tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:/posts Beyond The Maple Tree 2022-01-04T20:33:26Z tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1519819 2020-03-06T18:11:00Z 2022-01-04T20:33:26Z Our last "new wonder of the world" in Mexico Our friends Guy and Cynthia had a week of vacation in March so we decided to travel with them and experience a Mexico all-inclusive resort. 

It’s definitely not our typical style of travel, but we were looking for a hassle-free vacation and settled on Mexico because it was a short flight and was nearby the final "new 7 wonders of the world" on our checklist.  Note: We still haven't seen the Pyramids in Egypt, but those are now considered to be on the "old wonders of the world" list. 

We stayed in Riviera Maya on a resort called "Catalonia Riviera Maya”.  It was a pretty nice resort with most of the amenities you would normally expect.  We had fun relaxing, eating, reading, snorkelling, kayaking, and participating in some of the hotel’s activities.   We also decided to book 2 hassle-free excursions with Sunwing: Coba Express, and Chichen Itza / Cenote Maya.

"Coba Express" was a quick half-day tour to a somewhat-less-touristy ruin called Coba, located 2.5 hours South of our resort. 

Here are a few fun facts we learned about Coba: 
  • Coba means "plenty of water". 
  • The first ruler of Coba was a woman
  • Coba had about 5000 inhabitants during its golden years
  • The rulers were "gods" and would modify their physical appearance to look like gods. They gave themselves tattoos, sharpened teeth, wore complex costumes made of feathers, and pressed their heads between wood pieces to have cone-shaped heads. 
  • The rulers also controlled their subjects through their knowledge of mathematics and astronomy - they were able to predict eclipse occurrences and used that knowledge to install fear in their subjects.
  • Mayan had a really complex set of numbers - it was base 20, whereas ours is base 10 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Maya_numerals
  • The 2012 end-of-the-world calendar was the end of one measure in their number system 
  • Cenotes, the Mayan's primary source of drinking water, contains a lot of calcium carbonate. It was estimated that the life expectancy of Mayans was about 40 to 50 years old as they would get kidney stones from the water.

Chichen Itza
We drove Northwest for about 3 hours and visited the Chichen Itza site for ~2 hours.  We then visited a Cenote on the return back. We chose to take a smaller van tour and it was worth it as we arrived at the touristy site well before all of the giant buses, so we were able to see the site with fewer tourists. 

Factoids (from our guide):
  • The entire site is 27 sq. km - we only visited about 3 sq. km of it
  • Guatemala was the heart of the Mayan culture which included Belize, part of Salvador, and part of Mexico
  • The main temple is oriented to the 4 cardinal points.  It took 1 or 2 generations to complete and was finished around ~1100 AC.
  • Only the High Priest was allowed to go up the temple
  • Only the ruler, high priest, and some merchants, were actually allowed to live within the city. Regular people lived outside the city.
  • The site was populated for about 1000 years
    • At around 400AC, people started moving from Guatemala to the region around Chichen Itza
    • Starting ~200AC, conflicts arose in the region.  
    • By 1470 AC, the site was completely abandoned, and Christopher Columbus arrived in America 24 years later.
    • The Spanish arrived in the area in 1526 AC
  • Historians think that the region was abandoned due to a big drought around ~1000 AC 

Lastly, and probably the highlight of our excursions, was the Cenote. Cenotes are underground caves and the one we visited was huge.  Here we rappelled 23m down into the water to swim and play for a while, then experienced a Mayan blessing ceremony, and had a traditional lunch before heading back to our resort.

While we were in Mexico, reports of the first presumptive cases of Covid-19 in Calgary had begun.  We were fortunate and returned to Calgary on March 7th - just 1 week before Calgary declared a state of emergency.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1527734 2020-01-11T03:57:00Z 2021-05-09T21:43:24Z Vietnam 2019 This year, Jen started a new job that gave her the opportunity to work for 2 months at the office in Ho Chi Minh, Vietnam. 

It was an unforgettable experience and she had such a great time meeting her Vietnamese co-workers who were so kind and welcoming. They gave her a taste of the local way of life and work culture in Vietnam, and showed her some of the best local restaurants and foods in the area around the office.  They also went on a company trip to Rạch Giá and Nam Du Island.  It was such a privilege to have this opportunity to meet and work with such an amazing and fun group of people!

Jen's parents and Dom also came to visit Vietnam for a few weeks!
We did the usual Mui Ne + Hoi An visits, met up with friends, and enjoyed the Vietnamese food. 

On this trip, we did 2 new things that we hadn't done before: 

1) Lantern Making 

In Hoi An, we took a class on how to make Vietnamese lanterns. It’s a 4-hour class where you frame and cover the lantern with the fabric of your choice!  It was really enjoyable and we were all very happy with our creations .

