I’ll take some Dijon, Please

Years ago, there was a popular commercial on television. Two limousines are stopped at an intersection. The windows roll down and one obviously rich gentleman asks the other, “Do you have any Grey Poupon?” The occupant nods and presents a jar of  Dijon mustard.

Every view is a beautiful one

I have always equated Dijon with that spicy golden spread and really nothing else. We just got back from a visit to Dijon, France and it is so much more. As we walked along its meandering cobblestoned streets, we discovered a city famous for its wines, cuisine, and history. In fact, Dijon is the capital of the Burgundy wine region, although Beaune (just down the road) is perhaps a better bet if you’re serious about hunting the grape. The city is bursting with ancient half-timbered buildings that look straight out of your average French fairy tale. And the colorful tilework on many of the roofs is gorgeous.

Notre Dame

Dijon is very compact and foot friendly and the best place to start your visit is at the Dijon Tourist Office at 11 Rue des Forges. They have a nifty little guide called The Owl’s Trail that directs you on a self-guided tour of the city. The Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon is the city’s symbol or mascot. Owls are everywhere in the form of magnets, tea towels, or little porcelain figures. But the most important one is the weathered, stone carving on a corner of the cathedral on Rue de la Chouette, (appropriately named Owl Street). Legend is if you touch the figure with your left hand, and make a wish, it should come true. The jury is still out on that since I have not won the lottery (yet). The guide book, along with a trail of small owl-embellished brass plates in the sidewalk, points the way. This is an excellent way to see all the pertinent sites in the city and we will cover just a few of our favorites.

Les Halles is the covered market in Dijon. The imposing ironwork structure is lovely and very reminiscent of the Eiffel Tower in Paris. Gustave Eiffel (who was originally from Dijon) designed the building. We’ve been to many covered or indoor markets in various locations, but this was one of the best. The selections of meat, fish, produce, cheese–oh, that glorious cheese!–and baked goods were some of the finest we had ever seen. Not only did the quality look fantastic, but the presentation was as much of a feast for the eyes as it was for the palate. The market is held on Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday each week. We were there on a Saturday and the market extends way beyond the interior of this beautiful edifice and into the surrounding streets. Vendors selling all types of vintage to modern items occupied stalls for a couple of blocks in every direction. Haggling is encouraged and we bargained and purchased a vintage desk calendar with a bronze figure of a gentleman playing a game of Petanque, sometimes called Boules in Paris.

Place Francois Rude
A fine day to stomp some grapes

Place Francois Rude
Smack dab in the middle of the old part of the city is a charming square. It is named after the French sculptor Francois Rude who was born in Dijon. Rude is famous for his sculptural frieze La Marseillaise emblazoned on the Arc de Triomphe, in Paris. The plaza comes complete with a vintage carousel, a wonderful fountain adorned with a sculpture of a well-muscled young man stomping wine grapes, and charming half-timbered buildings. It is the perfect place to sit at a cafe and enjoy a cup of coffee as you watch some of the local parents treating their children to a ride on the antique merry-go-round.

Place de la Liberation
In the center of Dijon sits the impressive Place de la Liberation. This semi-circle square is anchored on one side by the palace of the Dukes of Burgundy and there are fountains of water that seem to shoot up randomly from the ground. It is a pedestrian-only area, and another great place and stop at any of the numerous cafes to rest your feet after a long day of walking. We were lucky to be there on a beautiful sunny day, drinking a glass of wine and watching the children and some of the local dogs romping in the fountains.

Notre-Dame Dijon

Notre Dame interior

The imposing Roman Catholic Church of Notre-Dame was built in the 13th Century. The exterior has 51 gargoyles gracing its facade. At the top of the exterior is a clock called the Jacquemart. It has four metal automatons. Two of them, called Jacquemart and Jacqueline, sound the hours by striking a large bell with a hammer. The other two, their children, Jacquelinet and Jacquelinette, strike the quarter hours, each on a smaller bell. Inside the church, the stained glass casts a beautiful shimmering light through lovely gothic arches. And the impressive organ

Cathedrale Saint-Benigne

loft has a gorgeous tapestry complementing the massive bank of organ pipes that are a work of art in their own right.

To cap it all off, we had a view from the window of our small apartment that was really spectacular. There is so much more to Dijon than just mustard and more than I have room for here. Why don’t you make a visit to this wonderful and often overlooked city for yourself!

…And Delft Again

Before I start with the promised second half of our trip to Delft, I must apologize for the hiatus. It’s been a little while since you have heard from the two little piggies and we are going to rectify that now. We’ve got lots of upcoming trips planned, along with a few voyages past that we plan to share with you over the coming months. We hope you will join us, and forgive our “slight” delay.

At the end of our last post about our visit to Delft we promised to tell you about some wonderful locally made artisan chocolate. Also, we’ll share our favorite restaurant for Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), and talk about the ultimate Dutch cookie, the stroopwafel. We promise not to keep you in suspense any longer so let’s get going.

Artists at work

It’s no secret that Bill and I are big chocolate fans. We have tasted some of the best varieties that Europe has to offer. Belgium has usually ruled as the victor in the chocolate taste test battle. There was that moment in Troyes, France at Pascal Caffet Chocolatier where we were transported by the most scrumptious chocolates, but I digress. Give me a moment to wipe the drool from my mouth. We were pleasantly surprised to find a wonderful chocolate shop where everything is handmade on the premises in the lovely city of Delft.

The wrappers are nearly as tasty as the chocolate!

We happened upon Van der Burgh Chocolate while blissfully wandering and peering into shop windows. Our chocolate radar is always on and the window display at the building located at Vrouwenregt 2 immediately set off our alarms. The array of lovely blocks of chocolate all neatly wrapped up in exquisite papers had us intrigued, so in we went.

