Tag Archives: europe

This little piggie went to Munich…and that was that.

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A gazillion years ago we went to Munich, Germany. Or maybe it was 2003. Same thing.

Munich Square

I have German heritage, so German food satisfies some deep, wonderful, hearty need in me. Or it could just be that I really enjoy pork and beer. Either way, when I travel to Germany I savour my meals.

Munich excelled on the food front. We would start our day in the market where we would eat weisswurst: chubby, white sausages that you slice open lengthwise and eat without the skin.

Locals say that weisswurst should never hear the church bells at noon. It’s a lovely way to say that these sausages are prepared daily without preservatives, so eat them in the morning and don’t dilly dally.

Add in a soft pretzel and a beer that you need to lift with two hands, and you’ve got yourself a breakfast of champions!

Munich street

One day for lunch we found an old, dark tavern across the river where there were wolfhounds lying under the tables (you can’t even make this stuff up).

I spotted “Pork Knuckle” on the menu and my mind was made up. Who knew pigs had knuckles? Who cares? I ended up with a huge platter of sauerkraut in front of me, and placed on top was a succulent, slow-roasted ham hock.

Those wolfhounds might have thought that I was in over my head, but they were mistaken.

Residenz

Right in the centre of the city is Munich Residenz – a royal palace that shames all other palaces with its opulence and extravagance. It is an incredible peek into bygone European royalty. We toured the rooms there and gaped at the floor-to-ceiling riches.

Remember when you thought having that spotted throw cushion next to the plaid blanket on your couch was too much? Take comfort in the Residenz design manual which states (roughly translated), “A room can never have enough patterns, or gold, or cherubs painted on the ceilings.”

Palace

I loved it in all its unapologetic glory. It was saying, “You go ahead and search for DIY decor tips on Pinterest, darling. This is how it is really done.”

City View

“Of one thing there is no doubt: if Paris makes demands of the heart, then Munich makes demands of the stomach.”

Rachel Johnson

Perfect Groningen

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Often on the weekend I find myself daydreaming about what I would do on a Saturday in a certain city. Usually it is the cities I have lived in and I can vividly picture what I would do, where I would go, and what I would eat on this imaginary Saturday. It is a Perfect Saturday because the weather is perfect, I’m wearing that pair of shoes that makes me happy (we all have them), my hair is cooperating, and there is no limit to how many meals I can have on this fantasy day. Do you do this? Or am I the only one who is terrible at ‘living in the moment’, not to mention ‘living in the same continent’?

Let’s have a Perfect Saturday in Groningen, The Netherlands, where I lived for 4 years. This is gonna be….well, perfect!

  • Let’s leave the apartment and walk 50m to the Vismarkt where the Saturday market is already bustling. There are vegetable and fruit stalls at one end, cheese and meats in the middle, and fish and “frites” down the other end. We’ll go to the bakery stall and buy some fresh ham and cheese croissants still warm from the oven. Then we’ll cross over the cobblestones to the flower stalls that stretch all the way down the street. We go to our flower guy who we buy from every week and choose bunches of peonies or tulips. Check the change he gives you for counterfeit coins (yes, it happened. I went back the next week and bought a bouquet from him. I paid him with the same coin and a knowing smirk. Ka-ching).

Lovely Dutch flowers! Just don’t try to screw me over.

  • We go home and eat our croissants on our roof-top patio in the sunshine. We drink our coffee, listen to Keane (their album will be forever linked with our time in Groningen), and look out at the Aa Church steeple and the sugar beet factory chimney in the distance. On the wind we can smell the sweet, earthy scent of sugar beets being cooked. It pervades the city in the Autumn and is strangely comforting. It is far better than when the wind blows from the tobacco factory and the city unfortunately smells like wet cigarette butts.

Stunning sunset from our deck. That’s the sugar beet factory chimney in the distance. Breathe deep!

  • Out we go again to walk the diverse shopping streets (with names that translate to “Big Crooked Elbow” street). We will watch with amusement as Dutch men happily buy red pants. This is a genuine phenomenon: read about it here. They love some red pants, and to their credit, they can pull off that look with relative ease. Not possible for the rest of us, though, so don’t get any fancy ideas.

A busy Saturday afternoon on Herestraat, a main shopping street. 50 points if you can spot red pants.

