Het Hallerbos

Several weeks ago I stumbled on a forest here in Belgium.

I’ve done a little research on forests before this.  When writing, I always try to find some sort of an element of truth that can be included in my works of fiction.  A story I was working on a year ago needed a forest, and as I currently lived in Belgium, it seemed a good place to start.  There are myths, legends, and everything I wanted for the topic I needed.  I was writing frequently, and then it fizzled out.  The inspiration was gone.

This travel destination wasn’t a part of my research, or anything else interesting.  It wasn’t exactly like stumbling through a wardrobe and into Narnia, so much as seeing a link on Facebook.  Of course, how I found the forest isn’t the story here.  The point of my little babble, is the stories, both how I came to be walking through the forest, and the story I was working on.

Enter Het Hallerbos.  I tried to translate what it meant, but I only came up with ‘The Hallerbos.’

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Most of the year, Het Hallerbos is a normal forest, with hiking and running trails leading you on a run through the great outdoors.

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However, in the spring, this forest near Brussels explodes in bluebells.

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There are sections where you can’t even see the green or brown of the forest floor.

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It was like something out of a fairy tale.  Of course, as that was what I was writing, this was the perfect inspiration.  To be a writer, you need to write, but those words need to come from somewhere.  It’s nice to get out and see the world so I can bring it home with me.

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Pairi Daiza

I once read a silly notion, that is spread on the internet.  It claimed that the surest sign of a happy relationship is no sign of it on Facebook.  I suppose that could easily be spread out to include most forms of social media, and for me, it might be re-written to state the surest sign of a happy life, is no position on the blog.

Yes, I have been gone for a while, but for the most part, it has been because I was happy.  I have been writing, volunteering at my local library, writing, taking pottery classes, writing, traveling, and writing.  This session of Camp NaNoWriMo, I feel as though I fully embraced the idea of working hard not only to complete a novel in a month, but to do work I am proud of.

Of course that hasn’t been all I have done, and isn’t even why I am writing today.  No, with the return of sunshine and warmer weather, I have been struck hard with wanderlust.  It is an almost uncontrollable need to get out and do something, and in truth, I’m not sure I want to control it.  While we have only had time for day trips on the weekend, I think we are making the most of them.  One of the first we took recently, was a trip to Pairi Daiza, a zoo near Brussels.

We first heard about this zoo almost a year ago, as we returned from a trip to Edinburgh.  I may have mentioned before, my family loves to go to the zoo, so we make trips frequently, including one to the Edinburgh zoo.  It was a spur of the moment thing as we were traveling, so we were not aware of the Panda bears who live there.  Unfortunately we were also unaware that seeing the Panda’s required a special ticket, and they had already sold out for the day.  I was desperately disappointed, as I love pandas.  So, when we were walking through the airport in Belgium, waiting to go through immigration (or customs, I don’t remember which) we were excited to see an advertisement for a zoo.  Not only was it right here in Belgium, but the poster had a prominently featured Panda bear.  A little research, and we had it confirmed; there were pandas here in Belgie, and we were going to have to go see them.

Unfortunately, life happened and we simply didn’t get around to it for a long time.  Until last week.  The zoo had just recently reopened for the season, and we were not going to miss it this time.  Let me tell you, I am very glad we didn’t.

First off, the drive from our house wasn’t too bad, until we were about 15 minutes away.  At that point, we turned away from main roads and were driving through small towns on tiny roads that for some reason Europe thinks should be two lane, even if they barely fit one car.  However, as with many of the best things we have found in Europe, the search was well worth it.  Eventually we popped out by the parking lot of a large and very beautiful zoo.  I mean seriously.  It was huge.  The parking lot was at least the size of a football field. However, as it wasn’t very pretty, I didn’t waste my pictures there.

Once inside, we took a few minutes to wander through the petting zoo.

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Goats, sheep, chickens, deer, and one turkey.

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I have no idea what that deer was doing to the turkey, but it almost looked like grooming.  He followed him around for a little while, nibbling at his feathers.

