Kings, castles, and unexpected elves

I’m already a week behind in reporting on our long and festive four-day weekend! Well, better late than never. We begin on April 27th:  Koningsdag, the Netherlands’ annual celebration of the King’s birthday and all things Oranje. King Willem turned 50 this year and the country celebrated with the usual mix of parades, music, boats, and lots of drinking.

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So. Much. Orange.

Koningsdag is a day like none other. First, it is the one day of the year that you can sell things without a permit, so Amsterdam becomes one giant flea market. Weeks before the holiday, people claim their space on sidewalks, marking their territory with chalk or masking tape. There are some traditional activities: children play music or organize games of chance, hoping to earn some small change. For a euro or two, you can throw eggs at someone who has volunteered for this strange duty.

In the city center, there are stages and DJs and food and drink everywhere. The first year we experienced Koningsday, we were both surprised by the atmosphere and the attitude. When you consider that most people have been drinking (some heavily) for hours, the party is remarkably friendly and festive. This year, we spent the morning in our new neighborhood, which had a festival that covered several blocks. In the afternoon, we met up with some friends in the busiest part of town, just off of the Prinsengracht. After getting through the worst of the crowd, we did have a good time, enjoying the people watching and learning some classic Dutch songs at a corner bar.

Continuing with the royal theme, on Sunday we decided to go to Kasteel de Haar, located outside of Utrecht. A colleague had gone recently and recommended it. Although it involved two trains and either a bus or a bike ride, we figured it was a lovely day for an adventure, and we headed out. I will note that on the Castle’s website, I read that the visiting hours were different due to an event (“Elfia”), but I didn’t think much of it. I really should have paid more attention to that.

In Utrecht, while we waited for the next train, we noticed a number of people in costume. A Hobbit here, a sort of anime-elf woman, there…no theme that I could figure out. When we got off the train in Vleuten, there they all were again. And more. It seemed clear to us now that something was indeed happening at de Haar, and it involved a lot of mythical creatures and very creative costumes.

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Every soldier needs a broodje.

With some help from a young Dutch couple (who were as puzzled by all the costumes as we were), we made our way via shuttle bus to a stop about 15 minutes from the castle. As we walked closer, we saw even more: zombies, British redcoats, guys from Braveheart, angels and demons and teddy bears. By the time we arrived at the entrance, it was clear that this was no ordinary day at the Castle. The Elfia fantasy festival was in full swing, and a visit to the castle would require a €24 festival ticket for each of us. Our curiosity was pretty high, I’ll admit, but not high enough to justify the cost of entry. We gave the elves their victory.

We did manage to rescue the day from complete failure. Another bus ride and a short train ride brought us back to Utrecht, a city we both really enjoy. We found a table in the sun at one of the many lower-level canal-side restaurants, and I enjoyed the season’s first glass of rosé.

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This is as close as we got to the castle.

What I still can’t figure out – and I’ve given it more thought than it merits – is the underlying theme of Elfia. In what universe do Luke Skywalker, fairies, Scottish warriors, Victorian ladies, Harry Potter and zombies co-exist? Maybe I’m looking for something that isn’t there, and, much like Koningsdag, Elfia is a celebration just for the sake of celebrating.

We will make another attempt to visit the Castle. Next time, though, we may try to convince some friends with a car to join us. And we’ll check the website first.

Copenhagen, or Who Goes North in April?

Looking at our long and ever-growing list of places to visit, Copenhagen seemed like an easy win: it’s close to Amsterdam, everyone speaks English, there’s a lot to see, and the dining scene boasts more than a few darlings of the foodie world. We kept with our habit of planning long weekend trips to coincide with U.S. holidays, and booked for Easter weekend.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t expect that Copenhagen would be warm and sunny, or that we’d be biking blissfully around the city in t-shirts and shorts. I know that northern European countries have weather patterns all their own. We were prepared for rain and 10 degree weather. We were NOT prepared for 2 degrees. But there’s nothing a few layers can’t solve.  So, wearing almost every item of clothing I had packed, we set out to explore Copenhagen from our base in Vestboro.