As we walked through the doors of the building that dates back to 1610, we met Richard van der Burgh, the owner and Founder of Van der Bergh Chocolaad. He and his wife Joyce have been creating heavenly handmade indulgences since 2011. They pride themselves on working with small, Fair Trade chocolate producers and utilize only the best ingredients. You’ll bite into hazelnuts from Italy or taste the intense coarsely ground coffee from Ethiopia. But the taste is only one aspect of these delightful treasures. They look stunning as well. Each bar is lovingly created and then hand wrapped on the premises in some of the most beautiful papers. A wide array of bars are clad in designs from Italian Florentine, to images from famous paintings by Vermeer. They make wonderful gifts since they delight all the senses. You can peruse and order from their website at: https://www.vanderburghchocolaad.nl/

Indonesian Rijsttafel

When you think of Dutch gastronomy, some minds usually wander to the old standbys of herring or possibly Dutch pancakes. But did you know that it is also famous for its Indonesian cuisine? It was brought back to the Netherlands by former colonials returning from the Dutch East Indies during the 19th and early 20th century. The spicy and varied dishes which are almost ceremonially presented are a true feast! We made reservations at our favorite Indonesian place, Restaurant Redjeki at Choorstraat 50 in Delft for rijsttafel (rice table). We have enjoyed this banquet in several different establishments in the Netherlands, and Redjeki is one of the best. The rijsttafel is not for the faint of heart, or small of belly. The trick is to show up hungry, eat slowly, and enjoy every morsel. The meal consists of plenty of rice dished up with a variety of seven or more entrees of varying levels of spiciness served alongside accoutrements that might be pickled, hot, cold, salty, or sweet. The dizzying variety of flavors somehow all work together and make for a fantastic and belt-loosening experience. Interestingly enough, you might have a difficult time finding rijsttafel back in Indonesia where it fell out of fashion after that country proclaimed its independence in 1945.

A heavenly feast

Of course, after a meal you want something sweet. And nothing fills that role better than the Stroopwafel. They are not usually served in restaurants, so we have them with a pot of tea when we get home. This divine concoction is a combination of crisp, wafer-thin waffles filled and glued together with a special caramel syrup. They are usually about 4 inches in diameter and sold in packs of 8, stacked like a cylinder. They are heavenly eaten out of the pack or perfect to rest on top of a mug of tea or coffee, where the heat melts the syrup inside. Of course, the best way is to

Filled with crispy, gooey goodness

find one of the outdoor vendors usually out on market day. Your nose will alert you if there is one nearby well before you see it because they are usually found making stroopwafels fresh on hot waffle irons. Hot syrup from an open vat is spread on the freshly split waffle as it comes out of the iron. These are not the small crisp 4-inch models. They are usually about the size of a salad plate and handed to you in a wax paper sleeve soft, warm, and gloriously oozing syrup in the middle. They also sell packs of pre-made waffles in lidded porcelain jars decorated with traditional scenes of Dutch life. The containers make wonderful souvenirs.

Delft is a lovely and often overlooked destination frequently overshadowed by the larger cities like Amsterdam. It is certainly worth a visit and one of our favorite places. We hope it becomes one of yours as well.

Dutch Treat

Delft. For some, the name of this city conjures visions of expensive blue and white porcelain. Others may think of windmills and dikes or paintings by Vermeer. You can find those things, but this lovely and laid back town offers so much more. To us it’s a wonderful place to decompress, with meandering canals, inviting cafes, and imposing architecture.

Het Nieuwe Kerk

The main square is wonderful place to wander. The ornate town hall at one end faces the Nieuwe Kerk (New Church) at the other. Even though it’s usually pretty busy, this is one of my favorite areas. Cafes, cheese shops, souvenir shops, and stores selling Delft porcelain of all grades are plentiful and varied. It’s the center of the city and on Thursdays the square is turned into a weekly market. There are more than 150 stalls selling everything from fresh produce and local cheeses, to all manner of household items and clothing. The antique and vintage market is open on Thursdays and Saturdays from April through October. On Thursdays, it’s located along the canals. On Saturdays, the market is bigger (including a book market) and spills into the main square. If you are looking for traditional Delftware, you are likely to find something to your taste here. You can find old hardware, artifacts, stained-glass panels, porcelain, posters, coins, stamps, antique kitchen items, and more. Language is rarely a problem since it seems like most residents of Delft speak English. They often start out by saying, “I only speak a little English.” This usually means they are superbly fluent.

Treasures awaiting discovery

One of the reasons for this particular visit was a bit unusual. We celebrated our 30th anniversary recently and wanted to give ourselves a little “something extra.” During a past visit to Delft, we had passed a costume shop that displayed wonderful historical looking photographs taken of people in traditional old-world attire. Since we are William and Mary, how about dressing up and having a photo session as the original William of Orange and his queen, Mary? The shop, run by the charming Barbara van Gelder, is called “Something Extra.” She came up with this idea several years ago. She liked the concept of period photographs but many of the studios that offered anything close to her idea, usually lacked quality costumes and accessories. She was determined to only use the finest fabrics and accoutrements so her subjects would really look like someone from the past. She designed the outfits to fit a wide range of body types. She picked out everything for both me and Bill and dressed us from head to toe. We all had a great time. Barbara loves her work and she really makes it a fun experience.

