Brussels, Round Two

Monday 30 December 2013

Way back in September (I can't believe it's been that long) I joined in on @rovingaltruist and @thecultureur 's twitter chat, #SeeTheWorld, where Belgium was featured.  At the end of the chat, it was announced that I was the lucky winner of a weekend stay at the luxurious The Hotel in Brussels.  We had visited Belgium the year prior for an F1 race and while we enjoyed our time there, we weren't planning a return trip in 2013 but I certainly wasn't going to pass up this opportunity so we rearranged a couple of things and booked flights to Brussels.

Upon arriving at The Hotel, we checked into the most gorgeous suite - so gorgeous, in fact, I had trouble motivating myself to actually leave it!  (I wrote about our stay in detail for The Hotel's blog which you can find here.)

But alas, as comfortable as it was, we had a city to revisit.

The beauty of exploring a city for a second (or third or fourth) time is you feel less pressure.  Instead of scrambling to take in all of the sights, you can revisit those that were noteworthy and then head off to explore the rest of the city you haven't uncovered.  It leads to wandering down side streets and stumbling across markets you didn't know existed.  It allows for more time to linger at that café and you feel less guilty about returning to that fantastic suite a little early to enjoy the complimentary mini bar and stunning views.
Brussels often doesn't rank as well with visitors as other destinations in Belgium.  It might not be as picturesque as Bruges and she might not sweep you off your feet at first glance but there is something about Brussels that's intriguing.  If all else fails, there's plenty of beer, waffles, chocolate and quirky shops to keep one occupied for days on end.

The weather during our stay in the city wasn't particularly welcoming but that didn't stop us from pounding the pavement.  We wandered for hours on end until we became too cold or our feet were too sore.  As usual, we mapped out our path on our city map, making sure to head into unexplored territory and when the weather really turned on us, we ducked into the Musical Instrument Museum (which deserves a post all on its own) for a few hours.

While the trip wasn't necessarily in the grand plan of travel for the year, we were thankful to have a second look at Brussels.

Zurich By Night

Friday 27 December 2013

When planning travel, we often put a lot of pressure on seeing the city in the daylight when everything is open and the streets are bustling with activity.  Normally, I would agree but every once in awhile, one comes across a city that is utterly magical come nightfall.  Zurich is one of those cities.

We arrived in Zurich in late afternoon after spending a few days in the Alps.  The sun was quickly setting but our disappointment quickly turned to wonderment.  The entire city is blanketed in lights which makes it feel warm and romantic despite the near zero temperatures; the Christmas markets and decorations only added to the allure.  Because of the holiday season, the streets were bustling with shoppers and the steam from mulled wine and food stalls drifted up into the night.

While we were able to retrace our steps in the light the following day, I couldn't help but feel that Zurich is meant to be explored at night.

A Christmas in Norway

Tuesday 24 December 2013

As I have previously mentioned, Joe and I are spending this Christmas in Norway.  It's not our first Christmas abroad (we spent one in Gabon) but it's our first in Europe and both of us were quite excited to see what Norway had in store for us during the holidays.  It's such an interesting experience to see the commonalities between cultures during the holidays but also the traditions that differ.

Clues of the holiday to come started popping up around Stavanger in November.  The last public holidays in Norway were way back in May so it feels like there's a lot of build up to this one.  The real holiday kick off came the first weekend of December with a (very) small Christmas Market in Gamle Stavanger and the annual Christmas tree lighting in the main square (evidenced in the photos above.)

Typical to everyday life in Norway, holiday decor is understated and neutral.  I have yet to see a coloured bulb let alone blow up Santas.  In fact, the exterior of houses aren't decorated at all.  We've noticed a few neighbours stringing white lights along their balconies and hanging a glowing star in the window as well as something that looks quite similar to a Menorah perched on a window ledge.  Downtown, however, is really quite endearing - garland and lights drapes above the cobble stone streets and there certainly is that feeling of holiday spirit.

