Munich Christmas Markets and Krampus Run

Hmm... What to do during the cold winter months in Europe... 

We heard that Germany had some amazing Christmas Markets markets, so we booked a direct flight to Munich based on the city's high Christmas Market ratings (according to google). 

There are around 20 Christmas Markets in Munich and we probably only visited around 5.  Our favourite one was the medieval market which had a fun theme - people were dressed up and there was a free show with sword fighting for entertainment.  
Spoiler alert: The girl knight kills them all and saves the world (ok it was all in German, but that was our interpretation).

We enjoyed window shopping and tasting different foods like the local bratwurst and various fried dough snacks.  Wherever there were long lineups, we lined up!  

It was humid and cold, so we also learned how to warm ourselves up like the locals - by stopping to taste almost every variety of Glühwein (mulled wine) that we could find!  The black cherry one (kirschglühwein) was the best!  Each Glühwein stall has their own custom mugs - you pay for the wine plus a 1-2€ deposit for the mug and you can either keep the cute mug or return it to get your deposit back.

As usual, we did a free walking tour to learn about Munich’s history.


Our trip became extra worthwhile when our tour guide mentioned that there was going to be a "Krampus Run" at 15:00 that day.  A “what” run….?  Yeah, at the time, we had no idea what a Krampus Run was but we were told that it only happens twice a year and that we just happened to be here at the right time, so of course we had to go check it out! 

In North America, when kids are good, they are rewarded with Santa bringing them presents for Christmas.  If they are naughty, Santa gives them coal.

In Germany / parts of Europe, when kids are good, they are also rewarded with Saint Nicholas bringing them presents for Christmas.  If they are naughty, the Krampus comes in the middle of the night to scare them, sweep them up into a giant bag, and take them away from their parents!!

Krampus are horned demons - seemingly the counterpart to Santa or Saint Nicholas. The Krampus Run consisted of around 300 people  wearing very elaborate and scary demon costumes, parading through Munich’s main streets tricking, teasing, scaring, and beating up the spectators.  Although all in good fun, some were a bit rough when hitting you in the leg with their sticks!


The costumes were seriously amazing though - all of the Krampus stank like animals because they were wearing real goat fur!

Not all of our adventures are as glamorous as our blog might have you believe!  

We were supposed to have a very early flight Monday morning to get back in time for work, but little did we know that the Train Operators were scheduled to be on strike precisely on that Monday morning (of all the dates and times they could have picked...!!).  

On Monday morning, we set off extra early to catch the first train of the day to give ourselves plenty of time to get to the airport.  We noticed that the train station monitors had something written in German that we couldn't understand but figured it was just because the service hadn't started yet.  We bought our tickets and stood on the platform for some time waiting for the train.  There were other people waiting on the platform but no trains showed up and the monitors still didn't update with the train schedules.  We eventually tried to ask around, but at that hour, there were very few employees working and none of them spoke English.  We finally figured out that they were trying to tell us that the airport trains were not running from this station and that we needed to go to the central train station instead.  We still didn't know that it was due to a strike - we thought google just had an inaccurate station schedule.  

We contemplated using Uber instead, but after seeing it would be €107 for the ride, we decided to walk to the central station.  We found someone there who spoke some English and told us about the strike.  They pointed us toward the stop for the Airport Shuttle Bus that we would have to take instead.  The lineup was HUGE.  After waiting for 30 minutes, there was still no bus to be seen.

Time was starting to feel tight.  We made several attempts at booking a taxi using a local taxi app and phone number but had no success with either.  After much deliberation, we decided to bite the bullet and book an Uber despite the (now) €150 fare to get to the airport.  The Uber booking attempts also failed - "no cars available for pickup".  

We started to notice people jumping out of the line trying to claim and share the taxis that happened to be dropping other passengers off at the train station.  It was dog fight as these taxis were few and far between.

The lady behind us commented that the Airport Shuttles didn't seem to be coming and asked if we wanted to split a taxi to the airport. We told her that all of our taxi/Uber booking attempts had been failing.  She said she had a friend who could get us a taxi so we agreed.  After some time, her friend called back and was also unsuccessful at getting through to book a taxi.  The three of us decided to walk to a different road to flag down a taxi - still no luck.  