Water, water everywhere…

After some indoor shots, she asked if we might like to walk across the street and have our picture taken in front of the canal bridge. Most of the streets and canals in Delft look like they came straight out of the pages of a history book and she thought they would make a perfect backdrop for us. My biggest hurdle was managing to walk the 30 or so steps in a tapestry dress that felt like it weighed about 20 pounds. She posed us at the bridge and began taking pictures. In the blink of an eye, a throng of Asian tourists surrounded us and iPhones and cameras began snapping away. One lady grabbed my arm as she smiled for her traveling companion who was rapidly filling his memory card with images as he repeated, “take picture? Okay?” The clicking from all the cameras began to sound like a swarm of crickets. I empathized with some of the costumed street performers I see everywhere in Europe, but heck, they at least get paid to have their picture taken! Barbara quickly got us back to the shop as we reluctantly re-emerged into the 21st Century. It was a wonderful experience and Barbara is a great photographer. She does take walk-ins but only if she is not in a photo session. You can contact her at her website or send her a message on Facebook at “Something Extra.” Make your appointment to step back in time and live like royalty, even if it’s only for a few fleeting minutes.

William & Mary

In our next post, we’ll talk a little about food in Delft. We’ll taste some artisan chocolate, find the best Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table), and figure out what exactly is a stroopwafel anyway?

Tot de volgende keer! (Until next time!)

Troc and Titi and Cheese, Oh My!

There are many benefits to living overseas—like the opportunity to hunt for great antique or second-hand items that we’d never find back in America. Or we can go shopping in a large grocery store in say, France, and it’s filled with French food! Yes, retail therapy is a little different over here. Flea Markets abound with everything, from stuff that looks like it fell off of the back of a delivery truck to beautiful antiques. We woke up on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago and felt the thrill of the hunt come upon us. We took the back seats out of our trusty Honda Odyssey van (just in case) and the we were off.

We had heard about two secondhand stores near Metz that we wanted to explore. They were only a little over 2 hours away and it would be an easy day trip. Plus, our favorite French hypermarket, Auchan was only about 30 minutes away from our planned stops. So the die was cast—ROAD TRIP!

Aladdin’s Cave?

Our first stop was “Troc” in Forbach, France. Troc is a large consignment store filled with treasures (and some trash). Mid-century modern chairs sit next to Edwardian marble-topped sideboards, which stand beside

I love this stuff

Bavarian farmhouse tables. The place is massive. And it’s not just filled with furniture, but also artwork, china, crystal, lamps, chandeliers, and tons more. But there’s also the junk. They have the inevitable ceramic clowns and various items from the 60s or 70s that make you shake your head and wonder what possessed someone to buy this on its first go-round. We found ourselves going down aisle after aisle of furniture and other treasures. They had a fairly large selection of shiny lacquered Italian inlaid wood furniture. These pieces when new are rather expensive, but here at Troc their prices were just a shadow of their former selves.

A few dainty morsels

I found myself attracted to the vintage dishes from the town of Obernai in Alsace. They bore the scars of many a meal, with the odd chip or discoloration here and there. But to me, this was just evidence of a very happy life, and now I can display them with all their history. I thought they would look splendid hanging in a grouping on a wall. The plates were cheerful and full of colorful scenes of Alsatian village life. Obernai pottery is quite expensive when new and a bit too rich for my blood. But these were going for a paltry 1 Euro apiece for the well-worn and well-loved dishes. I splurged on a large presentation platter that was newer and in perfect condition for 5 Euros. By the time I was done, I had spent 14 Euros for the lot. I couldn’t even purchase a new saucer for that price. I left Troc a very happy girl.

It doesn’t look like much on the outside, but..

Next on our itinerary was Titi International. Okay, everyone can stop making those little snickering noises now. I think the name is a bit silly as well, but the contents of this place are anything but. The prices seemed a bit higher than Troc, but the quality was a bit higher too. The furniture was gorgeous! They had a number of beautiful vintage pieces that I would have been happy to take home immediately. Even the smaller home décor and china seemed nicer. I’m still kicking myself for not purchasing the vintage transferware tea set from Maastricht in the Netherlands. Like Troc, Titi is basically a large warehouse filled various kinds of stock in widely varying conditions. Unbelievable as it sounds, we walked out

A Dutch treat

without purchasing anything, but  it’s not likely that we’ll get away unscathed on our next visit. This trip was sort of our maiden voyage, and we decided that we need to come back once every three months or so and check out their inventory. Of course, the seats in the van will stay home, just in case!

Poking around in second-hand shops is hungry work! So after rummaging through all kinds of treasures, we were off to what is to us, the highest expression of the French supermarket, Auchan! There are certain stores in

Where to start?

France that earn the title of hypermart and all of them are great. Names like Cora, Leclerc, Intermarché, and Carrefour are certain to make our mouths water. Picture the finest gourmet shop you have ever seen (or even imagined), then expand it to the size of a large Costco. Throw in a few dry goods for variety and you have a French hypermarket. The French have a very well-deserved reputation for fine cuisine and it all starts with the very best ingredients. The typical hypermarket is filled with glorious French produce, wine, meats, cheeses, fresh seafood, and of course, a huge variety of baked goods. We have visited many of them, but Auchan (and especially the one in Semécourt, near Metz) gets our vote for the best selection and best quality. It’s always a major hub of activity and we start to drool whenever we get within a kilometer.

Inside the building is a mini-mall of smaller interior shops, eateries, and even a carousel for the kids. But the main event is the big store itself. This company is way ahead of the technology curve with something they call, “Rapid Auchan.” As customers come in, they can choose to get their own scan device that fits in a holder in their shopping cart. They self-scan their items as they go about their shopping. They go through a special line, pay for their purchases, and out the door they go. It’s a pretty cool system and certainly shortens wait times in the lines. Auchan embraces this technology as a way to free up their employees to offer one-on-one customer service throughout the store.