2) Bà Nà Hills 

On our way back from Hoi An, we stopped in Da Nang to visit the Golden Bridge. It’s a popularly Instagrammed bridge held up by a pair of giant hands.  The actual bridge is just a small portion of a bigger complex/park, which is built to have the look and feel of a European city. A 20 minutes gondola brings you up to the village (a nice place go if you need to escape a zombie apocalypse). We took time to explore the area and enjoy the relaxing scenery. 

A trip to Vietnam would not be the same without seeing people manage to transport something on their scooter, which would think is impossible!
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405860 2019-05-05T11:50:00Z 2021-05-09T20:37:22Z Dubai We were worried that a 16-day cruise would be really long and start to get boring, but it passed super fast and before we knew it, the last days of our cruise were sadly upon us. 

We arrived in Dubai around 2 PM and were greeted by a lovely landscape view of the Burj Khalifa towering over the skyline.

We hopped into a taxi to visit the tallest building in the world and surrounding attractions. Along the way, we saw some of Dubai's amazing architecture and were in awe seeing the large number of active sky-scraper construction projects underway. 

At the Dubai Mall, we strolled through the surrounding areas and went inside to see some of the mall attractions like the Aquarium and the indoor waterfall. We grabbed a bite to eat while watching the world's largest light and sound show on the Burj Khalifa.

The next day we departed the boat and left our travel companions behind 😢 to continue their cruise to Singapore. 

We strapped on our backpacks and went to explore “La Mer”, a new sea-side resort area close to the ship.  It was really pretty, but crazy hot!  We spent a couple of hours exploring and then headed back to the airport to made our way to London.. and back to reality.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405439 2019-04-26T07:49:00Z 2021-05-09T20:08:51Z Suez Canal On day 9 of our cruise, we passed through the Suez Canal. 

It took about 10 hours to cross and was a pretty uneventful other than seeing a few landmarks along the way. 

One interesting part of the journey was to see the contrast between the East and West sides of the canal. 

On the West side you see cities and trees. 

While on the East side it's mostly desert. 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405438 2019-04-23T07:48:00Z 2021-05-09T19:33:52Z Athens by Bike
At our third cruise port, Athens, we decided to explore the city by bike!  We were able to cover a lot more ground to get a good overview of the city, but it did not allow us to visit specific sites (like the Acropolis). 

We had a great guide who stopped regularly to tell us myths about the city and the gods... Like why is Athens called Athens: 

Here is the short version: Athena (God of Wisdom) and Poseidon (God of the sea) fought to be the patron god of the city. They both presented a gift to the king so that he could choose a winner. Poseidon made a spring while Athena gave the city an olive tree seed. Unfortunately, the spring water was salted so the king choose Athena and named the city Athens.

Here is the slightly longer version: https://www.greeka.com/attica/athens/myths/athens-name-giving/

One of the best stops on our tour was at a local bakery where our guide bought us some traditional Spanakopita, Bougatsa (a traditional dessert), and other delicious treats to taste :)
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405436 2019-04-21T19:46:00Z 2021-02-08T14:24:54Z Capri
Our second Cruise port stop was Naples. From here we decided to get on another boat and go explore the island of Capri and its famous Blue Grotto.

When we arrived in Capri, we switched to a smaller boat to head to the Blue Grotto. At the blue grotto, we switch to an even smaller boat to enter this small hole in the wall. It was a boating extravaganza ;)

Once we entered the cave, this amazing blue aura appeared in the water around us. The reflection from the sun in the water of the cave was just magnificent.  Our boat driver sang while paddling us around the cave a few times.  The visit was short, the cave was small and it was crowded with many boats.. but the experience was still quite enjoyable.

After our quick Blue Grotto excursion, we climbed to the top of Capri to have some delicious Naplesese pizza.

We finished our day by exploring the cute city. 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405435 2019-04-20T19:45:00Z 2020-11-29T22:49:31Z Orvieto and Bagnoregio The first stop on our Cruise to Dubai was Civitavecchia (the Rome port city). Since all of us had been to Rome before, we decided to book a private tour and explore Orvieto and Bagnoregio.

Cita di Bagnoregio is a small town near Rome that sits on a hill, like a lot of cities in the region.  It was abandoned for a long time, but now has about 15 inhabitants that most likely are there to caters to tourists.  The base of this city is eroding slowly, so eventually, it will slowly be abandoned again.

From here we set out to Orvieto to see their famous cathedral and the other sites in the city

We also had enough time to take a tour of some of the tunnels below the city that were dug through the years. They were used for different things: such as cellars, water storage, and even as a coup for pigeons.

Lastly, on our way back to our ship, we stopped on top of a hill to admire the view of a big lake in the region. 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1405886 2019-04-17T12:22:00Z 2020-11-29T22:32:15Z Barcelona to Dubai Cruise We decided to join Jen’s parents on a 16-day cruise from Barcelona to Dubai on a new Royal Caribbean ship called the Spectrum of the Seas. This was a good way to spend some time with them and relax. The Spectrum was a brand new boat and our portion of the trip was considered the inaugural trip.  The full journey was destined for Singapore where the boat would be stationed to serve the Asian market. 