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Big One had no desire to be a part of the feeding, but Little One loved every minute of it.

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We moved on from there where we found miniature mongooses (with the pop up bubble for Little One).

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The otters were enjoying a little breakfast.

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This random peacock, just chilling by the bird show arena.

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All on our way to find the pandas.  Now, this building was actually a noodle house and sushi restaurant.  Not surprising, the sushi was only okay, but still very cool.  The entire area where the pandas lived was beautiful.

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For my family, this place felt like home.  I know, some people are instantly clicking over to look at pictures of me, and yes, I am a pale blonde who grew up in California, but not too long ago, I lived in Okinawa, Japan for eight years.  While Japan and China are in fact very different from each other, the island of Okinawa was actually a part of a trade route, and much of their traditional architecture was more influenced by China than Japan.

Eventually, we passed through this section, and found what I wanted.  Meet Xinghui, the panda.

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This was a very chill panda.  The way he moved, he almost looked like a person in a panda suit. It was very strange.  However, as he lay back going to town on his bamboo, I could completely relate to him.

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I mean, seriously.  This is me watching Netflix.

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If I thought he would remain gentle and cuddly, I would completely invite him over and introduce him to the magic that is in the box.  If he agreed to be the pillow, I would hand him all the bamboo he could eat.

A little ways away was the other panda, Haohao.

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She was a little more active, and wouldn’t stop moving the entire time.  It made it more difficult to get a good picture, but we still had fun telling many, many, many ‘How how does she do that?’ jokes.

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I’m not even embarrassed by that.  I maintain that I am hilarious.

There were a lot of animals, too many for a full breakdown on everything.

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Awww.  Love birds.

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These are just the best pictures, and only a little bit of what they had.  The habitats were huge, and I do mean habitats.  The only places that came close to being ‘cages’ were the carnivores who were simply separated from the humans very well.  Not only did the animals have plenty of space, but several of the animals were out where humans could actually interact with them.  There was a viewing area where a large group was feeding and petting a giraffe. (It was too crowded for us to bother fighting our way in, but still cool.)

Along one path we found this guy just chilling.

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There was a warning that he might bite, so we didn’t try to get too close.  Only a few feet away, his friend was taking a nap in the sunshine.

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They jumped around on rooftops, and basically hung around.

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There was an area with adorable little monkeys, but there were so many people, taking a good picture was difficult.

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One of this guys friends was on top of a roof, and tried to climb into the hand of a passing tourist.  Unfortunately, the tourist got a little nervous and dropped the little guy.  I guess this is the big downside to having non-zookeeper interaction with the animals.

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We even saw baby ducks and baby geese following their moms around the park.  Of course, Little One’s picture was better than mine here.

Big One’s favorite animal interaction exhibit was inside this large building.

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Once you were inside, you couldn’t really get any pictures.  It was pitch black, and using a flash would have disturbed the bats flying around.  Yeah.  I never wanted a bat flying at my face, but apparently Mama freaking out was fun for the kids.  Next time I am sending them in with a flash and seeing how much they laugh then.  (Okay.  Not really.)

This zoo was amazing.  In addition to having lots of animals, the habitats were beautiful.  I mean, seriously.  Their habitats looked better than my house does.  It kind of made me sad.  Near the elephants was a temple dedicated to Ganesh.

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This place was everything they advertised and more.  Not only was it my favorite zoo in Belgium, it might be my favorite zoo we have ever visited.  Even with an almost 2 hour drive, we are going back again soon.  Woo-hoo for season passes!

A Birthday Blanket

It’s been a little while since I shared something I have sewn, but that does not mean I have not been sewing.  I took a little time away, taking a break from the machine and the planning.  Then, birthdays came around again.

As the girls have birthdays so close close to Christmas (in the beginning of January and February) it can feel like present overload.  All the clothes, books, and toys from Christmas are still all over their floors when more start pouring in.  A homemade gift from home helps to control some of this at least a little.  (Even if they are a little late this year.)