(I have to start with a note about the bike situation. In my mind, Copenhagen was second only to Amsterdam in its cycling culture. I was shocked to see that the number of cyclists was nowhere near what we have in Amsterdam. Yes, the city is big, and yes, it was really cold, so maybe that impacted the tally. But there were just a handful of people traveling by bike. The lanes and infrastructure were quite good, but it just reinforced that when it comes to bikes, there is no place on earth I’ve seen that rivals Amsterdam.)

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St. Alban’s Church, next to the Kastellet

We arrived around lunchtime, so after checking in to our hotel, the first stop was Torvehallerne, a great food market with over 60 vendors offering everything from meats and cheeses to Danish smorrebrod and Spanish tapas. We found Ma Poule, a lovely little piece of France in the middle of Copenhagen, and had a good glass of wine and an amazing duck sandwich. It can be a challenge to find a seat inside the market, but we managed to grab a little table. On warmer days, (or for heartier people) there are picnic tables outside. It’s a great place to shop and graze and assemble your perfect lunch.

After walking around the Kastellet (and, yes, seeing the Little Mermaid, which, frankly, is over-rated), Friday afternoon brought the first of three attempts to get to the Vor Frelsers Kirke (Our Savior’s Church) in the Christianshavn neighborhood. I’ve mentioned before that I like to climb. Finding towers or churches that I can ascend is a standard part of my pre-travel research. When I read about this church and its helix spire with an external staircase, it jumped to the top of my must-do list. Unfortunately, the church hours and the tower hours are not the same. By the time we arrived, the tower was closed.

We woke up to a rainy and windy Saturday and headed to the cisterns in Frederiksberg. Until recently, the cisterns were a museum of modern glass art. Now it is an exhibit and event space; the current exhibit is by Japanese architect Hiroshi Sambuichi. Although the cisterns are a bit out of the way, they are a unique and lovely place to visit, and the park and Frederiksberg neighborhood would be good for a wander.

That afternoon we made another go at the church tower, with hours to spare before closing time, only to find that it was closed due to rain. Sigh.

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The view from the gallery

Easter Sunday dawned clear and dry, but cold. I was worried about the tower being open on Easter, but the helpful hotel staff called to confirm, and we were on our way, hoping the third time was the charm. We arrived to find that I was not the only person in Copenhagen waiting to climb this tower. A long line – one that didn’t seem to be moving much – stretched from the entrance door. I hesitated, but my dear husband insisted. It took about 40 minutes to get inside, but once I started climbing I was surprised by how un-crowded the stairs and the tower were.

The first 300 or so steps are inside the tower, and were a nice, easy climb (although I did hit my head on the way up. And again on the way down.) There is a viewing gallery at the base of the spire, and then a broad staircase that narrows as it winds its way, counter-clockwise, four times around the spire to the top. It was awesome. There is an

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On my way down…

iron guardrail at about shoulder height, and I thankfully do not suffer from any fear of heights. The views were incredible, and being able to climb outside just made me giddy.

The whole trip up and down took about 90 minutes, and (apart from bumping my head) it was easy and painless. And, of course, totally worth the climb.

You can’t go to Copenhagen without seeing or learning something about Danish design, so we set off to the Danish Design Museum and arrived in time for the daily free tour of the current exhibit, The Danish Chair. This 30-minute tour was given by an enthusiastic young woman who spoke near-perfect English. The tour gave a brief introduction to the principles of Danish design, and also helped me understand why and how something as simple as a chair could be so revolutionary. The exhibit itself is beautifully designed (of course), and displays more than 100 chairs in what they called the “chair tunnel”.

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Inside the chair tunnel.

It was also interesting to wander through the museum and see just how many everyday items, from lunchboxes to routers, are influenced by Danish design.

