Making the Ultimate Sacrifice

With the U.S. Thanksgiving holiday approaching, it is quite fitting that Veteran’s Day is also observed in the same month.  To the thousands of women and men who give and have given so much to their country, I say Thank You.  Especially to my father, my favorite veteran.

Last June, G and I spent a weekend in the Normandy region of France.  Resting on a bluff above the beaches is the Normandy American National Cemetery & Memorial, appropriately the largest American cemetery in Europe.  It cradles the graves of 9,387 American soldiers which include 41 pairs of brothers.  There is also a memorial to 1,557 soldiers who were never found.  Upon entering the cemetery, you are led on a short walk surrounded by trees.  As you round the corner and look to your left, the initial sight of thousands of grave markers stretched out for acres is one of the most sobering feelings I have ever experienced.  Then, it’s hard to compose yourself as you look to your right.  Omaha Beach is serene and the tide quietly laps at the shoreline.  Yet 66 years ago, it was where many gave all.

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Vernazza, Cinque Terre ~ Italy

The last two days in Amsterdam have been beautiful crisp sunny days.    Days like this are rare as October tends to be a generally wet month leading up to the very soggy months of November and December.  We rolled our clocks back this past weekend and the days are now terribly short.  So when the sun peeks out, your spirits are lifted and you soak up every moment of golden goodness allowed by the ticking clock…because you know it’s only a matter of time before the typical fall Dutch weather rears its dreary head.

And that’s what I woke up to early this morning.  Clouds of dense fog hovering in the street as if perfectly placed for a Halloween party.  The sky is so grey I find is hard to believe the sun could actually exist beyond those layers of gloominess.  And you wonder if any minute now, the rain will begin to fall making you a wet mess on your bike with no way to seek cover.

But that’s not what this post is about.  While trying to perk myself up with my morning coffee, I read about the devastating rain storms which struck Vernazza just a few days ago.  It immediately put my “dreary” morning into perspective. To many people, it’s another freak accident procured by Mother Nature.  I realize there are natural disasters occurring at any given moment around the world.  But when you read about a town where you spent time and created memories, it tugs at your heartstrings in a completely different way.

Courtesy of the Wandering Italy Website

Before moving to Amsterdam, I heard small bits about the Cinque Terre region of Italy.   Once I moved here, it didn’t take long to meet handfuls of people who raved about the amazing hiking trails, picturesque villages, and breathtaking views.  We spent two [short] days in Cinque Terre during our summer holiday in Italy.  We stayed in Monterosso al Mare and made the round trip hike to Vernazza on the last day of our vacation.  The heat was in full swing by the end of July and I was happy to be burning the countless calories I had consumed in Lake Como, Florence, & Tuscany.  The hike exceeded my expectations and I made a mental note that this was a place I wanted to revisit in my future travels.

Cinque Terre (The Five Lands) is composed of five small villages nestled in the cliffs and overlooking the Mediterranean.  Monterosso al Mare, Vernazza, Corniglia, Manarola, & Riomaggiore. Due to the topography of this area, it’s difficult to reach by car.  The suggested mode of transportation is to hike (some are more of a leisure walk) from town to town.  Trains also run frequently along the coast line; however, I think it robs you of an experience unique to Cinque Terre.

The damage caused by the storm and landslide are still fresh.  While clean up is the immediate focus, I have faith that rebuilding and recovery will follow close behind.  And hopefully the tourists will too.  Just like New Orleans, it’s just too beautiful and unique to let it become a ghost town—as some Vernazza residents already fear.  

Click here to read more from travel expert Rick Steeves’.  And here for a before/after slideshow.

I am awestruck by the force of Mother Nature and what she can do in mere moments.  Just a few months ago, we walking around this area snacking on pizza and gelato before hiking back to Monterosso.

Click here or here for clips on You Tube. 

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En route to Varenna, Lake Como

 

[July 9, 2010]

Day 2

A quick breakfast, a stop at the local bodega for provisions and we are on the road—Lake Como or bust!  It wasn’t long before we hit the Swiss border and we could sense the Italian Lakes getting closer.  While August is typically a busy month for many Europeans to take holiday, it was quite obvious several were getting a jump start in July.  Nearly every other vehicle from The Netherlands, Belgium, or France had in tow either a camper, a set of bicycles, a roof box, or all of the above.

Once through the queue and across the Swiss border, the scenery was lush and mountainous.  Quite a change in topography having come from the Dutch “low lands”.  Driving through the Swiss Alps also meant navigating long dark tunnels (usually backed up with traffic) in order to slice through the terrain.  Day 2 of this stop-and-go traffic was again unkind to G’s feet enduring several crawling hours of clutch-brake-gas-clutch-gas-gas-clutch-brake-clutch-brake-gas-clutch-brake.