We returned to the back of the line feeling stressed as our flight time continued to inch closer.  After another 20 minutes of waiting in the unmoving line, a shuttle finally arrived.  It loaded up passengers and the line barely moved.  We finally made the decision to bail.  

We went into the train station McDonalds for a coffee and used their internet to booked another flight out.  On the plus side, there happens to be plenty of flights to London so we were able to book new flights for 4pm that afternoon at €192 for both of us. Since, earlier, we had gotten to the point where we were willing to pay €150 for the Uber, we reasoned that needing to pay for that new flight wasn't so bad.  Plus, since the train strike ended at noon, we were able to make use of the €23 of train tickets that we had already purchased that morning.  Lastly, thanks to our very flexible employer, we were able to make up the hours we missed during subsequent evenings/weekend.

As soon as the strike ended we went straight to the airport and discovered a full fledged Christmas market right at the Munich airport - with an actual skating rink! 

It was a long day, but we happily made it back home and wrapped up the trip with a good early night's sleep.

Seville

To escape the cold creeping into the UK, we went for a weekend in Seville. Seville is a wonderful European city with nice architecture, plenty of history and, most importantly, lovely food. 

We did yet another walking tour to get a good overview of the city and learn a few fun facts:
  • Sevilla is the capital of Andalucia and its main industry is tourism
  • The Moors were in Sevilla for around 500 years - it only took them 10 years to conquer the area.. it then took the Christians 500 years to take it back. 
  • When Columbus left to discover America, his departure port was from Sevilla.  
  • The city is covered with orange trees. The oranges are very bitter (which is why we didn't see anyone trying to pick/eat them) and are used for 2 things: 
    • Making marmalade for the UK (yep, we confirmed this with our UK friends)
    • Making a very sweet and delicious orange wine (vino naranja)
  • The University of Seville is located in what used to be the Royal Tobacco Factory (Real Fábrica de Tabacs) 
    • Traditionally, tobacco was ground up very fine and "sniffed" or shot up into the nostrils with a device
    • The gypsy woman character in the opera "Carmen", by Bizet, is a worker at the Real Fábrica de Tabacos. 

Seville was host to the 1929 Ibero-American Exposition (world fair).  In order to promote the city and tourism, they built the massive Plaza de Espana.  Unfortunately, the Great Depression began just months before the expo began, resulting in the exposition being a bit of a failure.  The expo building still remains and is a very impressive site to visit!


The Real Alcázar de Sevilla is a castle that was built by the Moors and survived as a royal palace through the various conquests. Today, it's still the official place where the Royal family stays when they are visiting Seville.  If you happen to come while they are visiting, the palace will be closed off to tourists. 

For those who are fans of the "Games of Thrones” series, this is also the location where many of the Dorne scenes were filmed.

On Saturday, we woke up early to do a Foody tour. The tour lasted 4.5 hours and we visited 3 markets, tasted some great local food, and learned all about the local culture.

Some of the things we tried:
  • Toast with olive oil, tomatoes, and fresh garlic (the "typical" Seville breakfast)
  • Salmorejo (Jen's favourite dish)
  • Fried Anemone ("Nemo’s home", according to our guide ;) )
  • Razor Fish
  • Micro shrimp
  • Jamón Ibérico
  • Manchego Cheese
  • Manzanilla (fino sherry)
  • Local Sangria (Fanta + Wine)


On Sunday, it poured all morning so we decided to sleep in and visit the Seville Cathedral in the afternoon.
  • The Catedral de Sevilla is the third largest cathedral in the world
  • It was built over-top of the previously existing mosque
  • The cathedral tower has 34 ramps (instead of stairs) that were used during mosque days by the muezzin, who would ride a donkey to the top of the tower 5 times a day to perform the Adhan (call to prayer)
  • Columbus is buried in the Seville Cathedral. Rumours say that Columbus did not want to be buried on Spanish soil, hence why his tomb sits in the cathedral atop 4 statues.