Both girls are very opinionated about what they want their blankets to look like.  They have a theme in mind, and make sure to let me know what needs to be included in order to keep the important things from being forgotten.  This year Big One wanted her theme to be flags.

Big One has an interest in other countries, and more specifically the flags of these other countries.  I’m not certain from where it comes.  Perhaps it is the traveling we do, giving her the sense of being a ‘world citizen.’  Perhaps it is her obsession with an anime called ‘Hetalia.’  Perhaps it is just her quirk.  The reason didn’t matter too much because it technically has no effect on the result; a list of countries whose flags she wanted on her blanket.

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The individual blocks didn’t take as long as I feared they would.  Once you consider how many of the flags are just large stripes of color, all you need to worry about is getting the correct colors and putting them in the correct order.

There were a few little mistakes, and a few things that needed to be simplified for the sake of my sanity.  (Seriously, look at the flags of Spain and Prussia and tell me you wouldn’t have simplified their pictures.)  I think when you try to ignore the black borders, which obscure some of the black sections on the flags, and don’t look too closely at the UK flag, the mistakes are not that bad.  My biggest fear was sewing a flag in upside down, and needing to take everything apart to fix it.  I may have double checked every flag a few times, just to be one the safe side.

There were a few things Big One was very clear about.  First of course was the list of 18 flags she wanted.  She was understanding about everything, and said she was including some she didn’t think I would be able to do, and it was okay if I couldn’t.  (But I did.  All of them.)  The second issue we had was the placement of flags.  She was very clear that the UK and French flags had to be as far away from each other as possible, and that America and Canada should be close to each other.  Beyond that, she made a few little changes for reasons she did not share with me.  In some ways I think I am better off not knowing all of the reasons.

The most fun from this blanket was actually that I learned a little along the way.  I knew Prussia was not around anymore, but while working on the blanket Big One shared a little of the history of the country with me.  We also found it interesting when we visited Salzburg and saw flags with a very similar bird to the one found on the Prussian flag.  It gave a nice reminder that while we are visiting one place that is, we are kind of visiting other places that were as well.  The most fun fact I learned was about a place I don’t think I will ever be, Sealand.  It is a neat little country, with an interesting history.  There might not be a lot to see there, but I have to admit, I still want to go.

However it went, Big One is now not just waving her flag, she is sleeping underneath them as well.  One happy child, and the effort was all worth it.

Austria Pt. 2

All right.  Here we go again.

One week ago, I was in Austria.  The first part of the adventure can be found here (or you can probably scroll down, whatever).  I already told you about the travel there, wandering around aimlessly, and the briefest touch on the trip home.  So, we are left with the afternoon tour to visit the sights of The Sound of Music.

The Sound of Music was actually the largest reason we visited Austria, and more specifically Salzburg.  As soon as I was done with my final homework assignment, (probably the last homework assignment EVER) I felt the overwhelming need to do something.  I wanted to run through open fields, scream from the mountaintops, and listen the the hills sing.  Basically, I wanted to be Julie Andrews at the top of the hill, spinning around and singing that the hills were alive.  We visited with the idea that I would actually get a chance to geek out, and spin on that hill.  However, as the sights of the movie are rather spread out, and many of them are private property, I conceded to my husband’s repeated appeals to pay for a tour.

I don’t like paying for tours anywhere.  It’s nothing against the tour guides; every tour we have ever been on has been great.  It’s informative, fun, and usually at least a little funny.  You really do learn and see things you wouldn’t have otherwise.  I just really hate paying for the tour.  It’s usually through a bigger company, and you know the tour guides are only getting a fraction of what you are paying.  I mean, yes, this current tour took us on a bus out and around, which means paying for the gas and the driver, as well as the ticket sellers, and the tour guide.  But we have seen many, many walking tours which also seem overpriced.  What extra is the money going for then?