Christmas tree lots popped up all over the city and the grocery store is littered with Christmas versions of everything.  Our toilet paper is now decorated with ornaments, sacks of flour feature a Christmas scene and our favourite part, the juleøl has taken over the beer section of the supermarket.  Before Christmas came to be in Norway, Jul was actually a Viking drinking festival and thus, juleøl remains a big part of the season.  Each of the breweries release a Christmas beer - usually dark & hearty, perfect for the weather.  Pepperkake (gingerbread) is also popular and the meat sections are filled with ribbe (roasted pork belly) and pinnekjøtt (salted & dried lamb ribs.)

The main event in Norway is actually on Christmas Eve consisting of a large meal and a Christmas service followed by the opening of presents, and if you're lucky, a visit from julenisse - a kind of cross between Santa and the Norwegian troll.  Unlike the Santa we're familiar with, this guy isn't as shy and stops over while the children are awake.  He's apparently a jolly guy but can also be a bit nasty if you don't pay him his bribes.  Some households also have children leave porridge, lefse (a traditional flatbread) & beer out in the barn for the nisse, a troll/elf who protects the land and it's thought that if he's not happy, he'll start playing pranks on your family.  1 Juledag and 2 Juledag follow (December 25 & 26) which are public holidays and meant for family time.  All of the shops remain closed although I hear there may be a few pubs open around town.

Joe is meant to work a half day today and then we'll celebrate the holidays together.  The house is fully decorated, the presents bought and later in the week, we'll have a traditional Canadian Christmas meal with friends of ours.  It might be a little quieter than had we flown home to Canada but we're both looking forward to cozy days at home together.

From our family to yours, we wish you a God Jul!

Grindelwald, Switzerland

Tuesday 17 December 2013

When Joe and I decided that a winter trip to Switzerland was a strong possibility in December, I started to research which cities and towns we should visit but here's the problem with Switzerland, it's all extremely beautiful and all worthy of a visit.  I reached out to Kristina who had lived in the country for a few years and she suggested a couple of little villages in the Alps.  As I looked a little closer into her suggestions, I stumbled across Silvi's Dreamcatcher Inn and the decision was made - we would spend a couple of nights in Grindelwald.

Grindelwald is indeed, a tiny little town nestled in the Alps.  It's primarily a skiing destination with several hills in the immediate vicinity but unlike more well-known Swiss ski destinations, it's quite low key and quaint.  There are a smattering of shops, most related to skiing and mountain climbing and a handful of restaurants and hotels but mostly, the mountainside is dotted with chalets, gondolas and chairlifts.

High season doesn't begin in the area until the 23rd of December so aside from the locals hitting the slopes, we felt like we were the only visitors in the area.  In fact, many of the hotels and restaurants weren't even open yet but that didn't bother us in the least.

We loved our room at Dreamcatcher Inn and our hosts Silvi, Horst & Sandra were lovely.  Again, due to low season, we had the entire place to ourselves.  The icy path up the side of the mountain meant we had to park below and hike to and from the chalet but the views made up for it.  Both mornings we were treated to a delicious, home cooked breakfast and in the evenings, we drank a bottle of red wine, courtesy of the hosts' vineyard and sat in the large jacuzzi on the deck.  While the village was quiet, this was the one place we had a bit more time - more time to cozy up with a book, hot tea & more time in the hot tub overlooking those mountains.

Around Here

Sunday 15 December 2013

+Joe and I just got back from the most lovely winter trip to Switzerland.  We spent time in Lucerne, Grindelwald, Interlaken & Zurich all of which were stunning.  I've been editing a few photos and still can't get over how beautiful that country is - those Alps are something else.  There's something about being surrounded by towering mountains that really humbles a person.

+I'm so far behind on blogging - I have hardly touched on our trip to Istanbul let alone Brussels, Bruges & now Switzerland.  I don't even know where to start.

+We are in full on Christmas mode in our household.  This weekend we bought a real tree (my first one!!) and have decorated the apartment up perfectly.  This is one perk to staying put for the holidays.  We haven't decorated since we left Canada and while there are obvious downsides to missing Christmas with our families, I'm really happy to pull out the spirit and embrace celebrating here.  The warm glow coming from the tree, star and candles is magical and for once, I'm not entirely depressed that the sunset comes at 3 pm.

