Sunday, April 14, 2013

Here, There, and the Alsace

As you know from the previous post, my sister Kristin and her husband Richie were able to come to visit us again for almost two weeks.  We had a wonderful first week with a trip to a castle, Cologne, and Bruges.  We drove home from Bruges via Luxembourg on Good Friday.

After such a busy trip, we took it easy on Saturday of week two.  It was cold and dreary, so it was a good day to relax!  We made a trip to the grocery store to buy the food we would need for our Easter brunch and dinner, and it was a complete mad house!  The stores in Germany were closed on Good Friday, so everyone had to get their shopping in on Saturday.  We found what we needed, and got the heck out of there!  Later that day, we went to the nearby Meilen Werk, which you might remember from when Kyle's family was visiting.  It's kind of a classic car museum/salesroom/garage for rich people.  There are a lot of really cool cars on display from old classics, to new and top of the line models.  We browsed the collection, picking out our dream cars (Richie was more interested in a BMW tractor).  We also stopped in at their brewery for a beer and pretzels.  (Of course they have a brewery; how could they not??)  That evening, despite the cold, we enjoyed dinner on the grill of bratwurst, grilled veggies, and potato salad.

Is this for sale?  I'll take two, please. 
We celebrated a traditional Easter on Sunday.  We went to church and then had a delicious brunch of sausage, German breakfast potatoes, fruit, and mimosas.  What we didn't expect was to see snow on the ground when we woke up!  It was definitely whiter and colder on Easter than it was on Christmas!  We spent the rest of the day relaxing, chatting, and cooking.  For dinner, Kristin and I made a new German recipe called rinderrouladen.  It's very thinly sliced and pounded beef that you stuff, roll, and braise.  We served the rinderrouladen with twice-baked potatoes, spargel (white asparagus, a big deal here) and rolls from the bakery.  It was very good, and the new recipe was a keeper!

There's a story behind our Easter dessert.  My family, for as long as I can remember, always has cake that is shaped like a lamb for dessert on Easter.  I was excited to find out that lamb cake is also a traditional German Easter dessert.  I found and bought a cake mold from the store.  On Saturday, Kristin and I attempted making the cake.  We had a German cake mix, and we did our best to decipher and follow the directions.  We put the cake mix into the mold, and after a minute or two into baking it, we had cake all over the bottom of the oven.  Luckily I had put a piece of foil on the bottom!  We were able to salvage some of the cake mix and make it into cupcakes.  I guess my lamb cake making skills need some tweaking.  But hey, we tried!  Even though there was no lamb cake, it was still wonderful to be with family on Easter!

On Monday we headed out for a quick overnight trip.  We were heading to Strasbourg, France in the northern part of the Alsace wine growing region.  It was a pretty, short drive through the Black Forest and just across the Rhine River is the gorgeous Alsace region.  We started off with a lunch of savory crepes and riesling at a nice outdoor cafe.  We walked around the city and saw the beautiful and impressive Notre Dame cathedral.  (Not THE Notre Dame, but still pretty awesome!)  We walked along the river to a very picturesque area called Petite France.  The Alsace region traded hands a lot between the French and the Germans, so it's a wonderful mix of the two cultures, evident in the food and the architecture.  Petite France definitely shows the German influence with it's quaint half-timbered houses.  We also came upon a very cute Easter market that had vendors selling cheese, jams, cured meats, and hand made gifts.  There were also some really cute farm animals!

Baby goat on his mama goat's back!
After a few hours in Strasbourg, we headed south on the wine road. I am in love with the wine road!  It twists and turns through vineyards and little Disney-esque medieval towns.  The hills of the Black Forest can be seen in the distance on one side as you drive along the foothills of the Vosges on the other side.  Castles and castle-ruins are strategically placed along the hills.  As you drive along the wine road, there are countless tasting rooms for you to go in and try the delightful wines.  The Alsace region is especially known for dry Riesling, Gewürztraminer, Pinot Gris, Muscat, and Pinot Noir.

Free tasting?  Don't mind if I do!
We sampled and purchased a little bit of wine before we reached Ribeauville where we were staying the night.  It was late afternoon, so we still had plenty of sunshine to walk around and enjoy the beautiful little town.  We did wine tastings at a few different places before all of the shops started to close up.  Once the shops were closed and all of the day trippers left around sunset, it felt like we had the town to ourselves.  It was so quiet and peaceful!  We went to a wonderful restaurant for dinner. Kyle and I shared warm goat cheese on a toasted baguette for a starter.  Kristin and Kyle both had quiche Lorraine, which they said was the best that they've ever had.  I had a traditional Alsatian dish of gratin potatoes with smoked ham and cheese.  Richie had beef wrapped in noodles in a creamy sauce.  For dessert Kyle and I split Crème brûlée and Kristin had ginger ice cream in the shape of a pretzel, dipped in chocolate with raspberry sauce.  Dinner was wonderful to the very last bite/drop!