Just across the river from Sevilla is a neighbourhood called Triana.  People from Sevilla say that Triana is where the Gypsies invented Flamenco (... apparently there are several cities in Andalucia who also claim to be the "birthplace" of Flamenco :) )

We decided to check out a Flamenco show one evening and it was brilliant!  We attended a small show with only ~20 people in a tiny local pub so we felt really up close and personal with the dancers, guitarist, and singer.  We also got our first taste of vino naranja (orange wine) - YUM!!



Lille aux Merveilleux

We took a quick Eurostar hop across the pond to Lille, France for a weekend. 

Here we tried a local delicacy called “Merveilleux”. It’s a pastry made from meringue topped with ganache and surrounded with sprinkles. It was melt-in-your-mouth delicious!  


Dinner was at a really delicious restaurant called “Le Barber Qui Fume” (The Barber who Smokes), where everything is smoked (really everything). 

We checked out the Lille Zoo which only costs 4 Euro for entry (it used to be free) and has a pretty impressive variety of animals including Red Pandas!

Lille is small so we visited the city quite quickly, but it made for a perfect little weekend adventure :) 


Amsterdam

Now that the Eurostar has direct trains from London to Amsterdam (only one way so far), it gave us extra incentive to visit Amsterdam :) 

We decided to do a walking tour to start off our trip and enjoyed it so much that we booked another one for the next day. 

Our first tour covered 3 km and recounted the history of Amsterdam through story-telling, and the second tour was 6.5 km through areas that are more off the beaten path.  Both tours were super interesting and funny.  In particular, the first tour was one of the most interesting walking tours we've ever done!  Here are a few notable things they told us:
  • The name Amsterdam comes from the dam built on the river Amstel that passes through the city.
  • Holland ("wood lands") is the western part of the Netherlands ("low lands").  It lies largely below sea level.
  • Since Amsterdam is located on swamp land, each house is built to sit on 40 to 50 wood posts that run 15 meter deep.  This helps to prevent the houses from sinking.  
  • The entire city burned down twice in history, so now there are only only 2 wooden houses left.
  • Napoleon, after his conquest, forced everyone to have surnames. Hollanders previously didn't use surnames and thought the idea was silly, so they made up silly surnames for themselves thinking it was just temporary. Although the French left, the surnames stayed, so, to this day many people still have their funny Dutch surnames such as Naaktgeboren ("born naked"), Piest ("urinating"), Poepjes ("little farts"), etc.


As you walk through the streets, you notice that the houses looks like they are falling over or leaning out into the street.  Sometimes this is due to the rotting of their wooden support posts, but in many cases, the leaning construction is actually intentional!  If you look up at the top of many homes you will see a pulley, rope, and hook.  The pulley system allows for furniture/goods to be easily hoist to the upper floors and attic.  Having the house tilted slightly forward allows the item to be pulled straight up without bumping into the front of the building on the way up.


The Red Light district
  • We always thought it was legal to consume marijuana in Amsterdam, but learned that it's actually "illegal, but tolerated".  Shops are licensed to sell it, even though it’s illegal.
  • Prostitution became legal and regulated in 2000. 
    • On average a lady gets 12 to 16 patron per 8 hour shift
    • The average time that a man spends with the woman is 8 minutes 
    • There are no male prostitutes for women - apparently they did try, but it failed after 4 days 

Jen couldn't wait to try all the Dutch Pancake restaurants we could find!

One of the other highlights of our trip was our hotel.  Hotel Not Hotel had a great location, amazing atmosphere, and a really fun twist on their variety of rooms - one room was made from an old tram car, others were "secret rooms" hidden behind the bookshelves.. and their "Kevin Bacon" restaurant food was delicious!!


There were so many interesting things we learned during the tour (way too many to blog about :) ).  So if you're planning to visit Amsterdam we definitely recommend taking the free walking tour with Free Dam Tours to find out more!  

Dover Castle and Tunnels

Dom’s nephew, Emilio, is currently studying political science in Lyon.  He decided to hop on a train to come visit us for a weekend. 

Since we didn't have much time to visit Dover during our previous trip (where we hiked from Folkestone to Deal), we decided to bring Emilio to visit the Dover Castle and the WWII Fan Bay Shelter.  