Add in some good meals, another stop at Ma Poule, a self-guided city walk, and a stroll along the harbor in Nyhavn, and you’ve got a weekend getaway in Copenhagen. I imagine that in the summer months the cyclists rule the city and the waterfront restaurants are filled with sun-basking tourists. We may have missed that Copenhagen, but even in the cold of April, we saw some lovely views.

Looking back on Sicily

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The view from Erice’s medieval fortress.

It’s been about a month since our long weekend trip to Sicily. I’ve started to post about it a few times, never with much enthusiasm. We didn’t love Sicily, to be honest, and it’s been hard to write about it without feeling like I’m being too hard on it, somehow. It’s not as if anything went wrong. We survived our first experience of renting a car (driving in Italy is serious business), had nice weather and some good meals. From Palermo, we drove to Trapani and made our way to Erice, where we toured a medieval fortress and savored the views earned by the sometimes-harrowing route up the mountain.

Sometimes I wonder if we’ve been spoiled by the travel experiences we’ve had since we’ve been in Amsterdam. We’ve eaten meals in Tuscany that we’re still talking about two years later, had conversations with 7th-generation winemakers in the Beaujolais region of France, and made friends in Berlin over beer and curry wurst. So when we travel, the bar is a bit high…we’re expecting a magical moment or two, or a great story to look back on.

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The Cathedral in Palermo

 

On the surface, Sicily didn’t provide those moments. Everything was…fine. But “fine”  doesn’t, at first glance, make for much to write about. In the weeks since our trip, I’ve been thinking more about our experience, trying to be more balanced about my impressions. But the truth is that not every place is going to “wow” you, right? Maybe due to weather or language or food or expectations, you connect with some places more than others. It’s not entirely fair, but that’s the reality of travel. I shouldn’t be too hard on Sicily, or on myself.

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Trapani’s coastline

Looking back, we did, actually, have one memorable moment. (Most of the other good memories involve cannoli.) Mid-February is not high season for tourists in Erice, and at times we seemed to have the little town to ourselves. Walking down a side street, we stopped and stood still for a moment and just listened.  Complete silence. Not a dog barking, or a car horn, or a human voice. Just silence, and a little wind. Magic.

 

 

The Capital of Christmas

Last December, just before heading back to the US for the holidays, we took a quick weekend trip to Paris. Somehow we had spent the whole year in Amsterdam without ever jumping on the Thalys, and I was determined that we would get to France before 2015 ended. It was unseasonably warm, making what is already a great strolling city even more irresistible. We told ourselves we were going for the Christmas market, but to be honest, the setup along the Champs Elysee was disappointing: tacky, touristy, over-lit stalls hawking cheap ornaments and barbe a papa. We enjoyed Paris (because, after all, it’s Paris), but we didn’t feel like we had the traditional European Christmas experience we were looking for.

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Well, we more than made up for that error this year, when we chose to go to Strasbourg, the “Capital of Christmas”.  Strasbourg claims the oldest Christmas market in Europe – theirs began, they say, in 1570. I don’t know what it was like back then, but today it is a well-organized event that consumes Strasbourg’s Grande Ile, bringing in about 2 million visitors over a 4-week period. And, as we were told by the charming 4th generation wine maker we met, 1 million of those visitors will be carrying a cup of gluhwein.

imageGluhwein is a mulled and spiced wine, which we first encountered here in Amsterdam last winter. On a cold winter afternoon or evening, it is just what you want to warm you up. The selling of gluhwein in Strasbourg is so organized that there are standardized plastic cups used by every vendor. You pay a 1 euro deposit for the first one, and then every time you buy another glass, you swap your old cup for a new one. The used cups are picked up every night, washed and redistributed the next day.

