Sunday, February 12, 2012


Spain has been on our (ok, my) to-do list for a while now.  However, traveling there presents some challenges.  Since its climate is similar to Italy, it is on our no-travel between the months of June and September list.  With so many other places on the list, Spain has been skipped during the cold months.  We finally squeezed Barcelona in during the long weekend in January when the weather was cool, the crowds minimal and the deals on flights/hotels generous.

I've heard many people say that they love Barcelona.  While it was a fun city with some interesting sites, I can't say that it was one of my favorites.  It lacks many spectacular must-sees (exception: La Sagrada Familia), it feels like a very modern city and its food is less than impressive. (Side note: I was so excited to speak some limited Spanish after my many years of the language, only to realize that Catalan is more's a weird mix of French and Spanish and all the signs are in both languages.)  On the flip side, it does have a wonderful public train system, some funky buildings unlike any others in Europe and a nice mix of beach and city.

Spain in January?  Works for me!

Due to the flight schedule, we had a quick trip to Barcelona, but we made the most of it.

On day one, we hit the Ramblas and rambled down the famous street lined with vendors and shops.  I wouldn't quite compare this grand boulevard to the Champs de Elysee or the Unter den Linden, but it did have some interesting human statues and a great market selling some of the nastiest animal parts that I've ever seen.  I may have even been hit with some fish guts as one vendor hacked his catch as we passed by.

Fascinating Market off Las Ramblas with some crazy meats!

We toured the older section of town and stopped by the Cathedral.  Luckily, we were there when the Cathedral did not charge an entry fee.  I still can't figure out who would pay to go in- the church is under massive construction and it looks like most of the art has been removed.

While pretty from the outside, there's not much art inside

We jammed as much as we could into day two.  The day began with a walk down the Passeig de Gracia to the famous modernista sites of Antoni Gaudi.

I was much more impressed with Casa Batllo than Casa Mila, although both were interesting sites.

Casa Mila

Casa Batllo

From there, we hiked over to La Sagrada Familia.  While the church is certainly a tourist attraction, it is captivating and every angle offers a new and different perspective.  A nice American from Phoenix even offered to take our picture.

Tough angle for our tripod- thanks American Man!

Close-up of some of the detail on the church

Next, we headed to Park Guell- a former gated community for the wealthy designed by Gaudi.  It's a fascinating place and completely free. We spent a good deal of time walking the ground, admiring the views and even trying out the ergonomically designed park benches.  I highly recommend this site to anyone traveling to Barcelona-  it's worth the slight adventure to get there (it's a little out the way).

Views of the park and city
Flowers in January!

Entrance to Park Guell

We made a compromise on the next two sites- I agreed to go to the aquarium in exchange for a trip to Montjuic, the site of the 1992 Summer Olympics.  The exchange worked wonderfully.

Here I am outside the Olympic Stadium where I remember watching the opening games on television.  I still have the Dream Team poster I bought at a school book fair in its plastic wrapping.  (Could it be worth something now?)

My Olympic Dream

We ended the day walking around the grounds of the Catalan Art Museum (Museu Nacional d'Art de Catalunya).

Sadly, the magic fountains were off in the winter.

Barcelona ended up being a brief introduction to Spain, but I'd love to come back (not between June-October) to experience more of the country.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

2012 in Zagreb

It should come as no surprise that we ended 2011 in our newly discovered favorite part of Europe- the East!  While we have been to Croatia twice before, we had never ventured to its capital city - Zagreb - and decided that it would be a good destination the celebrate the New Year.

It was a relatively easy place to travel and only required a four hour drive through most of Slovenia.  We have not yet explored Eastern Slovenia, so the ride was picturesque- a nice mix of rural land and some mountains with traditional Slovenian homes all along the road.

I'd heard some not so great things about Zagreb in my travels and noticed that it does not get much attention in guide books.  I also discussed the trip with a co-worker who was surprised that this was our New Year's destination since it was the location of his deployment with the Army back in the 1990s. 

Zagreb was a pleasant surprise.  Like much of Eastern Europe, it's recovering from a tumultuous past, but it has wonderful sites, kind people and cheap prices.

Ringing in the New Year in Zagreb

We met up with some friends (from here in Italy who traveled there for New Years too) for dinner at an Asian restaurant.  Not sure what kind of Asian cuisine it was, but I was happy to be celebrating like an American!  The restaurant even gave us free calendars.  

I haven't seen one of these since I was little!