Our first stop was the white cliffs of Dover, before hiking up to Fan Bay Deep Shelter.

The shelter is a network of tunnels and accommodations 23 meters below the surface.  It was built to house the artillery crew protecting the English Channel during WWII. Our guide was very enthusiastic about the tunnels and seemed to really enjoy the opportunity to share the experience with us. His excitement was contagious, making it a very interesting instructive experience.  

Dover's white cliffs are made of chalk which formed from the remains of animals that died and decayed at the bottom of the sea over a million years ago - yep that means the 110m high cliffs of Dover actually used to be at the bottom of the sea!  Since the tunnel walls are chalk, there are many names and dates carved into the walls by those living there during the war.


Before heading home, we stopped to visit the medieval Dover Castle which also has tunnels that were used as a war room during WWII. You can even go out to the balcony where Churchill stood to watch the battles taking place in the channel.

Paris

Harjit came to visit us in London during the royal wedding.  

The following weekend, we went to Paris for a weekend since it's been her life-long dream to go there!  We window-shopped, drank wine, walked everywhere, and checked out all of the main tourist sites including Notre-dame, Arc-de-triomphe, Champs-Élysées, Montmarte, the parks, and of course the Eiffel Tower.

We also went to the Louvres where the Mona Lisa gallery was packed with people (as usual)! 
Try to find Harjit in this pic:

Newcastle

Part of Jen’s daily commute to Slough includes a 20 min train ride that costs £14.90 (return). We saw a seat-sale to go to Newcastle-upon-Tyne which is 3.5h by train and only costed £19, so we decided to go there for a quick weekend get-away. 

We didn't have any plans or expectations so we just relaxed, wandered, and checked out the markets.

We stopped by the mall to watch a movie discovered the longest foosball game ever! ;)

Porto

Porto has been on our list for quite some time, but we never managed to get over there until now … and it was really worth it!  

Porto is a great town with lots to see, do, drink and eat. We spent 3.5 days there and would have happily stayed several more. The fact that it was hot and sunny definitely helped ;).

One of the first things we did was a walking tour with Porto Walkers to get some insight into the history of Portugal, Porto, and Gaia. Here are some fun facts according to our guide: 
  • As soon as we arrived we noticed that the bread and pastries in Porto are really yellow.  Apparently the reason for this is because the churches used egg whites for laundry and plaster (and there are a lot of churches here!).  They needed a way to use up the egg yolks, so it was added to the bread and Dom's new favourite Portuguese dessert, Pastel de Nata (egg-tarts)!
  • Cod is considered a staple part of the Porto diet, but 100% of it is imported. It's dried and salted for preservation and is called Bacalhau. 
  • Portugal has the longest lasting alliance with England
  • During the dictatorship (yep there was a dictatorship in Portugal), the ruling government built medieval castles, rewrote history, and even made the Porto cathedral look like a castle.

One of the things Porto is most known for is Port Wine, but all of the port cellars are actually located in Gaia, the city across the river.  
We did a port wine tour that took us to 3 port cellars (Ramos Pinto, Quinta Santa Eufemia and Porto Cruz), where we tasted 7 different ports (white, pink, ruby and tawny).  

More interesting facts from the tour:
  • The port cellars are in Gaia (not Porto) because Gaia had lower tax and is north-facing, therefore less hot/sunny
  • Gaia is the city with most alcohol per square meter, in the world
  • Port is made by fermenting grapes and then adding cognac
    • The grapes are fermented for 2, 3 or 4 days.  Cognac is then added causing the fermentation process to stop.
    • There is about 20% cognac to 80% wine. 
    • The cognac has around 70% to 80% alcohol content when it is added.
  • Types of port:
    • White: Made from white grapes
    • Ruby: Aged 3 to 10 years in a large vat.  Has less contact with the wood and air resulting in a darker colour and fruitier flavour. 
    • Tawny: Aged 4 to 40 years in smaller barrel.  More contact with wood and oxygen results in flavours of spices, dry fruit and caramel.
    • Vintage: Only available in really special years when the Port Institute decides that the year's batch is so good that it can be called a "Vintage Port".
  • In the 17th century, port was created as a way to ensure the wine destined for England did not spoil.  The modern version of port was introduced around 1850
  • The life of a port barrel is as follows: it holds wine for the first 5 years, then port for 40 to 80 years, then ends with fermenting whiskey.
  • Port grapes are grown in the Douro valley which is 150 km from Porto. 
    • The soil of the Douro Valley is made of shale which sometimes had to be loosened with dynamite in order to plant the vines. 
    • Summer temperatures reach 40 to 45 degrees Celsius with little rain.  In winter it snows.
    • The vine roots can grow up to 20 meters long
    • They are not allowed to water the vines in the summer unless there is a really bad drought
    • Port can be made from 120 different types of grapes

