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(Above) Photos by the wonderfully talented– Molly and Alex

Köln

In late February we enjoyed a short but lively weekend in Koeln, the capital of North-Rhineland Westphalia— the German state that borders Belgium and the Netherlands.

The first thing to come to mind is the famed neo-gothic Cologne Cathedral. It is the landmark of the Köln skyline and most visible point within the city, which by comparison is much less ornate. Many of the buildings in Köln are emblematic of Germany’s post-war modern reconstruction; It is one of the oldest cities in the country but bares the resemblance of a 20th C. city.

For many visitors (including us) Köln’s draw is simply the promise of a good time. And partly the intent to drink Kölsch, the local brew.

 

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Above: Thousands of ‘love locks’ on the Hohenzollern Bridge.  We spotted some goodies.

Before we visited, Köln had just held their biggest party of the year: Fasching Karneval. Chatter about the event was a partial catalyst for our trip to the city.  In this popular European tradition there are parties, performances and televised entertainment shows.  And similar to Mardi Gras, the cities hold parades and people wear bright costumes. Fasching marks the first signs of Spring and the coming of Lent.  In mid-February, Köln was the place to be!

Most of our weekend was spent in the Innenstadt— a central, compact area of sights surrounded by the Grüngürtel, the city’s belt of park space. The area has shopping, museums and great nightlife.   Köln also had some of the tastiest food we have eaten in the whole country. We headed to Bastian’s for a Café-style breakfast that included their delicious landbrot (sourdough wheat bread), and later we detoured to Bay Area Burrito Company for our first real (‘good’) burrito in a year!

Koeln was full of nice surprises!

Below: Dropped Cone (2001) in Neumarkt Galerie is a recent work of Claes Oldenberg, also known for Spoonbridge and Cherry (1988) at the Walker Art Museum Sculpture Garden, Minneapolis!

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Kölsch

Kölsch is a regional variety of beer — Making Köln somewhat of a destination for those who want to drink Kölsch ‘vom Fass’, fresh off the tap.  It is Germany’s only all-barley pale ale (though nothing like an American pale ale) and is poured in a small, narrow .2l glass called a Stangen which fares well for bar-hopping and warm summer patios.

One of our favorite spots was the beer hall at Früh am Dom, one of the bigger names in Kölsch brewing.   A Saturday night at Früh was as lively as a Bavarian brew house, minus the lederhosen. The servers keep their trays filled and are happy to tally your coaster each time they swap out an empty glass.

You can read about a New Yorker’s entrancement with Kölsch here or try one of a handful of  Kolsch-style beers that are brewed in the USA, this summer.

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Kölner Dom

The Cologne cathedral was more beautiful than I imagined. For many travelers it is the reason they have come to Köln.   Any doubts about it’s impressive scale were dissolved within a moment.  It is an incredible, monumental structure that fills an entire city block.  The cavernous interior felt bright and peaceful and we left Köln contemplating a new appreciation of this space.

The cathedral is centrally located, and we found ourselves passing it each day.  It is just a few steps from the train station and is the first thing to greet you when you arrive. In the early afternoon we saw the interior transformed as sunlight passed through the stained glass windows. As the above photo shows, at that moment we were surrounded by a mirage of pastel reflections.

Like many churches of this period, construction was ongoing.  The cathedral was fully built 600 years after the first mortar was laid (1248 – 1880), and became the tallest building in the world for 12 years.   The floors are covered with incredible mosaics and the space attracts religious pilgrims who have come to see  the [stated] remains of the biblical Three Wise Men in a golden casket. We also climbed the 500 steps of the spire to reach a viewing platform that overlooks the city.


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Kolumba

On the same crisp February afternoon we visited Kolumba, the Art Museum of the Archbishopric of Cologne.  Cologne began as a Roman colony in the Germanic lands and is one of the three oldest cities in Germany.

The museum is a modern, rectangular space built over the ruins of the Gothic church of St Kolumba (origin, 980 A.D.),  with areas of the excavation integrated into the museum.  The museum holds a collection of religious relics, multi-media and contemporary artwork.