And it’s all good…

To us, Auchan seems like Disneyland for foodies. The cheese aisle—which seems to go on forever—always takes our breath away. The fishmonger calls out the specials of the day as if she were in an open-air market in an Atlantic port. We saw some prawns that looked (I swear, I’m not making this up!) to be about the size of a small poodle. There were several aisles of high-quality French wines, some at rock-bottom prices. The meats, patés, breads—Oh, The breads! Bread is like a religion in France. A fresh loaf is purchased every day in any self-respecting French household. And their bread is best served up with some glorious, creamy, butter from Brittany. I really like butter and to me, pretty much any butter is good butter. But the creamy product of Brittany is a cut above. It’s really special.

The staff of life

Even their “generic” aisle at Auchan is something to behold. Breads, cereals, canned goods, and candies all bearing plain generic labels with super low prices are equal if not better in quality to many of the name-brand products we’re used to in the States.

We rolled our cart to our waiting van and carefully packed out treasures into a large cooler for the trip back to Germany. Of course, a few “small” items were set aside to fuel the car ride home. I mean, after an exhausting day like that, you’ve got to keep up your strength!

The Jack Horner Pub, Fitzrovia, London

I’ll admit it up front, I’m a sucker for Fuller’s beers. This is especially fortunate because London has a lot of Fuller’s pubs. They have become quite a large brewer but they have not lost the knack for making very tasty brews. However, a visit to a pub is certainly more than just an excuse to drink beer and a good pub has to have a bit more going for it than a line of beer engines on the bar. I like a pub that makes me want to have a seat and relax. The Jack Horner in Tottenham Court Road is one such place. When we were in London over Christmas, we stayed in a flat in Fitzrovia and the Jack Horner was right on our most common walking route.

A feast for a weary traveler

Staying in a flat was great but it was not without a downside. Whenever we have stayed in hotels in London (or elsewhere in the U.K.) they have almost always included a full English breakfast. Renting a flat meant we were on our own. So when we spotted an item on the menu posted outside one of the doors as we walked past the Jack Horner one morning touting a full English breakfast starting at 8:00 am (9:00 am on Mondays), we decided we needed to investigate further. The barmaid handed us a menu with a number of tasty options but there was really only one choice for me—the Full English.


I have to say that one item on the bill of fare gave me a moment’s pause. I had never eaten black pudding and it’s not something that struck me as particularly appetizing. But I have spent a lot of time in the U.K. and I love pub food, so I reasoned that this represented a gap in my education that needed filling. For those unfamiliar with the finer points of English culinary practice, black pudding is an English form of blood sausage, typically made from oatmeal, pig’s blood, fat, spices, and sometimes barley or oat groats. In a breakfast context, it’s usually sliced and fried. I’ll try (almost) anything once.

If you’ve never eaten a full English breakfast, you should try it at least once in your life. In this case, it consisted of eggs, bacon, toast, baked beans, half a grilled tomato, a large grilled portobello mushroom, sausage, and black pudding. Not surprisingly, this will probably fuel you through a whole day, even if you walk all day long. It was all very nicely prepared and I must admit, the black pudding was good. I don’t think I would go out of my way to find it but I’ll eat it if it turns up with my breakfast rations again. A pot of tea to wash it all down and we were set for a full day’s exploration.

A proper pub

We liked the Jack Horner and decided to have dinner there later in the week, an easy choice as it was only a few minutes’ walk from our flat. It is certainly a comfortable and inviting establishment. A long and attractive mahogany bar greets you as you enter. I counted a total of twelve beer engines, although some selections (notably London Pride and ESB) were offered on multiple pumps. Still, there was a good variety of Fuller’s ales on offer, and that is never a bad thing. Lots of mahogany wainscoting and comfortable seating made for a warm feeling and there were snug little spaces throughout the interior. We settled down to a table, got comfortable, and started perusing the menu.

Where to start?

The Jack Horner is one of Fuller’s Ale & Pie Houses, so there was an emphasis on pies in the menu. I ordered the Ale & Pie Tasting Board while Mary settled on chicken and chorizo pie (sadly no longer offered) and a cider. I really like pub food and to me, pies are the most eloquent expression of the genre. They are typically served with mash (mashed potato in American), and a small pitcher of gravy. Many people would think that this is a bit too much starch, but it works. I actually got two varieties of gravy with my sampler and both were delicious. I was a bit leery of the vegetarian pie but it was excellent. The steak and ale pie was quite tasty, as I have come to expect in Fuller’s pubs. The chicken and chorizo was probably my least favorite of the three in the sampler, but still quite enjoyable. The three ales were ESB, London Pride, and Seafarer’s (in a Frontier lager glass for some reason) and all three were delicious, though I have to say the London Pride would be my choice with a meal.

Come on in

I intend to include write-ups on other pubs we have visited, but the Jack Horner was a good choice to start with. It’s a good, friendly pub in a great location. The Fuller’s ales are well kept and the food is delicious and filling. I admit to a bias here. I love well-prepared meal and I’ve enjoyed some memorable dining experiences in restaurants from Portland to Paris. But sometimes you just want comfort food and few things fill that bill for me better than a good steak or chicken pie and a glass of well-brewed ale. Cheers!

London for the Holidays

It’s no secret that I’m absolutely crazy about Christmas lights. Actually, I love Christmas in general but light displays are a particular favorite of mine. We normally don’t travel at that time of year, since both Bill and I prefer to tour during the off seasons to avoid crowds and the inevitable price hikes. We enjoy spending the holidays at home surrounded by decorations, trees, and of course lights!  This last Christmas was a departure for us. We decided to spend the holiday in London—land of roast goose, plum pudding, and Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” It is also known for pulling out all the stops where Christmas light displays are concerned and we had to see it for ourselves.