Since we were there for a few days, we also spent a day walking to the coast since we heard the views were really nice.  Unfortunately, by the time we reached the end, a thick fog appeared so we had no view. 

One of our biggest travel highlights is the food experience.  We tried Bacalhau (salted cod), Dobrada Guisada (tripe stew), and Pastel de Nata (these were our favourite!).

We also read that one of the must-try local specialties is a super sandwich called the Francesinha.
The Francesinha was inspired by the French sandwich, Croque Monsieur: bread, meat, cheese, sauce.  The creator decided to make it even better by adding more meat, an egg, more bread, more meat again, smothered in cheese, drenched in gravy, and placed over a bed of fries.  The whole dish is then put in the oven and served hot. A delicious year's dose of cholesterol :)

We tried 2 of the more "popular" restaurants: Lado B and Cafe Santiago-F.  Both were good, but we had a slight preference for Cafe Santiago as the sauce was a little spicier.  Lado B had a really nice smoked-tofu vegetarian option that was also surprisingly delicious!


When we first arrived in Porto, we noticed a few people dressed nicely and wearing capes.  We assumed there was some sort of concert or dress rehearsal happening in the area and didn't think much of it.  As the hours/days passed and we explored further around the city, we continued to see more and more people dressed in capes.  We started to think there was a Harry Potter convention in town. 
At one point there was a group of them lined up and chanting and on our last day there was a massive parade of them!  We finally found out that this was all part of a university student week called Queima das Fitas.  We think it's supposed to be a fun celebration but a couple of the students seemed upset and were crying (not sure why)!  The parade was interesting to watch for a bit and Dom was tempted to buy a cape too!  

Folkestone to Deal

Being away from home, one of the things we miss is opportunities to go on hikes through the mountains. Obviously the London area isn't the most mountainous, but Jen did a bit of researched and found a multi-day architecture walk (ChalkUp21) along the southern coast, from Folkestone to Deal (around a 30 km walk in 2 days).

We took a 1 hour train to Folkestone, stopped for breakfast, grabbed some snacks for the trip, then made our way to the trail.  We hiked the North Downs Way Coastal Trail, stopping at a few places along the way: from big horns, to Napoleonic towers and WWII bunkers.

In Dover, we were greeted by the famous Banksy Brexit Street art.  We walked around town, saw the castle from afar, and went for dinner.  The city wasn't particularly interesting, but the castle looked really nice from outside so we made a note to come back and visit it and the WWII tunnels another day. 

The next morning, we set off for Deal along the white cliffs of Dover.  We admired the scenery of the cliffs while passing by the Lighthouse, St Margaret's Bay, the Dover Patrol Obelisk, and Walmer Castle along the way.

We ended our day like all great outings in the UK: with a meal and drink at the local pub!

Ljubljana

For Easter, we decided to visit Ljubljana (or "jube-jube", as Dom calls it), the capital city of Slovenia. 

Unfortunately they were forecasting a lot of rain and overcast days, so we made sure to enjoy our first day visiting the city.  So we walked pretty much everywhere that we could, visiting the markets, stopping for some really good ice cream, and tasting local dishes.

Day 2
As predicted, the second day rained, so we drove out to visit the Postonja Cave and Predjama Castle where we could spend most of our time indoors. 

