Monday, August 17, 2015

A Visit from Mike and Alyson

Kristin's brother Michael and his girlfriend Alyson spent a great week visiting us.  It was their first time meeting Natalie, and Alyson's first trip to Europe, so there was lots to do while they were here!  We met them at the train station in Stuttgart and started exploring.

Don't be deceived by these photos.  Alyson was holding Natalie about 90% of the time.
Our first trip was to check out the palace in Ludwigsburg, which we visited previously.  The gardens are spectacular and Mike was able to show off all of his gardening knowledge as we roamed the grounds.
Can you tell it was 95 degrees out?  Mike let us know about 1,000 times during our visit.
Lots of work for a backyard garden.
Even the flamingos were toasty.
15 Euros worth of water later and we were all feeling a bit better.
The next day we headed to Alsace, one of our favorite parts of France. Alyson is a big fan of bubbly wine, so we wanted her to taste some Cremant, which is the bubbly wine from this area of France.  We started in Colmar and had a great lunch of tarte flambée (thin, wood fired French pizza with onions and bacon) in the Little Venice area.  

We got an overview of the city on an abbreviated this-is-what-I-remember-off-the-top-of-my-head-version of the Rick Steves tour.  There isn't much to remember though, since a visit to Colmar really is centered around taking in all the cute, brightly colored buildings and the prolific flowers.

That's a Natalie taco.
Our next stop on the Alsace Wine Route was Eguisheim.  Eguisheim is a tiny town surrounded by vineyards farmed by some amazing local vintners.  It will also be henceforth known as the town where Mike and Alyson got engaged!  Yay!  We are so excited to welcome Alyson to our family.

Photobombing the newly engaged.
The happy couple and some wine barrels.  

Michael had let Kristin know a few days before his arrival that he wanted to propose on the trip.  A beautiful ring was hidden in his pocket until just the right moment!  So fun!  After Alyson had officially said "yes!", we headed over to our favorite winery in Eguisheim, Emile Bayer, for a glass of bubbly.

Cheers to Mike's future wife! 
Some bling.

After all the excitement the previous day, we took it easy and headed to the Zwiebelfest in Esslingen.  Esslingen is located about 10 miles down the Neckar River from Stuttgart.  It still boasts numerous exposed timber houses and the oldest sekt (bubbly wine) producer in Germany.  Since Stuttgart will jump on any reason to have a festival, Zwiebelfest celebrates the onion harvest.  Lots of restaurants from Esslingen set up dining rooms on the town square and serve drinks and onion-themed dinners.  The signature dish is Zwiebelkuchen, which is a dense onion cake.  Delicious.

Enjoying some beer and some bubbly from Kessler Sekt.

On our last day with Mike and Alyson we decided to take them to Munich so they could have a proper Maß (liter) of beer at a beer hall.  Munich is an easy 2 1/2 hour train ride from Stuttgart (which is a lot better than the drive and its potential for terrible traffic).  We decided to take in some culture before drinking and stopped at the Marienplatz to see the glockenspiel.  

We headed to the Hofbräuhaus, a huge beer hall in Munich.  Hofbräuhaus is owned by the State of Bavaria and operates one of the largest tents at Oktoberfest.   

Checking out the beer scene with special guests Justin & a different Mike.

 We ate some surprisingly good food and drank our fair share of beers before heading back to the train station for the trip home.

We were sad to see Mike and Alyson go, but knew they were off to bigger and better adventures in Paris.  Thanks for visiting us! 


Saturday, August 1, 2015

Adventures in Amsterdam

We found ourselves with a free weekend, so we decided to go on a last-minute adventure to Amsterdam.  We packed a few bags, found a great deal on a hotel, and treated Natalie to her first long distance train ride.  She did an awesome job!

5 hours of travel is much easier when she's not confined to a car seat

We arrived in Amsterdam that evening and got our first glimpses of the more than 100 kilometers of canals that fill the city.

The next morning we were anxious to stretch our legs so we headed to a neighborhood that Abby and Jack recommended, Jordaan.  Despite being a bustling summer weekend full of tourists in the central part of the city, a few blocks away this area was much quieter.

Initially a working class neighborhood, Jordaan is now a pretty nice area with renovated houses, boutique shops, and art galleries.  While wandering through a Saturday market, Kristin found a guy making fresh stroopwafels by cooking them, slicing them open, filling them with honey or caramel, and then putting it back together still warm.  It was even more delicious than it sounds!

There was also some interesting history along the way.  This statue is of Eduard Douwes Dekker, better known by his pen name Multatuli.  He wrote an influential novel about the Dutch colonists exploiting the natives in the Dutch East Indies, which is now Indonesia.

As with so many cafes, their seating (along with this statue) was on a bridge over a canal

Meanwhile Natalie wasn't very interested in the history lesson
Canals and bikes, bikes and canals...that's what you expect in Amsterdam, right?  We did too but we were still impressed with how well they are embraced and how the water adds a serenity to the city.

The architecture along the canal is also beautiful; full of buildings hundreds of years old and painted a rainbow of colors.  Amsterdam was spared from any bombing during WWII, so much of its historic architecture is in tact, unlike the nearby port city of Rotterdam.