Best London Lights Photo Ever (Blog)
Regent Street at night

This city is not exactly an economical place to stay, particularly in the high season. But with a little advance preparation and homework, we were able to enjoy the delights of the metropolis without breaking the bank. First, we made our plane and lodging reservations months ahead of time. We secured a great one-bedroom flat in the Fitzrovia neighborhood on Airbnb.com. We were familiar with the area, and the Goodge Street tube station and bus stops were a short walk from the flat. With a pair of comfortable shoes, a scarf, and a jacket there were many areas we could just walk to and not have to rely on public transport at all. London is best seen on foot so you don’t miss anything. There’s something about strolling through the city and really getting a chance to stop and look up. We both love to spot architectural details and this is problematic when riding the Tube. Buses are better but the scenery whizzes by. Walking is also a great way to discover an interesting pub and duck in for a pint.

London 15 (blog)
Covent Garden was only about 20 minutes’ walk

It was nice to have a full-sized one-bedroom flat—well, full-sized for London anyway. On our last trip we waited too long to make room reservations and ended up in a private hotel on Gower Street. The room consisted of a small bathroom and no real closets, just some pegs to hang your coat or purse. There was a bed with two small end tables and a TV mounted to the wall. You had to sidestep and hug the wall to get in the bed. That room ran us approximately $160 a night. It did include an outstanding full English breakfast though.

The Fitzrovia flat on the other hand, was great for us. It had a full kitchen, complete with large refrigerator/freezer, range, and washing machine. The living room came complete with sofa, TV (with about a million satellite channels), and a table with two chairs for dining. The bedroom held a comfortable queen-sized bed and plenty of closet space. No sidestepping here! The neighborhood was perfect for us and close to lots of pubs, grocery stores, shops, and our favorite fish and chips place. The bathroom, with its nice shower/tub, completed the very comfortable arrangements. The whole thing cost less than $70 a night when all was said and done, which is ridiculously cheap in London. Be aware though, that recent changes to the law will have an effect on Airbnb.com, and it’s not clear yet what that effect will be.

We’ve been to London many times so we’ve seen most of the “big ticket” attractions. We wanted to indulge in a few of the lesser known gems. One of these was Charles Dickens’ home and museum (48 Doughty Street, WC1) where it was all decked out for a Victorian Christmas. You can pay extra for an audio tour, but we opted for the small booklet that described each room and its significance. It was a delightful experience. We are both fans of Dickens’ works and it was wonderful to see the desk where he wrote and the dining table set with custom china plates adorned with characters from The Pickwick Papers. If you are a literary fan visiting London it’s worth a visit.

Winter Wonderland (Blog)
Haven’t I seen this movie?

One annual attraction during the holiday season is the Winter Wonderland in Hyde Park. It was actually a bit disappointing, although that’s mostly owing to the fact that we live in Germany and in the words of that famous Carly Simon song, “nobody does it better.” It was mostly an amusement park with many rides that looked like they were from Oktoberfest. In fact, we found out that several of the rides were from Oktoberfest. They had a Bavarian village selling bratwursts, and dry pretzels at London prices. If you read my last post about the Christmas season in Germany, you’ll know that we’ve gotten a little spoiled by the Christmas markets of Germany (and France). But we soon ventured out into Hyde Park, clutching some pretzels that we intended to feed to the birds. Bill spent some quality time feeding some very greedy swans, several of which ate right out of his hands. We had more fun spending time with the swans than at the faux German Christmas park.

Bill and the Swans 4 (Blog)
Sorry guys, I’m all out…

One thing that most definitely did not disappoint was the city of London all dressed up in Christmas finery. As seems to be usual for us, the weather was lovely for nearly our entire stay, so we did a lot of wandering. We spent several evenings strolling down the streets where the light displays were the most spectacular. Our vote for the most magnificent presentation was Regent Street. Glorious angels spanned the width of the thoroughfare with wings that shimmered and twinkled. It was splendid and a sight that I will always cherish.

A window at Fortnum's
A window at Fortnum’s

The retailers all seemed to be in competition with their lights and window displays as well as their interior decorations that were occasionally breathtaking. Everyone hails “Harrod’s” as THE store to go to. I say it should be “Fortnum and Mason.” F & M is the epitome of everything that is wonderful in a store. High quality goods, lush decorations, and personnel all dressed in black and looking like they just stepped out of the pages of Vogue Magazine. I always feel slightly underdressed when I cross the threshold. Of course, high quality means high prices but we always leave with a little something such as rose and violet chocolates, or the queen’s favorite ginger biscuits in a decorative tin.

Cheese Glorious Cheese (Blog)
Happy Christmas, Lloyd!

Speaking of some of the best places, if you’re looking for cheese, you must stop at Paxton & Whitfield (93 Jermyn Street, SW1). This wonderful cheesemonger has been in business since the mid-1700s and at the same storefront since 1835. They received the Royal Warrant of Appointment to HM Queen Victoria in 1850 and they still hold several royal warrants to this day. Winston Churchill once observed “a gentleman only buys his cheese at Paxton & Whitfield” so of course we had to as well. They are known for having the best quality English Stilton in the country along with some of the finest artisan cheeses anywhere. We ventured into the packed shop a couple of days before Christmas where we stood in a long line that snaked around throughout the back of the store to make it to the cheese counter. It’s normally much more sedate. Everyone took the craziness in good humor (or more properly good humour) because they knew that Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without some cheese from Paxton and

Fortnum and Mason 7 (Blog)
Fortnum’s again

Whitfield. Our patience was rewarded with a lovely porcelain crock filled with their finest Stilton for us to take home to the flat and enjoy with water crackers. If it was good enough for Queen Victoria, it was certainly good enough for us!