We learned this and lots of other fun facts during our almost-2-hour adventure with Food and City Tours. We’ve gotten a bit hooked on food tours, and they’ve become our preferred way to get to know a city. Our culinary tour of the Christmas market was led by Virginie, who was friendly and charming and very knowledgeable. At 4pm on a Saturday, the market is wall-to-wall people, and Virginie did a great job navigating our group of 10 through the very crowded lanes. We enjoyed gingerbread, kuglehopf cake, butter cookies, and, of course, gluhwein (this time, made with white wine). Virginie introduced us to the merchants, bakers, and winemakers, and shared some of their history and expertise. This kind of personal interaction is usually a highlight of any food tour. Why travel if not to meet and talk with other people?

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As beautiful and festive as the city is, the crowds can be overwhelming.  We enjoyed Strasbourg the most when we wandered away from the crush and found some quiet corners. My favorite discovery was the Church of St. Pierre le Jeune. Compared to the long entrance line and marked visitor paths at the Cathedrale de Notre Dame, this church was peaceful and let us wander at our own pace.

The Cathedrale, of course, has its own beauty, especially the exterior.  We learned that there are building ordinances in Strasbourg to limit the height of any new buildings; nothing can be taller than the Cathedrale. Its spire can be seen from any point in the city and from miles away.

We left Strasbourg with the expected souvenirs: Christmas ornaments, decorations, cookies, and gingerbread. We also had a few surprises sneak into our bags: new French books for me (hooray for FNAC!) and a Portuguese chorizo. Portugal was the featured guest country at this year’s Christmas market, and we took advantage of this little piece of Portugal in the middle of France. (The chorizo caused some trouble at airport security, but the French know how to deal with a saucisson.)

I left Strasbourg fully in the Christmas spirit – the city pulls out all the stops, so it would have felt ungracious not to go along. It takes its name and its primacy seriously: the Capital of Christmas does not disappoint. Go, enjoy, eat and drink, shop and stroll, and soak up Christmas in all its wonder.

 

We get cookin’ in Madrid

Is it fair to let the weather color your impression of a city? We’re just back from our three day getaway in Madrid, and we had almost non-stop rain. We were prepared with good rain gear – we DO live in Amsterdam, after all – but it definitely dampened our spirits and our desire to explore the city in our usual, wandering, “let’s see where this street takes us” way.

Still, we couldn’t spend the whole weekend in the hotel. Thankfully Madrid has plenty of charming corner cafes where you can stop in for a plate of jamon and a glass of wine. Or a cup of thick hot chocolate and some churros, when “sweet” wins out over “savory”. And while it’s probably a terrible thing to admit, we didn’t go to the Prado Museum, or any art museum. What did we do, other than eat churros?

We did a quick tour through the Palacio Real, and saw the table where King Juan Carlos I signed his abdication papers, elevating his son, the current King Felipe VI, to head of state.

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Take the stairs at the Palacio de Cibeles

We visited the gorgeous Palacio de Cibeles, a former post office, now a cultural center with art exhibits and public reading spaces. (Tip: skip the elevator and take the elaborately tiled winding stairs.) We escaped the rain for a few hours by ducking in to the Naval Museum, where we saw the Mappa Mundi, a beautifully drawn map of the known world, created in 1500. Since most of the museum’s interpretive information was in Spanish, we missed out on some of the juicier details, especially about the map’s creator and his tragic end.  And even though it kept on raining, we took a slightly muddy stroll around Retiro Park and visited the Palacio de Cristal.

(An aside: For reasons I cannot explain, the Park was overrun by Mormon missionaries. We saw no fewer than 4 pair of them, and I swore to talk to the next team of Elders we encountered, mostly to find out why there were so many of them. Both in the Park, specifically, and in Madrid, more generally. And why they didn’t seem to speak any Spanish. Unfortunately, no more crossed our path and I’m left to live with more unanswered Mormon questions. So it goes.)