So, I had to be talked into the tour.  But I was glad I was talked into it.  We would not have found 90% of the stuff and the other part would still have required us to drive on windy roads in the mountains through wind and snow, only to have a 50/50 chance of actually realizing what we were seeing.  Instead, we were driven around, taken to places were we could see what we wanted, and given a bunch of fun facts about the movie (which I will try to remember for you.)

The first stop was the lake behind the house.  It may not look like a lake, but underneath the thick layer of snow was a layer of ice, covering the water that Julie Andrews, and the child actors, all fell in.

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Apparently the terrace where they filmed everything was not actually the back of the house, but an exact replica built off to the side.  Because they were using a different house for the front, and doing studio filming for the inside, they couldn’t risk the house showing up in any shot.  It almost seems like a waste of location shooting to do it this way, but of course, the movie speaks for itself that way.

We also learned that the child playing the youngest Von Trapp was unable to swim.  During the scene where they all fell into the water she was supposed to have been grabbed by Julie Andrews before they went underwater.  Unfortunately, while filming the scene she actually fell into the water, and was unable to grab the child beforehand.  The little girl was of course saved and recovered, but it was quite a scare.

After this we traveled to find the current location of the gazebo.  It had one been outside the house (this one) but tourists were causing a disturbance to the conferences held in the house.  It was then moved to the other side of the lake, where we were standing, but no one maintained it while it was there.  After a time it was movie to Hellbrunn Castle.

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It didn’t look like much, just a gazebo.  We weren’t able to go in either.  Years ago a couple were recreating the “Sixteen Going on Seventeen” dance, slipped and had a foot go through a window.  It was all right, but not the highlight of the tour.

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This picture has nothing to do with The Sound of Music, and I have no idea who those people are.  I just happened to like the shot.

Just outside the castle, near where were were parked was the place where the bus stopped to let Maria off after the left the abbey.  It was nothing more than a long yellow wall, but it was still kind of cool.

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As Maria gets off the bus, she sings the song, ‘I Have Confidence.’  Most of the sights she sees as she is singing this song are no where near here, and a few of them I wanted to see, but was unable to.  What I did learn however, is during that song, the real Maria Vonn Trapp makes an appearance in the background.

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We learned there were many things the Real Maria was unhappy with.  She did not like how were husband was portrayed, more stiff than the real man had been.  This cameo was supposed to appease her.  As I learned all of the changes in the story, I am slightly surprised that that was her only complaint.

I never realized this entire story was based on a book written by the Real Maria.  It makes sense, I just never knew.  There were many things that were wrong in the movie.  In order to make things a little more appealing to audiences.  Not only were the children’s ages and genders wrong (both the oldest and the youngest were actually boys, and the oldest was in their mid/late twenties when they left) but there were actually more children.  The captain had seven children with his first wife, then he and Maria had three more children.  When they left Austria, according to our tour guide, they had nine children, with the tenth on the way.  I suppose as far at story telling goes, I can understand why these changes occurred.  I do however feel slightly lied to, and must make time to read the book later.

After this we drove by the house that had been used as the front.  There is no where to stop closer, unless you are walking so I only got a drive by shot.

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We were also only able to get a drive by of Nonnburg Abbey.  There is no where to park, and as we were told there were also 21 very strict nuns who would not let anyone inside.

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After this we drove out to Mondsee, the town where the church used in the filming of the wedding was.  The Real Maria was married in the Abbey, but for the movie, it was actually about 20-30 minutes out of the city.

We took a brief stop on a hill top where a helicopter took shots for the opening scenes over the town where Mozart’s mother was born.

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Also along this road we passed the headquarters for RedBull, which is apparently an Austrian company.  It was only a drive by, so I didn’t get a picture (and I actually care nothing about Red Bull), but the place was beautifully built.

Eventually we arrived at Mondsee, where St. Michael’s church is located.  We had a little time there, so we wandered into the church and took a few pictures.

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Afterwards we headed across the street to get some warm apple strudel.