I could go on about our Christmas holiday in London, but I will save some for later posts. I haven’t even started on Bill’s quest for the best ale and pies at some wonderful traditional pubs. So until then we’ll just say, “Cheers!”

Merry Christmas!

Like a fairy-tale forest

I’ve woken up to yet another day of freezing fog here in Germany. Everything outside has that just-arrived-in-Narnia look. Snowy white frost decorates the tree limbs and turns them into something magical. But along with the magic comes the loss of the lovely view from our bedroom balcony. Everything looks like it’s encased in a hazy bubble where the horizon has vanished and been replaced with a white void that appears to go on forever. This seems to happen every winter here. And what gets me through it, you might ask? German Christmas markets! Germany has a long tradition of setting up Christmas markets in towns and cities throughout the country. It is one of my favorite things during this season.

Lilies (symbol of Wiesbaden) hover over the market

Nobody does Christmas quite like the Germans. Christmas markets seem to pop up in just about every town that has more than 15 residents. Shoppers bustle about, looking for that one-of-a-kind gift or decoration. Most of the markets run for about a month, starting in late November and ending just before Christmas. The dizzying smells will immediately make your mouth water and your stomach growl for a bratwurst that has been roasting on a metal grate suspended over a heavily-stoked fire. Or you can dive into a greasy, deep-fried, and perfectly delicious tray of Kartoffel Puffer. These yummies are a cross between a hash brown and a potato pancake and are served up with a side of apple or garlic sauce. Yes they’re bad for you; yes you need a stack of napkins to catch the oil as it drips from your fingers; but heck, when in Rome (or Mainz, or Trier)…

The angels open the festivities

I get the impression that the different cities compete to have the best combination of lights, food, vendors, entertainment, and great holiday atmosphere. This year Wiesbaden gets my vote for the best opening ceremony. They put on a spectacular show with lights, music, fireworks, and (I kid you not), flying angels! A massive crane is used to suspend what looks like a large lighted birdcage holding two lovely ladies dressed up as angels. They come complete with large feathered wings and long, flowing blond hair cascading down almost to their toes. Even though they are secured in a cage structure, they hang precariously out of the large openings on either side. Their arms and wings wave as they scatter what looks like stardust but is actually tiny flecks of gold paper. The lights are off everywhere except for the spotlights illuminating the angels as they make their descent—first to the mammoth Christmas tree that lights up to a wave of their hands. They hover over the main stage to an ethereal musical backdrop by Enya. One more wave of the hands and poof! All the lights of the market are lit and fireworks shoot out from the angel cage. It really is quite spectacular and oh, so German!

The temperatures drop and everything is illuminated in a way that you could have only imagined in your dreams. Your frigid fingers happily wrap themselves around a decorated mug filled with either hot chocolate or the spicy, syrupy, gluhwein (spiced wine). There’s always a small deposit of about 2 Euros for the mug, which I happily relinquish. The cups are usually different each year with special commemorative artwork, and they make wonderful souvenirs.  Personally, I think gluhwein should never be consumed anyplace else but out in the cold at one of the Christmas markets. Not everyone likes it, but I enthusiastically gulp it down to the last drop because it warms me down to my toes.

Have a heart…

Then there are the Lebkuchen vendors. Lebkuchen is basically gingerbread and the Christmas markets are filled with vendors selling giant heart-shaped lebkuchen cookies. They are decorated with a sugary frosting that is hard but tasty. I’ve watched many a little girl or boy chomping down on that spicy cookie that almost looks bigger than them. You can hear the crunch from a block away as their teeth break through the icing. I’m sure the local dentists love the Lebkuchen tradition.

A display of lighted paper stars

I also enjoy that feeling of the way life used to be. Life without a net. As you roam around the typical market, you’ll see all kinds of wonderful sights that you’d never cast your eyes upon in the ever cautious and over-protective American way of life. Here at a German market you’ll see dogs meandering around—usually on the leash held by an attentive owner—sometimes not. Children sway on makeshift swings made of rope with no buckles, restraints, or protective padding anywhere. If they fall and maybe skin a knee, they get up, brush it off, and go swing again.  It’s not uncommon to see electrical wires duct taped down on streets, attached to poles, or stretching precariously overhead. Unguarded generators or connections are usually well within everyone’s reach with very few barricades. It’s tempting to imagine that if you stumbled or got shocked, you’d be blamed for not paying attention. And everyone has a great time, young and old alike. As I mentioned above, gluhwein will warm you up, but it can also light you up! Alcohol is consumed with gusto at these events and yet I have never seen anyone appear to be the worse for it. I have seen natives bursting into song, but no fisticuffs.

One day, I will be back home shopping in an American mall somewhere at Christmastime. I will be riding on an escalator looking at the perfectly set decorations and wishing for just one more glance of a Christmas angel overhead suspended from a cage. And I’ll yearn for the chance to step over some cables duct taped to the pavement without a single warning sign in sight.

Looking for (and finding!) some Christmas cheer

Frohe Weihnachten from les Deux Petits Cochons!

A European Thanksgiving

This latest post is a slight departure from our normal travels. We hope you enjoy it.