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You can’t see the Mormons but trust me, they’re there…

But the highlight of the trip came near the very end, on Saturday evening. In the past year or so, we’ve started looking for food tours when we travel. Food tours are a great way to find some hidden gems, learn about a city’s history and gastronomic culture, and get recommendations from a local guide. Our beer and currywurst tour in Berlin was great, and introduced us not only to the wonders of currywurst, but to some lovely new people. We were looking for another tour in Madrid when my dear husband suggested, instead, a cooking class.

If you know me, you’ll know I’m not much of a cook. I am a baker. Give me recipes and measuring cups and clear instructions and I’ll give you a delicious chocolate cake or the best florentine cookies you’ve ever had. But cooking? Too much approximation. A “pinch” of this? “Season to taste”? Whose taste? Cut the onion how?

But vacations are opportunities for adventure, right? And so we found ourselves in a bright, well-equipped kitchen with one other couple, turning out 5 traditional Spanish tapas dishes. (Four are below; not pictured: the crema catalan for dessert. Oh, and the sangria.) The instructions were clear, the recipes were relatively simple (even for me!), and everything was delicious. Especially the tortilla espanola, which is NOTHING like what most Americans think of when they hear “tortilla”. We left with full bellies, a copy of all of the recipes, and the seed of an idea for a Spanish-themed party.

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We made this! (Ok, well, half of it.)

Did we give Madrid a fair shake? Or did we let the rain and wind and cold get to us, so we failed to see the best of the city? Is it like the stranger you meet who could have been your soul mate, if not for the fact that you met at the podiatrist’s office, or at a funeral? Circumstances matter, environment matters – there’s no escaping that. So we gave Madrid our best, under the circumstances, and we’ll extend some generosity to Madrid, knowing that she wasn’t at her best. Maybe we’ll go back, maybe we’ll move on to another part of Spain, in the spring, when we’re sure the sun will be shining. Until then, we’ll be making sangria and cookin’ up some tapas.

No turkey, but tapas

There’s no Dutch equivalent of our American Thanksgiving, but that’s not going to stop us from celebrating with a long weekend getaway. We’re off to Madrid, so our Thanksgiving dinner will include patatas bravas instead of mashed potatoes. It won’t be a traditional meal, but living abroad has taught me that the trappings of a holiday matter a whole lot less than the person with whom you share the holiday. This year, as always, I’m grateful for my generous, patient, and loving husband, who has made this adventure abroad possible. (And who will have his patience tested by the horrible Spanish I am about to unleash on the good people of Madrid.)

Many believe that gratitude is something that can be taught, or cultivated. I don’t think it is a natural state for most of us. And in difficult or stressful times, it can seem that we have little for which to be grateful.

I’ve written many times (too many?) here about David Whyte’s remarkable book Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words. I return to it over and over and always find just what I need, or just what I didn’t know I needed. Here he is on gratitude:

Gratitude is the understanding that many millions of things come together and live together and mesh together and breathe together in order for us to take even one more breath of air, that the underlying gift of life and incarnation as a living, participating human being is a privilege; that we are miraculously, part of something, rather than nothing.

It isn’t about cataloguing a list of what we’re thankful for – though that never hurts – but about paying attention and being alert to the wonder in the simplest acts of our lives.

Thankfulness finds its full measure in generosity of presence, both through participation and witness. We sit at the table as part of every other person’s world while making our own world without will or effort, this is what is extraordinary and gifted, this is the essence of gratefulness, seeing to the heart of privilege. Thanksgiving happens when our sense of presence meets all other presences. Being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention.

Wherever you are on Thanksgiving, whether you’re celebrating or not (or wishing you were) I hope you’ll join me in an effort to pay attention, and to cultivate a sense of presence. Although my seat at the table is far away from family and friends, I am grateful that we are all part of each others’ world.