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I tried to get a picture before ti was destroyed, but my family has their priorities when it comes to food.  Pictures for blogs is not one of them.

On our way back to the bus, I finally got my running through a field, spinning around in circles moment.  It wasn’t the hilltop from the movie, but I was going to take what I could get.

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So that was it.  That was our one day in Austria.  It was amazing, exhausting, and beautiful.  I think you can see a little bit of why I don’t always get around to posting my travels.  This was a lot, and it was all about one day!  Hopefully, this is a start of a good trend for me however. More travels, and telling more stories about them.

Austria Pt. 1

All right, this will be a long one, but I promised to get better about my travel posting.  The upside is your ability to see more of my traveling; the downside is long, picture heavy posts.

We decided to go to Salzburg, Austria on a whim.  I had just turned in the last of my homework, and felt the need to do something big.  Before I knew what was happening, we had booked a hotel, arranged a dog sitter, and had plans to drive.  Normally, I am not much of a road trip person.  I grew up in a large, not well off family, so anytime we traveled it was by car.  Squeezing all of us in for hours at a time was unpleasant, and being the one who also had motion sickness was even worse.  However, there only appeared to be flights into Salzburg one day a week, which did not work with our weekend plans, and Google Maps said it was only an 8 hour drive.  Not pleasant by any means, but completely doable.

Right around the halfway point in the trip we were due to drive very close to a large base, so we decided to breakdown the trip a little.  We drove to the base Friday night, as soon as everyone was done with school and spent the night.  The next morning we woke up, took care of a little trip business (Little One had to have new shoes before walking around all day), got a hot Venti Vanilla Latte,  and got back on the road.  As soon as we left the base I discovered the Vanilla had been left out of my latte, the first of many disappointments on Saturday.

We got on the road around 10, later than we wanted, but expecting a four hour drive, still reasonable.  After programming our hotel in the GPS we learned it was actually going to be 5 hours.  As soon as we discovered this we realized it made sense; the town the original route passed through was about 45 minutes away from the base we were visiting, so we were technically a little away from where we should have been.  We decided to suck it up and get on the road.  German Roadside

I don’t know how many of you have driven through Germany in the winter, but it can be quite beautiful.  Cold, but beautiful.

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It was a good thing the drive was beautiful because that 5 hour drive turned into 9 hours.  There was construction, traffic, and who knows what else.  I’m fairly certain at one point there was a time portal; we were 90 minutes away from our destination for at least three hours.  I’m not sure how we kept our good humor through the trip.   Maybe it was the excitement, maybe it was the girls behaving themselves and keeping content in the backseat.  Whatever it was, we never completely lost our optimism.  It was a bit too late to do much when we finally arrived at the hotel, so we ate and settled in so we could get an early start the next day.

I think I am getting better at finding hotels that are a good value.  We don’t spend much time trying to get the fancy 5 star hotels.  As far as we are concerned, they drain our available travel money on the place we spend the least amount of time.  When we travel, we get in the hotel, we drop our stuff and we leave.  We are only in our hotel to sleep and shower.  Why waste money on a nice room we will barely be in?  For that reason, I don’t have super nice photo of our room.  The hotel was nice, but not impressive.

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See?  My kids think it is a great room when they don’t have to share a bed.

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Okay, a bad glare, but isn’t the room number sign adorable?

In the morning, when things were brighter, we saw we had half of a good view.  It was cold and snowy in Salzburg so it’s hard to see, but above the ugly buildings was a large snowy mountain.

Austria Hotel View

We headed out to see what we could see of the city.  Instead of having a day and a half, we were down to one day and we refused to waste it.  One bus ride and we were in the city center.

Shopping Road

Sundays in Europe are often quiet.  Most of the stores are closed, and the streets are deserted.  It made it peaceful.  Much less stressful then the normal weaving through a crowd with kids.  We worried that we wouldn’t be able to do anything, but there were still options.

We stumbled on Mozart’s Birthplace, which was pretty cool.  No pictures allowed inside, but honestly, it was an old house.  If Mozart had not been born there, it would likely be long gone by now.