A setting fit for a König

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone. We all sat around the table with our full stomachs as we looked down at the last few crumbs of Bill’s homemade (and masterfully done) apple pie. Ahhh! But this wasn’t Thanksgiving in Idaho, or Wisconsin, or New Hampshire. This, like our last four Turkey Days has been in our home in Wiesbaden, Germany. Our guests were our next-door neighbors Klaus and his adult son Achim along with our friends David and Daniela who lived next to us in Würzburg years ago. As we drank our coffee, conversation turned to many topics, including politics. Sounds dangerous but it was very interesting and enlightening. The conversation proved that we might all be from different countries but we all seem to share many of the same frustrations, hopes and dreams. Despite the language difference, our

A great group of Freunden

exchange was very lively and quite similar to what you might have in any dining room in America, except with German accents. Luckily, all our guests spoke English but when the conversation got spirited, they would lapse into a foreign blue streak that left Bill and me winded. How is it possible to have so many people talking at once and it doesn’t sound foreign, yet you really can’t understand a lot of what’s being said? It can be challenging and tiring, and for a moment it reminds you that this is not


your home country. We love living here in Germany. We enjoy the lifestyle, the food, the travel, but it’s still not home however much we delight in our European adventure. Our dinner companions looked at us and said (paraphrasing) we Germans don’t live like you Americans. We don’t travel all the time. We go on maybe one trip in a year and it’s usually someplace where we can enjoy sunshine and maybe a beach. But you drive for an hour and spend a day in a small village and tell us of your visit. This just would not occur to us. It was a keen insight for me at that moment. Bill and I have felt truly thankful for the opportunity to live overseas—not just once, but three times. Each time we have traveled fairly extensively and we try to take every opportunity to see as much as we can. We know there are people who may save their entire lives to spend a few weeks riding on a tour bus trying to see as many far flung European locales as their tour guide will allow. Yet we can hop in our car and head off and experience not only the big-ticket locations such as London, Brussels, or Florence but also small out-of-the-way or not-so-famous places full of charm and history. We talked about how we will be heading back home to the States in a little over a year. We showed pictures of a house we are hoping to purchase in a small town in Idaho. One of our guests questioned whether I might have problems adjusting. Surely I had become more European than American. This really made me think about what he was saying. “Look around this dining room,” he laughed. “Where is America? I only see Europe everywhere!” At that moment, it was a bolt out of the blue. My eyes darted around my dining room, and I saw he was

An American outpost

right. He started making gestures with his hands, pointing and exclaiming. “Look! The tapestry from Belgium, the shelf from the Netherlands, the Venetian masks from Italy, the painted cupboard from Germany.” I feebly noted that the tablecloth and napkins had been purchased online from ‘Kohl’s.’ Bill pointed to a wooden plaque with a scene of Williamsburg that I had painted years ago saying, “that’s American!” But my neighbor had hit a nerve. Have I become so Europeanized? Did I prefer apple strudel over apple pie? When it’s time to go home, will I fit in back in the land of my birth and mother tongue? Only time will tell. And when the next chapter of our lives begins, my dining room will once again look like Europe, but in Idaho.

Welcome to our home

The experience did make me reflect on all the blessings Bill and I have, as perhaps we should reflect on Thanksgiving. We hope that all of you that read our little posts about our adventures have much to be thankful for as well.

Next week, we’ll be back to our regularly-scheduled program, with a post about Christmas in Europe. It really is a season here and not a shopping marathon. We’ll tell you all about the opening of the Wiesbaden Christmas Market, which included flying angels, no less!

A Visit to Bayreuth

Beer and opera. You might not think they go together but they are two passions that have done much to make the city of Bayreuth, Germany famous. We visited Bayreuth (pronounced approximately “bye-roit”) recently and had a great time. We wanted to share some of our thoughts and observations.

Neues Schloss

Bayreuth is a lovely city in northern Bavaria known mostly for its association with the composers Richard Wagner and Franz Liszt (with the heavy emphasis on Wagner). Wagner always made me think of beefy blonde women wearing bronze breast plates and horned helmets. He is most famous for epic operas, including the butt numbing four-part, 18-hour Ring Cycle. If you’re a fan of the old Warner Brothers cartoons, you might recall Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny starring as Siegfried and Brünnhilde in a somewhat abbreviated Ring. Throughout the city you could see diminutive Wagner statues about 4 feet high in various bright colors with his arms raised as if conducting. The annual Wagner Festival brings tens of thousands of fans to the small city each summer. The average time on the wait list for tickets is anywhere from 5-10 years. Not a problem for us. If we ever feel a Wagner urge, a CD is just fine and we can take breaks whenever we like.

Inside the opera house

One of the most impressive buildings in the city is the Margravial Opera House which dates back to mid-18th century (Trivia note: Margrave is a noble title roughly equivalent to an English Marquess—higher than an Earl, lower than a Duke). I have wanted to see the opera house here for years and it was one of two main reasons I wanted to visit Bayreuth. The baroque interior was exquisitely painted to make virtually all the interior surfaces look three dimensional. You can imagine my disappointment when we arrived and found the opera house undergoing a complete restoration. The years have not been kind to this beautiful building. Updates to the heating and air conditioning over time have taken their toll on the wood as well as the paint. The restoration is a massive undertaking which will take years to complete. The latest estimate now is 2018. Fortunately, we were able to get inside and see a lot of the interior, all though it wasn’t exactly “cleaned up for company.” We at least got to see enough to allow us to appreciate the grandeur of this historic building.

A typical Bayreuth street

Another reason for our visit was to fulfill one of Bill’s dreams, which was to tour the Maisel Brewery. If you are a lover of Weizen-type beers, you have probably heard of Maisel. Actually, Bill is not a big fan of wheat beers in general but he has a deep and abiding fondness for another of their products—an obscure brew called Maisel Dampfbier. German dampfbier (translation: steam beer) is pretty hard to find, even here in the Fatherland but it’s worth the search. I won’t get into the geeky technical details, but suffice to say it’s tasty. Sadly, even Maisel doesn’t brew much of it anymore and when we asked our tour guide, she didn’t know what it was. In her defense, it was only her second day on the job. And she made

The old Maisel brewery

up for any shortcomings by giving us all a beer in a glass approximately the size of my leg. You can see the company’s logo emblazoned on signs hanging in front of restaurants and bars throughout the city. The Guinness Book of World Records “Most Comprehensive Beer Museum” occupies the original brewery building (taken out of commission in the 1970s). The 90-minute tour covered the entire brewing process, and we enjoyed the tour very much even though it was completely conducted in German. Luckily beer needs no translation!