After dinner, we headed to Ban Jelacic Square, the main site in town.  There were a variety of tents and booths set up serving food and drinks and live bands alternated on the stage.  Interestingly, a lot of the music they sang was in English and we particularly enjoyed their rendition of Sinatra's "New York, New York."  They occasionally changed the words to Zagreb, Zagreb.  The drink of choice was also new to me.  While hot red wine is very common in Europe during the winter, this was the first time I was treated to hot white wine.  It was a nice compliment to the chilly evening.

Ban Jelacic Square- it got very crowded by midnight
At midnight, we were treated to a fireworks display and somehow found our way into an invite only party at a new nightclub....where they guessed it- more American music about New York!  When "Empire State of Mind" came on, the Croatians sang along to the chorus, but none of them could keep up with the rapping.

On New Year's Day (after the second best buffet breakfast we've had in Europe), it was time to explore the city.  While it's low on major sites, Zagreb does offer some lovely churches

The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary

Dolac Market (not a church, but an important site in Zagreb)

St. Mark's with its colored roof
A great view

The view from Gradec
And a picturesque market street where we had a great dinner


Finally, in case this is ever a question on Jeopardy- Croatia claims that it invented the necktie, and it likes to remind you at every opportunity!

Neckties- a fashion trend invented by the Croatian Army

Happy 2012!

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Christmas Road Trip

Since the Christmas season is just about officially over (even here in Italy), I figure it's about time for a recap of our holiday adventures.  It is difficult to travel to any touristy sites here in Europe for Christmas since many things are closed and the usually cheap intra-Europe flights are pretty expensive, so we decided to road trip to visit our friends who live in Heidelberg, Germany.  Although we visited Heidelberg last year for New Year's, we decided to take our time driving and hit up a few spots on the way.
Shop windows in Germany

Stop One: Luzern, Switzerland

Unfortunately, the weather was very uncooperative on our trip here and prevented us from doing any site seeing.  We arrived at night and had enough time to grab dinner.  The combination of wind and freezing rain was not at all enjoyable and we did not get to check out much of the town.  We will be back.

Some rough weather made for far too few Swiss pictures.
On the plus side, we did discover a hidden gem of a hotel.  High above Lake Luzern, this hotel is currently undergoing renovations and will likely be expensive some day soon.  In the meantime, it is a real bargain!  Our room was easily the biggest one we've had in Europe, complete with a balcony overlooking the lake.
Unfortunately, this was the best shot of the view.

Stop Two: Strasbourg, France

We took a quick detour into France on day two to experience the oldest Christmas Market in all of Europe.  Strasbourg is the self-proclaimed "Capital of Christmas" and it comes as no surprise.  The city was packed with vendors, decorations and all sorts of Christmas cheer.

Christmas in France
If you ever get the chance to visit Strasbourg outside of Christmas, I highly recommend it.  It's a delightful town just over the Rhine River (the river is the border between Germany & France) with lots of Germanic flair and French charm.  Back in the day, the French and Germans frequently swapped this land because they both disagreed on their country's borders.  Now, it's a cute and quaint town with lots of unique architecture, a ton of bicycles and a massive cathedral.  Ironically, it's sister city in the US happens to be Boston (which probably explains why I liked it so much!). 

Christmas Market Vendors

Strasbourg Cathedral

Christmas Everywhere!

The streets of Strasbourg

Oldest Christmas Market in Europe!

Pretty buildings


 Destination: Heidelberg, Germany

Ending 2011 in the same place we started it!

We arrived in Heidelberg on Christmas Eve and caught up with our friends- the Gonzales'.  We met the Gonzales' in North Carolina a few years ago and they are now stationed in Germany.  In the past year, their family has grown and this was the first time we got to meet their six-month old son and reunite with their English bulldog puppy.  We spent the evening walking the streets of downtown Heidelberg, which were pretty empty since Germans celebrate Christmas on the 24th.  Most shops were closed and the restaurant we ate at was closing as we left.

Heidelberg's oldest building....quiet on Christmas Eve

Christmas Day was relaxing and quiet as we enjoyed watching the baby open his gifts (he's now a huge Red Sox fan!), the generosity of our hosts and some delicious cooking.

Although we missed our families back home, it was nice to be in the company of our friends overseas who were wonderful hosts throughout the weekend.  Last year, we had an Italian Christmas, this year a German one and hopefully soon, the rest will be in Quincy!