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We wandered around and took some pretty pictures of the views.  We weren’t trying to hard to find anything specific, just looking to see what we could see.

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We also stumbled on the birthplace of Christian Doppler, but we couldn’t go inside.

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It was near a random statue, which seemed to be unlabeled, and Little One decided she had to pose underneath.

Lily Statue

It was a pretty relaxing morning.  We took it easy, as we had signed up for a tour in the afternoon (which will be pt. 2).

Austria Mozart Grafitti

One of our favorite things we stumbled on was this Mozart themed graffiti in a walkway under a road.  I know technically that graffiti is not authorized, but come on.  This is high class stuff here.

A little before our tour we found a Starbucks.  This is one of my travel quirks.  I know there are great coffee shops round the world, but I don’t go to the Starbucks for the amazing coffee.  I mean, I like it well enough, but that isn’t why I look for one everywhere we go.  I collect the city/country mugs everywhere I can.  I have a collection of travel mugs from years ago, and since we have been in Europe I have stuck to the regular mugs.  It’s a silly tradition, but it gives me a morning reminder of my travels.  As I make my coffee, I can think of where I have been, and I often pick my mug based on where I would like to return.

Of course as it was cold, we took advantage of the warm store filled with warm drinks.  The Starbucks was two story and we enjoyed ours downstairs.

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I loved the downstairs of this Starbucks.  There were these stone archways with drywall filling in the gaps, and large heavy duty wooden tables.  It felt like we were in a medieval castle, waiting for people to storm in and try to steal our coffee.  The girls and I enjoyed it, but I think my husband was pretending not to know us.

Just before our tour was scheduled to leave, we found a church right next to the meeting place.  As we are us, we had to go in (once we confirmed they were not in the middle of services) and look at the Art.

St. Michaels Outside

It was a good thing I snapped a picture of the sign for my memory.  I remembered St. Michael’s.  It was St. Andra.  No where close.  It was a pretty church, and there was a remarkable series of paintings around the edge showing the crucifixion step by step in about 20 paintings.  A bit dark, but well done work.

Church Art

I never get tired of finding art in churches.

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Sure, there is a definite theme in the work found in a church.

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Technically, religious art isn’t a thing I care much about.  This doesn’t speak to me spiritually or anything.

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But it’s hard to argue against the quality.

Lily Candle

We left after Little One lit a candle.  I may have lit one too, with the selfish purpose of a safe and easy trip home the next day.

After the church we took a tour, which was four hours on and off a bus, and will come in the next post on this trip.  It was a quick trip, with really only one day in the city of Salzburg, but it was amazing.  Luckily for us, the candle worked, and our trip home was much easier and less stressful.  We stopped by the same base halfway through for a little rest.  I guess the Starbucks there realized they had forgotten my Vanilla syrup from a couple days earlier, because they made sure to give me extra in my coffee instead of the extra shot of espresso I requested.  Sigh.  I really need to check my coffee at that shop before I leave next time.

Well, that is all for today’s post.  Come back Friday (or Saturday if my internet stays slow!) for Austria pt. 2, The Sound of Music Tour.

The Most Wonderful Time

I haven’t been a Christmas person for a long time.  I remember liking Christmas well enough as a child, but it was only a second a Halloween.  I mean, yeah, Christmas has presents, and Santa Claus, but Halloween had costumes and running around Trick or Treating.  They were both good, but having my birthday near Halloween just tipped the scales completely.  There was no longer a contest.

Being an adult made some of the Christmas magic go away.  There are no longer piles of mystery presents with my name on them, and I know exactly what is going to go in my stocking.  Minor problems, yes, but they still make a difference in how I feel coming up to the holiday.  I am no longer shaking with excitement or wondering if I can find the hiding place for the gifts; I know where they are, and I know they are most likely filled with sweaters and scarves.  A really lucky time is my getting an Amazon gift card so I can buy my own books for Christmas.