As signs for Lugano were appearing, we were soon rewarded with our first glimpse of the Italian Lakes with sunny views of Lake Lugano.  Lake Lugano splits the Swiss/Italian border and soon after crossing we had some extremely narrow and winding streets with high stone walls which no U.S. SUV would have cleared and retained both side view mirrors.  Continuing east-ish, we wriggled down the hill to reach the ferry landing at Menaggio on the western shore of Lake Como.  G brought the car to the queue while I purchased a ticket to cross the lake on the next ferry to Varenna.  Having been sheltered in the cool A/C of the car for several hours, I nearly melted when I went to the ticket window.  WOW, it’s hot here.

We were the last car to squeak in on the ferry and the cool breeze during the ride across was more than welcome as we stood on the deck and soaked up the panoramic views as we crossed the heart of Lake Como.  In about 15 minutes we arrived in Varenna.  Our next challenge was managing 10 hairpin turns (G calls them switchbacks) to whirl up the hill and reach our apartment.  We were both a bit nauseous from the twists and turns; but when we walked in, the views to accompany our home cooked meal were more than worth it.

Ciao,

R&G

*pardon fuzzy fotos from moving vehicle*

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On the road again…

[July 8, 2011]

Day 1

We have hit the road for our long summer holiday. Long both in length and driving distance. This trip brings us again to a few picturesque areas (with great food and wine of course!) in a country we’ve yet to explore together…Italia! First stop is Lake Como, followed by Florence, and wrapped up with a weekend in Cinque Terre. Fortunately there will be a lot of walking and biking to burn all the wonderful calories we plan to consume.

Friday afternoon began our traffic filled stop-and-go drive to our half-way point:  Strasbourg, France. Strasbourg is just over the German border and well known for their Christmas markets. Spending barely over 12 hours in Strasbourg, we managed to squeeze in a great meal, a post dinner walk through the center, and a few winks of sleep.

Hopefully I’ll stay a bit more timely with updates about this trip than I did with our excursion in northern Spain last summer. Here are a few shots from Strasbourg. More to come as we eat our way through Italy!

Ciao,

R&G

Crossing the bridge into "Petite-France"

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg

Cathédrale Notre-Dame-de-Strasbourg

Walking off dinner

Family comes to town

After a very long hiatus from my blog, I am now trying to catch up with several overdue posts! Despite many rainy days over here, somehow those fun rainy day projects were upstaged by tasks of must-do-now. G’s parents recently came for a visit and we managed to squeeze in 4 countries in just 12 days. Whew!

As usual, I’ve taken more photos that I can manage to organize as one trip ends and I’m frantically getting ready and planning for the next one. For now, here’s a quick peek at some of our excursions in the Netherlands, Scotland, Germany, and Belgium with Kathy & Roy. Enjoy the slideshow…more to come soon.

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German Christmas Markets


It’s Epiphany!  For some of you (like my nanay) it’s the day the Three Wise Men ended their journey in Bethlehem.  The Christmas season has concluded and it’s time to take the tree down.  For those of you in my beloved New Orleans, its Twelfth Night, y’all and the Carnival season has begun.  Did your slice of king cake have a baby in it today?  Ohhhh, how I miss the king cake!!!  And if you’re in Amsterdam, it was another typical Dutch day biking around in the rain.  While the baked good here are super lekker, it’s the land of licorice and stroopwafels so not a king cake in sight.  And with the New Year holiday now behind us, the oliebollens and appelflappens stands left town with the holiday tourists.

As every holiday owns a unique tradition, Germany is THE place to go to experience the authentic Christmas Markets.  My first visit to Germany was five years ago for a business trip.  It was during the month of November and while the States where preparing for Thanksgiving, Germany was gearing up for their Christmas markets.  Our client took us to dinner in a medieval town called Rothenburg.  It sounds cheesy, but it was like I stepped into a European snow globe.  With timber homes,  cobblestone streets and beautiful decor, I felt like I traveled back in time by a few hundred years.  Our client told us, “You should see it when the markets are here.”  Sadly, I had to return to the States before I had that opportunity, but mentally added the German Christmas Markets to my Bucket/Travel List.

Five years later, I was finally going to cross it off the list.  Or not.  Well maybe.  Or maybe not.  Two weekends before Christmas, major snow storms were sweeping through Germany and travel by car or train was not looking very optimistic.  We decided to make a game time decision on Saturday morning, but hotel choices were becoming scarce.  On Saturday morning, the weather looked better and we were muti-tasking with showers, packing, and hotel searching.  We buzzed our friends A&A and they were game to join our last minute excursion.  With an overnight bag packed and a not-our-first-or-second-choice-but-you-have-availability-so-we’ll-take-it-room, we were off to Cologne.