Richie's pic; view from their room

The next day after a breakfast of bread, jam, croissants, and coffee, we continued south on the wine road to the charming little town of Riquewihr.  It has to be one of the cutest towns I've ever seen.  We were there in the morning before it got busy, and you could smell fresh bread and coconut macarons being freshly baked.  The old medieval houses were painted in pastel colors with flowers and Easter decorations in the window boxes.  It was just like a fairy tale village!

From there we headed to the beautiful city of Colmar.  It's a small city with a similar German/French feel of Strasbourg.  It has beautiful canals and nice open market places.  We walked the most scenic parts of town and had lunch before heading home through the Black Forest.  

Spring and Easter market in Colmar with cheerful decorations
Gizmo was not fond of the farm animals.  He wouldn't even look at them after his initial sniff.
Kyle had to work the next day so Kristin, Richie and I took it easy and stayed local.  We went to climb Rubble Hill, or the Birkenkopf (mentioned in previous posts).  It's the highest point in Stuttgart, made out of piled up rubble from WWII.  From there we had a delicious traditional German lunch and then headed to the TV tower.  It's a very tall tower just outside of the city where you can take an elevator to the top for great views.  Too bad the elevator was broken!  Well, I think the elevator was broken.  That's kind of what we gathered from the conversation with a non-English speaker.  We headed for the Ritter Sport cafe instead where we had divine chocolate coffee and cappuccinos.  (I stole these Rubble Hill pics from Richie.)

The next day Kyle had to work again, so the three of us took a little day trip to the Bodensee, as the Germans call it, otherwise known as Lake Constance.  It was an easy 1 hour 45 minute drive down the autobahn to the beautiful lake on the German/Swiss border.  We went to the town of Constance first where we wandered around, saw the sights and walked across the Swiss border.  It seemed like the guards barely even noticed us crossing!  It was pretty grey and cloudy when we first arrived, but as the day went on the sun came out and made a huge difference!  We took the car ferry across the lake to beautiful medieval town of Meersburg.  We walked the narrow hilly streets and had a nice coffee by the lake.  It even got warm enough for me to take off my winter coat!  What a novel idea in the spring!

Proof that we were in Switzerland
On the ferry with the sun coming out

Kristin and Richie headed home on Friday where they were attending a rehearsal dinner that evening, and Richie was part of the wedding party on Saturday.  Hopefully they were coherent enough to do the "YMCA" at the reception!  

We had a wonderful time with Kristin and Richie and we're so glad that they were able to come all the way over here again.  We're definitely looking forward to our visitors coming out this summer and fall!  We love hosting and sharing our fun times with fun people!  

Friday, April 12, 2013

Castles, Cathedrals, and Canals! Oh My!

We were lucky enough to have my sis, Kristin, and her husband, Richie come out for another visit this Spring Break.  (The word "spring" being used very loosely...)  They were here for fall break in October, and it's amazing how it felt like we had seen them so recently!  We had a great time together, saw some amazing sites, and had a lot of good food.  You can't ask for much more than that!

They arrived on a cold Sunday morning, with a little bit of snow on the ground.  (I was so mad about that snow!)  It melted quickly, just like Kyle said it would, and it didn't stop us from doing anything that we had planned for that day.  After a breakfast of cherry almond muffins, Nuremberg sausages with mustard and fruit at our house, we headed out for our first day of site seeing.

We headed to an awesome little castle about 50 minutes south of our house.  Lichtenstein castle is at the top of a hill, overlooking the surrounding countryside and small town below.  It's very picturesque and looks like a miniature Neuschwanstein castle!  The only way that you can go inside the castle is to take a tour that's completely in German.  They gave us information to read as we went that was in English, so we kind of got the gist of the tour.  When the tour guide looked at us as she was talking, we just smiled and nodded.

From there we toured the very nice town of Reutlingen before heading to lunch at our favorite local brewery,  Schönbuch Bräu.  We had a great lunch of German favorites like schnitzel, pommes frites, maultaschen, cheesy spätzle, and of course beer. We headed home after lunch to get ready for our road trip the following day.

When Kris and Richie were here on fall break, they decided that when they came on spring break they'd like to visit Belgium.  We decided on Bruges, which is very close to the North Sea Coast.  It's a bit of a drive to Bruges; about 6 hours.  Conveniently, the halfway point was Cologne ( Köln auf Deutsch), so we stopped there for some touring and to stay over night.  Since we didn't have much time there, we hired a tour guide to show us around and tell us about the main sites.  None of us were aware that Cologne had been a major Roman city, so there is a lot of really cool history there.  The Cologne Cathedral, or the Dom, has been on my list of things to see that I learned about in my art history courses in college, so it was awesome to see it in person.  It is really impressive and dominates the city skyline.  Luckily, it escaped the bombing of WWII with very little damage, even though the train station only about 400 meters away was demolished.