It is the newest museum space in the city and was designed by Peter Zumthor, a Swiss Architect. The building has garnered praise for it’s elemental use of light and space (mainly glass and stone) along with a seamless integration of modern design with antiquity.

An unexpected room within the museum was the second floor Leseraum ‘reading room’,  a quiet space.  The room is covered with wood veneer and was a warm, sunlit oasis within the stone interior. The space was especially nice in the diffused winter light.

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Belgisches Viertel

One of our favorite areas of the city, and the best area for nightlife was the Belgisches Viertel ‘Belgian Quarter’, a neighborhood of trendy shops and bars.  Based on a recommendation, we ended the night at Sixpac which was described as a ‘hipster bar’. A hipster bar in Köln had the feel of most places in Minneapolis-St Paul, so we felt right at home!

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We may not have visited Köln if it had not been for two back-to-back recommendations that we would miss a sizable part of Germany if we missed Köln.  It is Germany’s 4th largest city and absolutely one of our favorites so far!

 

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 Links

Kölsch, A Summer Beer Worth the Fuss New York Times

Germany’s postwar buildings: eyesores or worthy of protection? DW.de

Carnival in Franconia: Veitshoechheim 2013 Broadcast  YouTube 
(reminds me of this—->  Lawrence Welk : Adios, Au Revior, Aufwedersian)

A Czech Christmas in Prague

A little behind on this one! I was hoping to have this post wrapped up weeks ago, but sometimes that’s the way it goes, right? 🙂

We visited Prague just before Christmas, in part to see the holiday festival in the Old Town Square.   Architecturally, Prague is an impressive city.  I would absolutely agree with remarks that it is one of the most enchanting, beautiful cities in the world.

In the days leading up to Christmas, the city glimmered with lights. We visited during the winter solstice which meant that the shortest days of the year brought people together in the early evening for christmas carols and gatherings with friends at the outdoor markets.  On Saturday, our first night in Prague, there was a stadium-sized crowd of people in the areas around the Old Town Square. The festivity created a whirl of excitement, which was enlivened by the Moravian and Bohemian folk traditions of the Czech Republic.

The emphasis of the Czech markets is on handicrafts, music, sausages, and of course— hot wine!  We ate Pražská Klobása (kielbasa sausage) and stayed warm drinking medovina (mead, honey wine).  There are sweet and savory treats at the market, including the abundant and tourist-adored Trdelnik  that are sold throughout the city, as well as pečené gaštany— burnt chestnuts.

 

 

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And Carp. You can’t miss the carp stands in Prague at Christmas. The humble carp has an important role in the traditional Christmas Eve dinner. During the holiday season, live carp splash around in barrels on the street, where they are sold.  If you buy a fish— and it’s not quite Christmas— you can keep it fresh in your bathtub where it has ‘pet status’ until it is time to prepare dinner. I loved reading about this central European tradition here.   Above are perníčekhoney-spice gingerbread decorated as the iconic Christmas carp.

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Between the two of us we taste-tested just about everything.  We enjoyed bramborové spirály a spiral of potato chips deep-fried on a stick.  My favorite drink was the syrupy honey mead, medovina.

And sweets…

I mentioned Trdelnikwhich is a variation of the cinnamon roll.  I think we ate no less than four of these.  The pastry dough is wrapped around a spindle and coated with cinnamon, sugar, and almonds, and cooked over an open ember.  The second most common treat was perníček, honey-spiced gingerbread with lacy white icing.  At the market you can buy lots of seasonal goodies like Vanocka (a braided nut and raisin bread made at christmas), shortbread, and maslove pecivo – the christmas butter cookie with a candied cherry.

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Prague is only 4-hours from Würzburg, but crossing into the Czech Republic is a reminder that the neighboring countries have very different heritages. There are not rail connections from the area around Würzburg, so the most convenient mode of travel to Prague is by bus.  We used a service offered by DB Bahn — A Long-distance travel bus that departs daily from Nürnberg Hbf.

The European markets are one of my favorite aspects of living outside of the US.  For the most part, I spend the weekdays solo and the the ritual of walking through the market in Wurzburg is one of my preferred activities, there is always something happening.