 

The drive was pretty smooth until the outskirts of Cologne.  Apparently I wasn’t the only one determined to hit the markets this weekend.  It was such a tease as we were so close, but yet stuck in bumper to bumper traffic.  Our first mug of glühwein was well deserved.  While it didn’t make the list of my Top 10 favorite drinks, it did mean we had finally arrived and the warm spiced wine ignited my Christmas spirit.   Our first market stop was in the town center at the Cologne Cathedral.  Here I made another mental note to return to Cologne and appreciate the history the city had to offer beyond the markets.

It was a bit of madness with thousands of people mashed into the city center.  But we made our way around to eat, drink, shop, and eat and drink more.  The next stop was the Alter Market where we found live Christmas music, gifts for our family, and a bier garten—for more, food, drink, and a thankfully a spot to sit down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next morning, we stopped at a few other markets in Cologne before driving to the town of Aachen. Not surprising, it was pretty crowded as well and after a few hours we all felt like pinballs bouncing around nonstop.  The guys were shopped out and it was time to make the drive home. 

 

When I lived in NYC, no one batted an eye if your day involved activities throughout New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut.  The Netherlands, Germany, and Belgium are not much different…except for the fact you can say you were in three countries in one day rather than three states.  We would be hungry for dinner long before we reached Amsterdam and agreed that a slight detour to Antwerp, Belgium was a perfect idea.  G and I love the Kathedraalcafe just off the Grote Markt and after several bratwurst sandwiches; we were keen to some seafood.  With happy bellies, we had a quick peek at the Christmas markets and then piled in the car for the trek home.

Special thanks to A&A for contributing photos.  Click here to see a full slideshow.  Tot Ziens!

Good Times!

 

 

Road trip to Poland?

Not quite, but a road trip to Nijkerk can fill your fix for Polish Pottery.  What is Polish Pottery?  That was the same thing I asked about nine months ago when said pottery was placed on the table proudly displaying some cheese and crackers.

“Ohhhhh, I love that pattern! I want that piece for my Polish Pottery collection too.”, I heard.

Uh-oh…not only is our house sans Polish Pottery, but I don’t even know what it is.  Dare I ask my new found ex-pat girlfriends?  At the time, I was the “new-kid-in-the-country” and trying my best to assimilate with both the Dutch locals and US ex-pats.  Might I not be asked to host an afternoon of Mah Jongg if I didn’t posses Polish Pottery, I wondered?  Fortunately the girls were happy (G not so happy) to introduce me to the world of Polish Pottery.

Polish Pottery is the famous hand-made pottery from the small town of Boleslawiec, located in the southwest of Poland. It’s made from stoneware clay that is locally harvested, only sold to the Polish Pottery factories and fires white. The pottery is heavy duty, lead-free, and oven/dishwasher/freezer/microwave-safe.  But most importantly, fun colors and beautiful patterns!

I had no idea this pottery dated back hundreds of years.  Here’s a bit of history courtesy of the Zaklady Ceramiczne “Boleslawiec” factory:

The present high standing of Boleslawiec Ceramics stems from seven centuries of work by local craftsmen and artists of pottery. The oldest pieces of Boleslawiec pottery that are still in existence, date back to the first half of the 16th century and bear distinctive features of the Renaissance style. The technique of decorating underneath the glaze began with the age of Baroque.

Growing popularity of Boleslawiec Ceramics stimulated demand which in turn led to the growing number of manufacturers set up to produce pottery. The punch technique remained the basic decorative technique. Rising fame of original Boleslawiec Ceramics, which differed in style from china and yet was considered equally refined, made it possible to increase the volumes of production and, consequently, in the middle of the 19th century, Boleslawiec became the center of the ceramic industry in central Europe.

 

Warehouse was actually packed today and harder to navigate

In Nijkerk, there is a distributor open on various Fridays.  My first trip in May was unbelievably overwhelming.  Shelves are stacked to the ceiling and endless rows to sift through.  I didn’t know where to start and in the back of my head I heard G saying “you realize there is only so much kitchen space when we move back to NYC”.  I think I actually walked around for an hour before I even picked a piece up.  I finally left with 2 mugs, a small oval casserole, and 2 serving bowls for less than 100E.  The hardest part was picking a pattern(s), then finding the pieces you want in that pattern(s).  I guess this something similar to what my friend’s went through when doing bridal registries…it’s quite fun, but very overwhelming.

 

AFW makes a last minute pattern change

Sometimes you have to dig in boxes to find your prize

As of today, I now have three trips under my belt, but still keep purchases to a minimum as we “don’t know where we will put it when we are back in NYC”.  And with Nijkerk  ~65km away, my stick-shift driving skills are getting much needed practice.

 

 

A new bowl with each trip

Bubble Mugs...perfect for the cold winter days ahead.