Kris and Richie under a Roman gate into the city
A replica of a spire on top of the cathedral
Every European city has a version of this! 
Enjoying views of the Rhine
Haha...putting on Cologne in Cologne
While we were there, we also had to do some beer tasting!  Cologne is known for the Kolsch, and it did not disappoint!  The Kolsch comes in really small glasses, so we went to several breweries to try out different types.  We called it our Kolsch crawl.  That evening, we couldn't find the restaurant that was recommended to us (as it turns out, it was closed) so we ended up at a  Mexican restaurant.  The food was surprisingly good!  It's not what you would get in the US, but it's the best Mexican food I've head since we've been here!

Kristin and I both bought some Cologne in Cologne the next morning before we drove the last three hours to Bruges.  It is such a beautiful little city!  It's known as the Venice of the north because of the canals that run through the city.  It reminded me a lot of a much smaller and more quaint version of Amsterdam.  The official language in Belgium is French, but in the region that we visited, Flemish is much more common.  Richie had booked us an awesome apartment on a quiet, pedestrian only road that was right on a canal.  We dropped off our stuff, then headed out for our first Belgian treat...waffles!  They were scrumptious!

Lunch on the road, a McBaguette
View from our living room window

After we were happy and full of waffles, we had to move the car to where we could keep it overnight.  We parked it just outside of the historic district, surprisingly for free!  On our walk back, we walked along an area that had several old fashioned windmills along a canal.  I thought we had missed our stop and had found the Netherlands!  We made our way back slowly to the historic district while stopping to enjoy a bit of window shopping of antiques, cafes, bakeries, and chocolate shops.  The chocolate shop windows were decorated beautifully for Easter.  That evening, we spent just enjoying being in the city.  We stopped in a pub for our first of many Belgian beers.  They had over 400 different types of beer!  We all decided to go for a Belgian sampler that came with four different types.  They were all really good, but my favorite was a cherry lambic.  It was sooo delicious!  We ate a good dinner at an Irish pub that night, then headed back to the apartment.

We had a self-guided walking tour planned for the next day that took us through the highlights of town and gave us some historical background.  We started off in the market square where they were holding the weekly farmer's market.  We walked around, admiring the cheese, meats, and mostly the beautiful produce.  We couldn't help but buy a carton of delightfully red strawberries to share before our long climb up the Belfry Tower of Bruges.  It is a medieval carillon tower with a measly 366 steps up a winding stair case to the top.  We thought it was going to be a bit rough, but they had it broken up nicely with different rooms of displays on the way up.  Once we reached the top, we were greeted by the daily carillon bell concert that is played by a guy on a piano looking thing.  It was pretty loud, but very cool.  We had amazing views of the canals and red terracotta roof tops.

Up to the top we go!
Bells of the Belfry
Playing the carillon bells
We continued our walking tour after a good cappuccino at an outdoor cafe. We stopped for lunch at a random little cafe where Kyle said he had the best omelette of his life!  We obviously did some chocolate shopping throughout the tour.  We also took a little boat ride through the small canals that was really nice.  We ended our tour at the Half Moon Brewery, where we chatted with a nice couple from Manchester, England.  We ate dinner that evening at a wonderful little Mediterranean restaurant called The Olive Grove.

The Provinciaal Hof
Cold or not, Europeans enjoy the sun when they can!
Church of Our Lady

Bruges is so close to the North Sea, so it was a must to head out and sea it!  (Haha, sea what I did there?  Kyle's rubbed off on me I guess :-)  We drove out to a protected wildlife and wetlands area right on the coast on the Belgium-Dutch border called Zwin.  We saw some really cool birds like storks and owls.  Right outside of Zwin, we saw these big, weird cow or yak looking things.  Richie googled it when we got home, and they were highland salting cows.  From there we drove along the coast through beautiful old resort towns.  We stopped in a nice town called De Haan where we had some pizza for lunch and checked out the North Sea.  They had a beautiful white beach with a nice promenade.  It was very cold, but there were actually quite a few people out and a couple of groups building sand castles!

Spring break, baby!  Woohoo!!

We headed back to Bruges and headed to an awesome little pub called De Garre down a teeny, tiny alley .  They brewed their own beer that was really good.  It was a place that we never would have found if we had not been told about it!

We were heading home the next day, so we had a nice breakfast at a cafe before leaving.  On our drive home we stopped in a cool town called Namur for lunch.  We kind of chose the town at random, but it was a very nice non-touristy town, complete with a castle.  We took a different route home so that we could also stop at the American cemetery in Luxembourg.  It is on 50 acres of land. just outside of Luxembourg City.  Over 5,000 American soldiers are buried there, most of which died during the Battle of the Bulge in WWII.   The most prominent person buried there is General Patton.  The cemetery was very nicely cared for, and reminded me of a small version of Arlington National cemetery.

After a long ride in the car we, were glad to be home that evening.  We had a wonderful trip, and we were all very impressed with all of the sites and the wonderful food and drink.  Although it was a cold trip, we were extremely lucky to have sunny skies the entire time.

Stay tuned for part two of Kris and Richie's trip, coming soon!