I can’t even rely on making Christmas special for my kids.  We don’t need tons of stupid toys they don’t care about for more than an hour.  Homemade gifts are a lot of work, and hit or miss with children who are surrounded by kids who only receive store bought gifts.  Trust me, when you are almost a teenager it doesn’t matter that Mom put a lot of thought and work into your sweater if it doesn’t look as good as the store bought ones everyone else wears.

On top of that, we very rarely see family around Christmas, so it’s just us year after year.  We try to keep up festive activities, but they require time and planning.   We don’t always have time to watch a Christmas movie, let alone perfectly decorate Christmas cookies for everyone in the neighborhood and make perfect gingerbread houses.  Life just takes so much time.  (Yeah, don’t even consider suggesting Elf on the Shelf.  My kids told me about their friends ‘creepy’ elves, saving me from the consideration.)

I know.  I am kind of a Scrooge.  I don’t completely dislike the season.  I have learned of one thing out here to absolutely love about Christmas.  Europe loves it’s Christmas Markets, and I love them too.

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There are Christmas markets everywhere out here.  Even the smallest town seems to arrange to have a market, even if it is only for the weekend.  We are slightly biased, enjoying the markets in Germany more than the Belgian markets.  They seem to be larger, and more festive; it’s not just market booths like I could find any other weekday, they are special booths with garland and lights.  We are particularly partial to the markets in Cologne, as there are seven to choose from.  We usually start with the gnome market, decorated, as expected, with gnomes everywhere.  I mean, seriously, they are adorable and on mugs, rooftops, swings, and ski lifts.

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Check out the Gnome, watching a bear blow bubbles.  Cute, right?

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I have no idea what this tree is all about, but I am a bit in love.

This year we didn’t hit all of the markets.  It was just too crowded.  Last year we only missed two, the “Gay and Lesbian” market, which we were told was more of an “adult” market and decided not to take our kids there, just to be on the safe side.  It’s not like they have never been in a chocolate shop and discovered chocolate genitals on the shelf, but when we have warning we try to keep it age appropriate.  It was kind of sad to me though; the market was covered in pink and purple tinsel and garland and looked completely fabulous.

The other market we skipped was supposed to be next to the cathedral, and somehow we just missed it. I can’t figure out how.  The church is easy to see.

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Hard to miss, right?  It’s even prettier unclose, in spite of the restoration scaffolding on certain parts.

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Gorgeous.  Unfortunately the market underneath it was so crowded I could hardly move, let alone take a picture.  The best part though was the Santa Claus on the outside giving out candy with Jack O’Lanterns.  It was the best combination of Halloween and Christmas possible.

Our first year out here I didn’t know what to expect, but I found a few things I liked.  It seems to be a lot of things you can find at markets anywhere, like waffle stands, but with the addition of other delicious additions like candied nuts, chocolate covered fruits, and Gluhwein.

Ah.  Gluhwien is amazing.  It is probably the closest I have come to considering alcoholism as a profession.  It is warm, it is tasty, and it will make the crowds and stress of the holiday melt way.  Plus, at some of the markets it comes in cute little mugs you can collect.  I like cute little mugs.

This year I learned of a different version of Gluhwein, Feuerzangentasse.  Do not ask me to say it, I’m pretty sure it will sound like a seizure coming from me and offend everyone.  Sadly, I ordered by pointing to what someone else was drinking and saying I wanted that.

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This drink came in that round mug in the front, which has a little metal thing inside.  First, they pour you a mug of hot gluhwein, then they place a small cone of sugar (it looked like brown sugar, but it could have been raw or natural sugar) on the metal thing, pour a shot of rum on top and set it on fire.  The rum burns off, you dump the toasted sugar into your wine, and when it cools enough to not melt your skin from your lips, you enjoy a sweet and yummy beverage.  Not only does it look cool, but it tastes great.  I would have much rather shared a photo of my flaming mug with you, but as the counter was incredibly crowded, I decided not to join the groups who were taking a picture of their drinks and instead walk through the crowd with my still slightly flaming mug.  It was clearly the better decision.