We stayed at the Goldener Löwe (Golden Lion) where the owners prided themselves on their homemade marmalades and jams that they served at breakfast. They were delicious and the breakfast certainly lived up to the billing. Our room was quite comfortable but very small. And we couldn’t beat the location. It was right next door to the Brewery!

We spent a lovely day roaming around the Neues Schloss (New Palace) with its imposing fountain out front and spectacular rooms inside. I suppose some people get tired of wandering through lavish baroque palaces decorated liberally with paintings and sculptures that they remember seeing in books and magazines throughout most of their lives. We don’t. The Neues Schloss was marvelous and touring it softened the blow of the opera house renovation.

At the Old Palace

Nearer the heart of the city, we roamed around the outside of the imposing “Old Palace” with its red and white façade adorned with more than 60 carved medallion heads. Try as we might, we couldn’t seem to find an entrance. We spotted many a sign that proclaimed it did not mark the longed-for entrance. We came to the conclusion that it must have been turned into administrative offices.

The architecture and the main thoroughfare made for some delightful wandering and it didn’t hurt that there was a flea market taking place while we were there. Although about a third of Bayreuth was destroyed in WWII, it was rebuilt and it still retains much of the beautiful Baroque architectural style of its past. It was well worth a visit.

Friesland Finale

This will be our third and final post (for now) about the wonderful province of Friesland in the Netherlands. Last time, we talked about our stay in Bolsward and our visit to the delightful fishing village of Hindeloopen. Now we will venture forth to the towns of Workum and Sneek. As with Bolsward and Hindeloopen, they too were filled with lovely historic architecture, waterways, drawbridges, and happy, fit, contented Dutch people.

St. Gertrudiskerk

The town of Workum is surrounded by water and meadows with traditional Dutch windmills dotting the landscape as they turn in the sea breeze. The newer, less pretty windmills are also sprouting up but I guess that’s progress. Workum’s a very pleasant place that was, until the early eighteenth century, a busy seaport. It has a nice little main street with a few shops that seem to cater to tourists and seafaring types. There is a quaint little square where St Gertrudiskerk, Friesland’s largest medieval church, stands with its prominent massive bell tower. It is quite a small town, although there is a lot worth seeing. We were able to walk from one end to the other in about 30 minutes, and we were taking our time. We spent a little extra time strolling around the boat docks and enjoying the blue skies and sunshine before we hit the road for Sneek.

A typical waterfront scene

As opposed to Workum, Sneek (pronounced “snake,” like the reptile) is a bustling city filled with wonderful historic neighborhoods and plenty of places to shop or pop in for a bite and a tasty Dutch beer. When most people think of Dutch beer, their world-famous light lagers tend to spring to mind. But The Netherlands has a rich brewing tradition and produces many varieties that compare favorably with those of Belgium, their near neighbor. Sneek is generally considered to be the tourist capital of Friesland. They are extremely proud of their heritage and have a superb museum dedicated to the area’s nautical history. The Fries Scheepvaart Museum chronicles the maritime history of the area. There is something for everyone. Ship models, paintings, maps, navigational devices, weaponry, globes, and more can be seen. It’s well worth a visit even if you are strictly a landlubber.

Rush hour

You need to be patient when crossing streets while wandering in a city like Sneek, where the canals compete with the roads for transportation. We found ourselves quite often surrounded by pedestrians and bicyclists waiting at intersections because the oncoming traffic was from boats that required the raising of a drawbridge. Not exactly something you

The Water Gate

see in downtown Los Angeles. The heaviest water traffic stops took place near the double towered Rijksmonument Waterpoort (Water Gate). It looks like a castle with a bridge that goes across the canal. It’s also a great place to take photos and watch the local version of rush hour. We stood there amazed as we watched residents in little motorboats transporting their bags of groceries home in the back of their launches.

The tourist information office has come up with a slightly off-kilter and amusing video on their site to promote Friesland and Sneek. It’s worth

The long road home

watching. It feels a bit like a cross between Money Python and a Dutch version of James Joyce’s Ulysses. It’s a quirky stream of consciousness, narrated by someone who sounds like he picked up a pack of smokes in Amsterdam before his recording session. Be sure to check it

out at http://www.sneekholland.nl/en/. Even if you never plan to visit Friesland, you should watch their tourism video. Just click on the ‘play’ icon that shows a winsome lass in a skimpy bikini leaning forward on a horse. Need I say more? Actually, it’s all rather clever and informative. These are people who know how to poke a little fun at themselves.

A street (?) scene in Sneek

The pace of life in that part of the country is worth trying to emulate. Everywhere we went, locals were just enjoying life. All the towns we visited were so clean, you could eat off the cobblestones. Whole families were out riding their bikes together and nary a helmet on anyone. Wherever we looked, there was no trash, no graffiti, no excessive piercings, and no visible tattoos on any of the very well-scrubbed young people. In the evening everyone would be out drinking coffee or having a meal in an outdoor café while a singer performed for the customers and anyone else within earshot. We both agreed that we wanted this life, if only we wouldn’t have to speak Dutch. The Dutch language is very closely related to English and as we pointed out previously, the Frisian variety is even closer. If you close your eyes and ignore the actual words, it even sounds a lot like English—that is if English were being spoken in a parallel universe, and backwards, using random words. But just about everyone we encountered spoke English nearly as well as we did, and they were invariably very friendly. We loved every moment of our visits to Friesland and we plan to spend even more time exploring this marvelous region.