The Czech market was a nice companion to the German markets that we have begun to know so well.  It had noticeable Hungarian, Slavic, and Bohemian influences in cuisine and artisanal aspects.  The regional influences are what make each market so unique and worth visiting.  I shared my observations about the nuances of the markets with Derek. And to share another perspective, he said ‘they’ve all felt pretty much the same’ to him.   🙂

 

The National Gallery in Prague

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A notable work of Czech art is the Slav Epic, which is installed at the National Gallery in Prague.   It is a series of large-scale canvases painted by Alfons Mucha, who was a prolific Art Nouveau contributor at the turn of the 20th C. The epic tells of the trials of the Slavic people in central Europe, and combines factual information with mythical imagery. The epic was conceived by Mucha and funded by an American businessman who was an avid “Slavophile” (we had not heard this word!)

We enjoyed this museum.  It is located on an obscure corner within the city in sort of a dreary, unassuming building.   Yet, for it’s relatively small size, around each new corner were selections from major artists like Klimt, Van Gogh, Cézanne, and Degas that you would only see in an art history textbook.  We enjoyed the galleries of Czech modern art, which we honestly knew nothing about— and some cohesive exhibits from the soviet era. Below, Derek is standing in an interactive exhibit on the European Fluxus Festivals of the 1960s.


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Our itinerary for Prague wasn’t as intense as other excursions. We spent each day lingering at the Christmas markets, The National Gallery, and the Neo Luxor Palace of Books , which made us a little giddy, because it had the largest selection of books in English that we have seen by far!  Last year Derek visited the city solo and enjoyed Prague castle, so he suggested another visit.  From the Old Town Square we walked across Charles Bridge, and arrived as they were beginning the changing of the guards, which tourists love, even though it is now just a tradition.  Within the castle grounds is the Eastern Orthodox Cathedral of St Vitus, which was so ornate and decorative.

Below is the market at Wenceslas Square, in the Nové Město– meaning New Town.

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Czech Beer!

The beer in the Czech Republic is legendary.  It is home to the original Budweiser, and to Pilsner Urquell— named for the city of Plzeň.  So, it may seem a little strange that our first stop was a Belgian beer bar.   We previously thought that living in Germany meant access to a good supply of Belgian brews from across the border, not so! Germans seem to love their domestic beers and we’ve found only a handful of imports.

For Czech beer, we headed across town to Zlý Časy (translation: Evil Times), which was highly recommended as a place to get awesome Czech microbrews in a true, dark and smokey Czech beer bar.   I rarely drink beer these days, but who could resist?!  We had a lot of fun.  And do you know how cheap beer is in the Czech Republic?  It’s less than a dollar.

Below:  Bruxx is located across from Church of St. Ludmila at Náměstí Míru ‘Peace Square’, where we discovered yet another Christmas market.

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There are so many great destinations across Europe that at times it can be challenging to name our favorites. This was one of my favorite posts to write.   For me, winter and the season of Light is an inspirational time of hope and peace.  In recent years, I had experienced first-hand how the many excesses of the holidays could be disillusioning and overwhelming.  This year, without the pressures of gift exchanges and to be in so many places at once, it was the first time in many years that I have felt present during this special time.

Germans had a long holiday break from December 20 through Epiphany (January 6), which meant almost three weeks off for Derek.  Once we were back in Würzburg, we attended a Christmas eve vigil at a chapel in our neighborhood.  We were surprised by how lovely the small, simple service was. The closing hymn was Stille Nacht / Silent Night and afterwards everyone was given a lit candle to light their walk home. We have attended other Christmas eve services, but this one gave us an unexpected sense of calm and happiness.

And finally,  Here is a short video of Czech christmas carols in the old-town market!

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A post shared by Kate (@_inspirekate) on

 

Links

In Slovakia, Christmas Dinner Starts In The Bathtub NPR

36 Hours in Prague New York Times

Travel on a Budget: Two-Days in Prague for under $100 Apartment Therapy

Listen to Czech and Moravian Christmas Carols You Tube

5 Great Czech MicroBrews and Where to Try Them

One of my favorite videos!
Watch Travel Insider Astronautalis take a Beer and Motorcycle tour of Prague