The Postonja cave is extremely touristy and was super busy even though it was a Thursday afternoon. The cave complex is just amazing!  There's about 24km of caves and we explored about 3.5 km by train plus another 1.5km by foot.  The attraction is really well maintained and full of information - did you know that it takes about 100 years to get 1cm of stalactite?  It's so crazy to think about that when you see the size of some of these formations!  Despite the attraction having a small Disney-like train into the caves, it was definitely still worth the trip.

In the same region, we also visited Predjama Cave.  
According to the audio tour, this castle holds the Guinness World Record for being the BIGGEST CASTLE IN THE WORLD!!   ...that is in a cave.  (haha)

The local legend was that a Slovenian "Robin Hood" named Erazem Lueger lived here.  He held the castle through a 1 year + 1 day siege, leaving the attackers baffled at how they could survive for so long.  Erazem had been sneaking out the back through hidden tunnels to replenish their food and supplies.  The castle eventually fell one night when Erazem went to the bathroom.  A servant had betrayed him and told the attackers that this was the weakest section of the impenetrable walls.  When the servant lit a torch in the window to signal the attackers, a cannon ball was fired toward the bathroom, killing Erazem. 
Since the castle is built into a cave, it was very interesting to see the man-made architecture mixed with the natural rock formations.

Day 3
The rain continued on our third day, but we still decided to try visiting the country side.  Our first stop was Lake Bled, a beautiful lake surrounded by mountains, with a church on a small island in the centre of the lake.  The scenery here is meant to be a picture-perfect postcard image.  Unfortunately, when there's fog, a sky full of rain and clouds, and no sunshine, it was rather ordinary.  We still enjoyed our day walking partially around the lake and hiking up to the castle, the highlight was the famous Lake Bled Cream Cake that we tried at a local bakery - a lighter version of the "mille feuilles" minus the almond-icing.  We also samples some local blueberry and honey liqueurs that were very tasty! 

We also went to a nearby gorge, but only managed to walk a small portion of it since the rest was closed due to slippery conditions from the rain. 

On our way home, we stopped by small village to go to a restaurant called Vila Podvin, which was recommended by our Airbnb host.  

We were wet and muddy, so when we saw how fancy place was, we thought they might turn us away!  Instead, they happily seated us and treated us to an amazing dinner of modern Slovenian cuisine.  We weren't hungry enough for the 5 course meal, so we just opted for the “a la carte” menu. After taking our order, the waiter mentioned that he would bring out a selection of appetizers to go with our meal.  The menu was on the pricy side, so we assumed this meant we'd end up with a monster bill in the end... but after a slight hesitation, we just decided to go along with it... why not, we're here!  We thought it'd just be one or two small things, but they just kept coming..!
- Foie gras with brioche
- Soft-cooked egg with polenta, crackling, and potato foam served in the shell
- Sourdough bread with 4 flavours of butter
- Mackerel on .. a ball of white stuff..? 
- Cannoli filled with goat cheese paste

Despite the starters including several ingredients that Jen isn't a big fan of (ie. Foie gras, Mackerel, goat cheese), we were both blown away at how delicious the little appetizers were!  

The main meals we had ordered were also good, but the starters definitely stole the show!  We were also shocked when we received the bill and discovered that all of the starters were complimentary!  :).  The food and atmosphere at Vila Podvin were amazing.  We would definitely return!

Days 4 and 5
We spent our last 2 days checking out the rest of Ljubljana.  We saw a huge line at one of the market stalls making fresh pizza, so of course we had to join it.  The pizzas came out piping hot and were so delicious, that we lined again for more!  

We also discovered Börek, a puff pastry filled with various things such as cheese, potato, spinach, etc.  It was tasty and really inexpensive so we ate it almost every day for breakfast or lunch!  The best one we found was at a bakery a bit further way called Pekarna Jurčkova.  We noticed that Truffles seem quite popular here, so we bought some to bring back to London.

We stayed at a very lovely Airbnb where the owners decorated everything with a modern-retro 1960s look.  It was clear that a lot of thought was put into every single item in the apartment!  The location wasn't as central as the hotels in the core, but the room was super cute, the hosts had excellent food recommendations, and it fit in our budget! :)