  • Let’s stop at a cafe for lunch. I always liked Het Land Van Kokanje where we can sit beneath huge chandeliers and Art Deco stained glass windows. There is no question that we have to order a bowl of snert. The name is terribly off-putting, but hold fast because it is delicious. Snert is a thick split pea soup with slices of pork sausage in it. Thin slices of dark rye bread usually come alongside. It is traditionally served in the winter as a hearty, warming meal. Now, my Perfect Saturday in Groningen is not in the winter (let’s be honest, that would be less than perfect), but due to freedom of fantasy I can have snert whenever I want. (Never thought I would type those words…)
  • We’ll take our bikes now and cycle north out of the city centre. Our bikes are proper upright Dutch bikes with maximum 3 gears, a “dynamo” wheel generated light, a bell, and a luggage rack on the back. The second-hand bikes clunk and rattle as we go over the cobblestones, but we have an easy jaunt along crowded streets past the University and to the canal that rings the city centre. On we go, through leafy residential neighbourhoods until we reach the green haven of Noorderplantsoen. This is a large public park with meandering paths and duck ponds. We’ll sit awhile under the big trees in the afternoon sun working up a thirst for our next stop.

Just surrender to the fact that you will feel more like Mary Poppins than Lance Armstrong on these bikes.

  • Back on the bikes and back into the main square (Grotemarkt) where we will sit outside and order a beer and bitterballen. These are deep-fried, breaded balls of meat ragout. Appetizing, right? Right? Again, just hold fast because with a touch of mustard and a cold beer to wash it down…it will be great. We have prime seats to watch the comings and goings of the city against the backdrop of the impressive Martini Tower. The pub we sit at may well be De Drie Gezusters (The Three Sisters) which is cleverly interconnected with multiple pubs along one side of the market square. Once inside you can weave through tables, passageways, booths, and serving bars until you stumble out of the front door of a property 100m away. Funny. Or, if it is after a particularly dubious night, extremely disconcerting.

The main square with city hall on the right. As seen from the top of the vertigo-inducing Martini Tower.

  • As the market winds down and the shops close, we can make our way to dinner which will be without a doubt at Cervantes, a tapas bar (okay, okay, it’s not Dutch, but how much snert and bitterballen can one handle in 24 hours??). You know how I love my menu-stoppers (remind yourself here and here), and at Cervantes it can only be dates stuffed with chorizo, wrapped in bacon, then breaded and fried. Spicy, sweet, salty. Amen.
  • Because my Perfect Saturday can weave through months and seasons, we will go back to Noorderplantsoen after dinner for the annual arts festival, Noorderzon. You can hop on the luggage rack of my bike and ride side-saddle . It is a sight often seen, but we will have to work on your running mount onto the back of my bike. The Dutch make it look effortless and smooth, but we can all imagine just how VERY wrong that could go.

Dreamy image of the canal surrounding central Groningen. Truly lovely.

  • At Noorderzon we will enjoy the free music performances while eating poffertjes: small, puffy pancakes served with butter and icing sugar. A dozen of these little gems sit on a paper tray with a Dutch flag toothpick stuck in the top. Eating these morsels under the glowing lanterns hanging from the trees with Groningen gently winding down around us, we give thanks for a Perfect Saturday…and for our large appetites.

How do you say “Oops” in Dutch?

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Where: Various waterways of The Netherlands. We were lucky enough to go on a 2 day boat trip with friends. Our route started in Den Haag to Kagerplassen (a network of lakes), then went through Leiden and south to Rotterdam, ending just north of the city centre.

Me. In a boat. In Holland. In the sunshine. Miracles do happen, people!

Plate of Food: We were no fools. We traveled with friends who enjoy the finer things in life: good food, great wine, leisurely boat trips in the sunshine…This worked out very well for us indeed.

My friend is a great hostess; she endlessly and effortlessly provides food and drinks to her guests. On this trip, she conjured up delightful snacks and meals from thin air. I am not sure where she stored this treasure trove of delicacies, but periodically she would open a hatch in the boat and come out with creamy cheeses, olive tapenade, fresh baguettes, and juicy watermelon. With each platter of tasty nibbles, I became more and more sure of our undying friendship.

It appears as though boating in Holland has a lot to do with rosé wine. Not in your experience? Well, my friend, then you didn’t do it right. It was perfect rosé weather: sunny, warm, languid, and jolly. Yes, that is a minor miracle in The Netherlands in June. So we celebrated.

Don’t we look like we do this every day? Wait, CAN we do this every day? Please?

One simple, indulgent snack that my friend pulled out of her bag of tricks was sweetened condensed milk with fresh strawberries. Don’t judge hastily. Allow me to explain. Take the lid off of the condensed milk. Grab a big, red strawberry. Dip into tin of creamy sweetness. Eat it. Pay no attention to the sweetened condensed milk dripping off your chin or the strawberry juice on your fingers. Repeat and be happy.