Along the majority of the canals were one-way streets with small sidewalks and precariously perched, preciously few parking spots.  This makes it expensive to own a car and much easier to just ride a bike.

If you look closely, all of the buildings have a hook at the top to allow residents to bring furniture and other things in and out of the apartments through the windows instead of up the stairs.  We have seen this on older buildings elsewhere in Europe where the staircases are still narrow but even the newest ones in Amsterdam were built with a hook.

We wish our apartment had a hook to lift stuff instead of carrying our Ikea purchases (and baby) up the stairs

Of course you can't enjoy a historical European city without also seeing amazing churches.  We were especially impressed by the Westerkerk, which is the largest church in the Netherlands and was built in the early 1600s.  Despite seeing so many old things in our travels, it's still mind-blowing to think how much this church has lived through.  It was completed in the same year that the first governor of Massachusetts, John Winthrop, took office.

Ironically the red with XXX is part of Amsterdam's coat of arms.

Checking in with Natalie...she likes it
Continuing with Jack and Abby's great advice, that evening we booked a table at an Indonesian restaurant west of the city center called Restaurant Blauw.  The walk there took us through the entire length of Vondelpark, which is like the Central Park of Amsterdam.  Natalie was a little fussy when we started our walk but soon she was sound asleep in her stroller. We will pretend that all of the blue smoke from people chilling out on a nice weekend evening didn't have anything to do with it.

Unfortunately once we arrived at the restaurant, they didn't have our reservation because I had misunderstood my Dutch and failed to click through the last confirmation page.  Despite Natalie waking up cranky and spitting up on my shirt at this point, the host took pity on us and gave us some seats in the corner. 

Fortunately for all, the little one conked back out and let us enjoy our meal
With what we learned about the Dutch using Indonesia as an outpost for trade, it made sense as to why there are several Indonesian places to eat in Amsterdam.  I don't think I have ever had Indonesian food before but I look forward to having it again!  Best of all, I got a Rijsttafel  (Rice Table) that allowed me to taste a little bit of several different things...and they were all delicious.

Everything was mine except the wine and the square plate of curry shrimp in the top right...and Kristin let me try some of that too!
We were very fortunate with the weather and had beautiful sunny days to enjoy the city.  Before we arrived it had rained several days straight, as is more typical of all of the cities along the north coast.

Taking a break at a cafe

I still forget how close the countries of Europe are despite having such distinct cultures.  Little things will pop up and remind me along the way, like how all of the restaurants in Amsterdam feature Heineken (brewed locally) but also offered lots of Belgian beer. 

La Chouffe beer
Much of our time was spent walking around the city and exploring.  There seemed to be an endless number of quaint streets between all of the canals, featuring great cafes, interesting boutiques, and this guy:

Along the way, Natalie had been busy in the stroller reading her book about Captain Calamari...

So she was a little surprised when I got the seafood platter that night.

This was an amazing find...we don't get much seafood in southern Germany

The one museum we did hit was the Rijksmuseum, which was an incredible collection of art and other artifacts.  It starts with the building itself, which was built in 1885 specifically to house the collection and then underwent 10 years of renovation, opening again in 2013.  

The inside is as spectacular as the outside.  In each area to the right and left in the picture below, there was a collection of similar paintings from the same era and then a helpful card explaining the significance of the paintings and highlighting details that tell the story about the style and era.  It was like no other museum I have visited and helped a layperson like me appreciate the context of the paintings and other art.

Much of the building was nice and open, with amazing details like these mosaics extending across the floor, walls, and ceiling.

This was Kristin's favorite painting, showing a Dutch town in the middle of winter.  The canal has frozen so people are using sleds and ice skates to get around.  It's a bright and happy winterscape instead of the typical cold and dark scene.  I like this attitude.

As I mentioned, the museum was full of artifacts instead of just art.  This area was presenting the height of the Dutch power and riches through the Dutch East India Company.  There were other rooms presenting some of the treasures that were brought back from southeast Asia, including beautiful pieces of furniture and jewelry.

Finally, there was a beautiful library to display some of the thousands of books the museum has acquired.  Just like the rest of the building, the attention to detail was incredible and there are even a few tricks to make the room look even more expansive.  It was also built to bring in lots of light to make it easier for visitors to read.

We did tour the red light district as well, but I'll limit my commentary to this picture of one of the bollards marking the edge of it and by saying that it was more touristy and less seedy than I had expected.

Needless to say, it was a full few days and Natalie was sure pooped by the end!

The final adventure was Natalie's first plane ride!  We flew directly from Amsterdam to Stuttgart.  Despite the hour delay, she did great.  It helped that we were prepared with about 17 toys, pacifiers, bottles, and anything else we could think of to keep her happy.  Plane rides used to be a chance to relax, reflect, read, listen to music, or sleep.  No more!!

I'm writing this blog 8 weeks after our trip and can't believe how much bigger she is now!

Thanks again to Abby and Jack for great recommendations.  Amsterdam was a place we knew we had to visit while here in Europe.  We had a wonderful time and lucked out with excellent weather!