+Between consuming all of the heavy (but delicious) Swiss-German food and the mountain of Swiss chocolates we brought back with us, I'm feeling like I've put on a substantial winter layer on these bones.  It's not entirely needed in Stavanger being that it's 8 degrees Celsius and rainy most days but that doesn't stop me from grabbing another chocolate as I pass the box.

+Speaking of holiday cheer - have you seen this Westjet video?  Westjet is one of Canada's 2 main airlines and are known for their friendly staff and out of the box thinking.  They've been known to pull stunts like this before (see last year's here) but I think they went above and beyond this year.

Travel Planning: Winter Travel

Wednesday 4 December 2013

High season travel in Europe often revolves around the summer.  After all, children are on school vacation, the weather is more agreeable, and the increased amount of daylight is convenient.  But, it also means crowded attractions, increased prices and depending on where you are, extreme heat which can make anything other than lying on a beach, uncomfortable (ahem, Greece & Spain.)

Our ideal time to travel is usually the shoulder seasons - this means May & early June and again in late September & October.  The crowds are drastically reduced yet the weather is still nice and the travel costs are often lower than peak.  Unfortunately, it's impossible to fit in all our trips in such a limited amount of time, particularly when we like to spread them out over the calendar.  While it's attractive to seek out sunshine during the winter months, there is something to be said for embracing winter travel.

First of all, it is a lot cheaper in terms of flights and hotels (unless you're looking to fly over Christmas) and a lot of the times, you'll feel like you have the city to yourself.  It feels less touristy and a little more real.  You won't be wasting time lining up for attractions and you probably won't be fighting for a glimpse of the Mona Lisa from behind a mound of other tourists.

Last year, Joe and I visited Berlin, Prague and Oslo during the winter and very shortly, we'll be catching a flight to Switzerland.  In case you're also planning a snowy or cold destination this year, here are a few tips from a Canadian who knows winter well.

+This seems silly but even I, a seasoned Canadian, often underestimate winter temperatures - DRESS WARMLY.  I wear wool tights under my jeans and sport an extra pair of socks, a parka, scarf, mitts, and hat.  For those of used to below 0 temperatures, -5 might not sound too bad but spending hours outside in said weather can feel colder than first expected.
+Allow yourself a lot of breaks.  Pop into a café for a warm drink or stop in a cozy pub for a beer.  Your feet will thank you.
+Not all of Europe (even Northern Europe) has a snowy winter.  If you're looking for snow, do your research ahead of time.
+With that being said, winter can also mean rain.  Bring an umbrella and keep a list of indoor activities in your location in case the weather really isn't cooperating.
+Take careful note of attraction operating hours.  Many will drastically reduce their opening times during the low season or even close altogether.
+The further North you go, the less daylight you'll have.  Plan accordingly but don't abandon the streets just because it's dark.  The twinkling lights on a calm winter's night can be magical.
+Christmas Markets are a wonderful experience and something quintessentially European.  If you're traveling in December, definitely try to add one to your itinerary.  Popular stops include Strasbourg in the North of France, Prague, Vienna, Brussels and really, all of Germany.
+Be prepared for travel delays in case of snow storms.  Again, those of us who are well acquainted with winter are shocked when major airports (hello London & Paris) close after 2 cm of snow.  In fact, sometimes they close with the impending threat of snow before one flurry has even hit the pavement.
+Driving in a foreign country can be nerve-racking.  Driving in a foreign country with snowy roads can be terrifying.  If you aren't comfortable, don't risk it.  Stick to trains.
+Embrace the season - rent a pair of skates, try tobogganing, breath in that fresh, crisp air, sip mulled wine & hot chocolate, buy a soft cashmere sweater and sit by the fireplace.

Where are your favourite winter destinations?

(Also, I've been featured in the December issue of Bella Magazine.  You can check out my interview on pages 47 through 49.)
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