Only Lyon

Many years ago, I spent my 30th birthday in Paris, the fulfillment of a dream / decision that I made in my early 20s. It was wonderful, of course. I mean, it was Paris. I was with my husband, my best friends, in a city I had loved from afar for years. It made entering my 30s feel like the start of a great adventure.

img_2579Since then, I’ve been back to Paris several times and have been able to explore other parts of France. But it’s a big country, and there’s always more to see! So for my birthday this year, we found ourselves in Lyon, widely known as the gastronomic capital of France. Around that same time, the World Travel Awards named Lyon as the “European City Break” winner. Great pick, World Travel Awards. Lyon is a beautiful city that is perfect for a long weekend getaway. What did we love about Lyon?

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Lyon Cathedral, dedicated to St. John

It’s easy. Easy to get to, and easy to get around, thanks to a robust public transportation system. Our Lyon City Card (bought online in advance, and picked up at the airport) gave us unlimited access to trams, buses, and the funicular. We also took advantage of a walking tour, a boat tour, and museum admission, all included in the price of the City Card. You can also try out the Vélo’v bike share system.

It’s relaxed. In early September, the weather was lovely – if a bit too warm – and other than Sunday, the streets were uncrowded. The pace of the city is leisurely. There’s no shortage of cafes to stop for a drink. There are shady quays on the banks of the Saone to sit and watch the world go by.

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Inside the Musee, looking up

It’s different. There’s so much history in Lyon, dating back to its founding in 43 B.C. There are Roman ruins to explore, if that’s your thing. Or you can seek out the traboules, the hard-to-find passageways that cut between buildings in the old city. You can spend a lovely afternoon at the new Musée des Confluences, a gorgeous building at the meeting points of the Saone and the Rhone Rivers.

It’s delicious. Lyon is all about the food. We didn’t eat at any Michelin-star restaurants, but believe me, we didn’t need to. Every bouchon, every small neighborhood cafe, every patisserie…they’re all amazing. The quality of the food and the care that goes into making (and eating!) it, is extraordinary. The best potato gratin I’ve ever had. The best ice cream I’ve ever had. Everything we ate was the most delicious version of that thing. Ever. On our last evening we ate at L’Ebauche Restaurant, which had been recommended by the owner of a wine bar we had enjoyed the night before. It was a local place, with tables spread over 2 floors, and a small menu. A prix fixe 3-course dinner was just €30, and included brilliant dishes with fresh ingredients, simply prepared. Inventive and creative without being fussy.

And then there’s the wine.

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The valley seen from the church in Oingt

On my birthday, we took a great 1/2 day wine tasting tour that got us out of the city and into the area known as the Yellow or Golden Beaujolais, so named for the golden stones used in most of the buildings. We of course hadn’t really considered that doing a 1/2 day tasting at the START of the day would mean that our first tasting was before 10am. 9:48am, to be exact, in a church yard overlooking a valley, where our guide had set out a picnic blanket and three bottles. Not a bad way to start a birthday.

Our guide then took us and the two other couples (all Americans) to the town of Oingt, before heading to meet Etienne, the owner of the Domaine des Averlys. Etienne and his wife Mireille run every element of the vineyard, from the cultivation to the harvest to the labeling of the bottles. They produce about 45,000 bottles annually on an estate that has been in the family for 8 generations. Etienne was funny and generous, and the wine tasting in his cave was accompanied by saucisson sec and local chevre. All before noon.

Once back in Lyon, we met up with my dear friend Jon (hi Jon!), who had detoured from Paris for a couple of days, mostly to eat and drink with us. Thanks to his research, we found some great wine bars, including the quirky but wonderful Chateauneuf du Peuple. The outgoing owner offers a taste of whatever bottles he has open (with others available if none of those suit you), and every glass was just €5.

Paris is Paris. For many of us, it occupies a significant place in our imagination – even after we have seen some of the less-dreamy realities of the city. Lyon isn’t Paris, and to its credit, it doesn’t try to be. It doesn’t need to be. Having spent time in Lyon, I feel like I’ve been let in on one of France’s greatest secrets.

Stop passing through Lyon on your way to somewhere else. Just stop. In Lyon. And enjoy.