Buon Natale, Joyeux Noel, Froehliche Weihnachten & Merry Christmas!

**Side note- As a sign that the above Christmas wish is meant to come true, we ended up behind a car with Massachusetts license plates when we crossed the Swiss border on our drive back.  What are the odds of that!? (And who knew you could drive in Europe with US plates?)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Go East

This post is long overdue, but that can be attributed to a massive home internet outage, visitors from home and then a Thanksgiving trip across the pond.  Our trip to Krakow, Poland happened almost two months ago now, but there's still lots to talk about.

Welcome to Polska

If I haven't discussed our love of travel to Eastern Europe...I will say it again- we love Eastern Europe.  And Krakow might just be the most "Eastern" place we've been yet.  It was a little rough around the edges, but the historic center of the city was very charming and picturesque.

Here's a brief recap of our adventures in Poland:

A visit to Wawel Hill, site of the Wawel Cathedral where lots of famous Poles are buried (think Westminster Abbey)...

The front of Wawel Hill

Is this Italy?  No!  It's a Renaissance Courtyard at Wawel Hill.

 Walking around Market Square complete with St. Mary's Basilica and the Cloth Hall...

The two different spires really catch your eye.

Cloth Hall at dusk

Viewing the former residence of the "Greatest Pole" aka Pope John Paul II...

JP II We <3 U!

And also a trip to Auschwitz-Birkenau.  (While obviously a very emotional place, the tour guides are extremely informative and the site is an expansive museum with very touching memorials and exhibits).

The train tracks at Birkenau

The gate at Auschwitz
The highlight of our trip to Poland (and I can't believe I don't have pictures) was our private room for watching the Patriots/Jets game at the only sports bar in Krakow to show the NFL.  Oh, and our $16 bar tab after buying drinks for the entire game so they'd let us stay.

Did I mention Poland is awesomely cheap?  I obviously can't wait to go back.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011


It's been a busy fall here in Italy.  Temperatures have finally started to drop and even the leaves are changing color.  It's not New England foliage, but we'll take the burnt yellows here and there.

Fall is synonymous with Oktoberfest and of course, most Americans want to travel to Germany to experience the renown beer festival held annually in Munich.  Although we were actually suppose to go to this event (blame me...I had to work the weekend we planned to go), we found a suitable alternative.

Beer & Pretzels- Both GF!

Just outside of Munich to the northeast lies the suburb of Aschheim.  This small town is not only home to the BMW test track, it also hosts a Gluten-Free Oktoberfest!  How could we not go?

Signs demanding GF nutrition-  This place is for me!
After a long 5+ hour drive, we arrived at the local civic center for the festival, which was hosted by the Celiac Society of Bavaria.  It was primarily reserved for local Germans and when we arrived speaking English and from the US, the event organizers were shocked.  How did we find out about this?  Why were we here?  Did we come all the way from the US just for this event?  While in line for some delicious food, we spoke to a German man who, upon learning that we were American, asked if we had found a "cure" for Celiac Disease yet.  If anyone would have it, it would be the Americans, he argued.  I didn't want to tell him that GF living in Europe seems a lot better than in the US.
I could get used to this!

Speaking of the food, the Munich Dietician School was on hand serving delicious GF schnitzel and strudel.

Delicious Food

While this was certainly not a rowdy event like the famous Oktoberfest is portrayed, it was certainly authentic.  An oompah band played on stage and men and women dressed in lederhosen and dirndls.

Very authentic...

The festival was also a chance for many gluten free vendors to sell their products and I left with samples of many new treats, a GF cookbook in German (it has nice pictures and it was free) and snacks made by my favorite GF brand of all- Schar!
Look at all my goodies!

After the festival, we ventured back through Austria and visited the town of Hart im Zillertal.  While this small town is nothing more than a church, school, hotel and some homes, we were passing right through our namesake and decided we had to stop for some good photos.  It was a beautiful day and the views and surroundings were worth the effort.

Cemetery in Hart

Willkommen in Hart!

From Hart, we ventured to Innsbruck, Austria- a favorite small city of ours.  Although we've been to Innsbruck before, we decided it was a good stopping point for the night.  After a brief stroll through the city, we headed to one of our favorite European restaurants and enjoyed some more good food.

The Golden Roof in Innsbruck

While we didn't make it to Munich for the spectacle of Oktoberfest, we certainly experienced our own local and more authentic celebration of German (and Gluten-Free) delicacies!