It had never occurred to me to eat sweetened condensed milk with strawberries (I was still buying ripple chips and dipping them into french onion dip – huh). That was the brilliance of this trip – none of it had ever occurred to me: to go on a boat trip, to use the waterways as grand avenues between so many beautiful places, to bring CAVIAR on said boat trip (oh, yes, she did), to sit back and talk and laugh as you discover a country from a new perspective. Why hadn’t I thought of this before? But thank goodness for friends who do think of these things, invite us along, and then bring along great food.

The Best: I lived in The Netherlands for 4 years and saw a lot of the country in that time, but this was by far the best way to see a nation that has a love/hate relationship with water. The threat of water breaking through dikes is real and is (very rightly) taken very seriously. But the people also embrace water sports, and boating in particular. I loved this entire trip for its slow pace, its silence, and its new perspective on a country I called home.

We travelled on huge waterways with larger vessels alongside us and highways crossing over top, but we also cruised down narrow canals so shallow we would have been able to stand in the water. We gazed out and saw green grassy paddocks with fat cows grazing, but we also went through villages where we gazed in at cafes and houses as we passed by. We passed tiny churches and huge windmills. We didn’t travel far, but the variety of what we saw and experienced was extraordinary.

We went under innumerable bridges: some opened like a drawbridge (hinged on one side), some lifted straight up on four posts, some were hinged on both sides and opened in the middle, some spun out of the way, and some didn’t open at all so we all ducked down while we squeezed underneath. Wait, don’t stop reading! The bridges were really interesting, I promise!

Watch your head! Some bridges only allowed a few inches of clearance.

Here the bridge just lifts vertically on four posts. Fascinating, right? Right? Hello?

Let me draw you back in by talking about…locks. No, really. We went through many locks which were astounding to me. They have opening times, did you know? And traffic lights. And you queue up to take your turn going through them. The massive doors open and you guide your boat in, tethering your rope to a hook on the side of the lock. The walls are concrete and tower above you. You wait. Then water starts rushing in, swirling around. You feel the boat start to rise and soon you come up from the dark depths into the sunshine. The doors creak open on the other side and out you go. But not before placing a tip in the wooden clog that hangs down the side of the lock. What’s not to love about that?

We’re waiting in our final lock of the trip. You can see how much higher we are than the water on the other side. Those clever Dutchmen!

Massive doors opening and the adventure continues!

Story that needs to be told: The boat we used was our friend’s father’s boat. It was immaculately maintained and cared for. The wood glowed from polishing, the metal fixings shone and had not a speck of rust on them, and everything had its place. It was obvious that this was a craft from which he took much pleasure and pride. Five young adults borrowing it for a weekend probably did not fill him with confidence.

He needn’t have worried though because his son was very careful and responsible. Our friend navigated many tricky locks and bridges without any problem.

He should have, on the other hand, worried about me.

We were leisurely puttering along near the end of our trip on a small canal in a very rural spot. Large lily pads with spiky white flowers crowded the banks. It was quiet except for the happy shouts of some kids cooling off in the water near a bridge. I was lounging in my usual spot on the cushioned bench of the boat. I swung my arm up onto the edge of the boat as you would along the back of a couch and knocked something with my elbow. It was a pole for the sun canopy. And it silently dropped into the dark water and disappeared.

My mouth went dry.

I looked around. No one had noticed anything, they were too busy enjoying the trip…on the immaculate boat…that we BORROWED…from a man who would now hate me. Should I say something? (C’mon, it would cross your mind, too.)

I piped up and confessed that I had caused a pole to drop over the side. We stopped and circled around. We stared expectantly at the water as if the pole might eventually surface, gasping for air, and spluttering “SHE pushed me in!!”

It did not surface.

We asked those boys who were swimming to come and comb the canal bed with their feet in the hopes they would feel it. I wanted to help, too, but to be perfectly honest there was no amount of guilt that would get me to drag my feet along the murky, muddy bottom of a canal. Let the keen 12 year old boys do it! They searched, but found nothing so we were forced to admit that it was gone forever. We paid the boys for having risked their lives (seriously, have you ever seen what they dredge out of canals??) and we went on our way.

Our friend’s Dad never said anything to me about the lost pole. It may have been because he didn’t think my Dutch was good enough, but I like to think that it was because he was kind and gracious enough to recognize that one pole is worth sacrificing for a weekend of stellar memories.

“Better lose the anchor than the whole ship” Dutch Proverb

Beautiful Holland. Don’t let me borrow your windmill, I might break it!