Cologne will not be my last market this year.  We are spending next week in Germany with some family, so I hope to be able to go to few more new markets that are a little farther away than I would normally go.  Hopefully I will be able to share more and better pictures next time!

Rome

When my husband first proposed a trip to Italy, I was on the fence.  Italy was not one of the places I had ever had a strong desire to go. I mean, it was on the list, but only because I technically want to go everywhere eventually.  I just really didn’t know too much about Italy. I knew there was Julius Caesar, and gladiators.  I knew a little about the Roman empire, but mostly just that once upon a time it was huge, and then it fell.  I knew that Vatican City was the smallest country in the world, coexisting with Mama Italy as the heart of the Catholic church, and the home of the Pope.  I knew a very tiny amount about a minuscule portion of a country that was rich in culture and tradition.  Of course I was not as excited as I could be; I was unprepared for everything I had in store for me.

I am honestly not sure how to condense my entire trip into one post.  Rome?  Amazing.

We stayed near the Colosseum, and visited on both our first and second days.  The first day, we only saw the outside, and on the second we toured through.  It was huge and impressive, and unbelievable.  After the Colosseum, the rest of the trip begins to blur.

We visited Vatican city on Wednesday.  Small tip for anyone traveling?  Make sure to check the Pope’s schedule before you go.  My husband had told me that the Pope would not be in the country when we went; he was wrong.  By not checking the schedule we ended up arriving at San Peitro with hundreds of people who came to hear the Pope speak.  Luckily, a trip through the Vatican museum killed enough time, we were able to enter the church afterwards.

We spent a lot of time in churches.  I am not a religious person, but I love art and the best art in Rome seemed to be in Churches. The truth is, most of the churches sort of blend together in my mind. Of course, the Sistine chapel was distinctive, but it was also one of the few I knew before I went.  We took pictures in the churches were it was allowed, but I’m honestly not certain I would be able tell which pictures came from which church or even which day.

I suppose my favorite would be easy.  It was not a large church, or maybe the part where we visited wasn’t even a church at all.  A portion of the tour was focused on the history of the Capuchin monks. (Side note, according to the guide book we had, the cappuccino got its name from the brown robes worn by these monks.  True or not, I like it.)  The tour ended with a trip through the most beautiful crypt a person could visit.  According to the story, a monk took the bones of dead monks that had been displaced and used them to create art as a sort of penance.  It gave him time to consider his sins, and think about the life he would live after his death.  It was haunting, and disturbing, and beautiful.  I think what struck me the most is the devotion he showed.  There is very little in life I feel that passionately about.  I wished I could feel that way, even just for a moment.  It truly inspired me.  No pictures were allowed inside, but it is worth looking up if you are interested.

The trip was exhausting.  We always walk everywhere when we travel.  Part of it is being slightly cheap; walking is a lot less expensive than taking a cab.  A lot of it is the ease; you never have to worry about parking, or weird traffic patterns in an unfamiliar city when you walk, not as long as you can look around an make certain you are not hit.  However, I learned that five days of straight walking is about my limit.  We were all very sore, and I am still not entirely certain I  have recovered an ability to walk normally.

I also learned that gelato is amazing.  It was a good thing we walked so much, because there were a few days in there were we enjoyed double gelato, as well as pasta and pizza.  I was happy to know that gluten free is surprisingly easy in Italy; we even learned on our last day McDonalds has gluten free burgers.  Not all of the gluten free food was that impressive to me.  Not to brag, but I think my pizza crust was better; however I am pretty sure the crust I had was frozen, not fresh.

The end of our trip left us with one absolute fact.  We need to go back to Italy.  Rome was amazing, but we need to see more, experience more, and find the rest of a beautiful country, full of history.  I don’t think it is a place I would want to live (Edinburgh is still winning that race), but I definitely want to go back.