Although this was a long cruise, it only stopped at the following ports: 
  • Barcelona 
  • Civitavecchia (Rome)
  • Naples
  • Athens
  • Aquaba
  • Dubai

The rest of the time we kept busy with multiple activities. Here are a few that we enjoyed: 

  • Progressive Trivia: Every day, we participated in a trivia contest that tested random knowledge. We learned a lot about South Africa (since that's where the trivia host was from), a lot about different phobias, and what random groups of animals are called.  Did you know that a group of owls is called a parliament?

  • Flow Rider: Yay

  • iFly: No better way to dry out your gums 

  • Fencing: This was their first attempt at having this activity on a ship, so the experience was pretty short, but it was fun to give it a try since neither of us had ever tried fencing before.. plus there is nothing like being equipped with a sword and saying, "Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die!" 

  • North Star: The North Star is a big bubble on top of the ship that gives you a bird's eye view of the ship. It seemed like a silly idea at first, but in the end, we were surprised at how impressive the view actually was.

  • Morning Yoga: Every other day they had free yoga classes :)

  • Comedy, Music Shows, and movies on the top deck: At night we had a variety of entertainment opportunities with semi-known performers.

Jen's parents stayed on the boat for another journey all the way to Singapore. But we had to go back to work after Dubai. 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1450197 2019-03-18T19:24:00Z 2020-06-02T22:34:01Z Spring Visitors
This year, we were fortunate enough to have some visitors in the Spring. 

Guy and Cynthia came for about 1 week and we had a great time exploring London with them. 

The Kiss family also came for a quick long-weekend. It was such a pleasure to see them again. 

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1394771 2019-03-11T15:05:00Z 2020-06-01T02:08:48Z Sintra Not far from Lisbon, there is a weird Lego-like palace called Sintra. It looked really vibrant and so different from other castles we had visited in the past. 

The Pena Palace was built in the mid-1800s on top of an old monastery. It was built as a royal summer residence but is now a royal attraction. If you want to know more, check out Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pena_Palace

After our stroll of the colorful palace, we walked over to visit another castle on the adjacent hill, overlooking Pena Palace.  This castle felt completely opposite to the Pena Palace.  Where Pena Palace is bright and vibrant, the old Moor castle is dark and gloomy. It was built by the Moors in the 8th and 9th centuries and is really worth the walk as you can go around the battlements and see the scenic surroundings. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_of_the_Moors)
The trip took us a full day and involved a lot of walking.. but it was definitely worth the visit. :)
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1394769 2019-03-10T13:01:00Z 2020-04-12T22:55:59Z Belem While in Lisbon, we wanted to go to a nearby town called Belem.  To get there, we decided to try out some electric Lime scooters for the first time!  

We zipped along the coast toward Belem and stopped to admire the sites along the way.

We also stopped at the famous Pasteis de Belem, the bakery that makes pastel de nata using the original secret recipe from the Jerónimos Monastery. The line outside is huge, but it is actually just for people who are getting items for takeout.

The actual restaurant seats hundreds of people, so if you by-pass the line and go inside, you will pass through several different rooms where you can easily find a free table and enjoy some fresh tasty treats and meals for a great price!  We lucked out and got a seat on the patio where we had a nice relaxing lunch... with extra dessert :)

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1450201 2019-03-08T20:29:00Z 2019-10-03T00:01:35Z Lisbon We enjoyed our trip to Porto so much that we decided to check out Lisbon!

Lisbon is the largest city in Portugal, built on 7 hills (or is it 8?), home to the longing "Fado" genre of music, and most importantly.. sacred keepers of the original Pastel de Nata recipe! 

Since Pastel de Nata originated here, one of our missions was to taste-test as many as we could (without making ourselves sick ;) ). 

The two places we liked the most were Manteigaria

and Fabrica da Nata, which was recommended by our apartment host

Thanks to Dom's research, we also discovered that we could do a workshop at Pastelaria Batalha to learn how to make them ourselves!

Although the class isn't set up in a way that you can each individually make the pastries yourself, our chef kept it interesting and tried to have us participate in as many steps as possible. In the end we learned a lot, had fun, and got to eat more Pastel de Nata :)

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1375262 2019-02-05T15:38:00Z 2019-09-22T12:45:35Z Historic Granada
When we initially booked our trip to Granada, the only thing in our sites was the food.

After doing a bit of research, we discovered there's actually a lot of amazing history and architecture there as well!  We did a walking tour to check out the town, visit various sites, and enjoy the sun. 

Granada is home to Alhambra ("The Red One"), a great muslim fortress built between the 9th and 13th centuries.  

Within Alhambra, you need to book a reservation to visit the Nasrid palace, so we decided to reserve the first available spot to beat the crowds. It was a great idea, but it meant that we had to start our hike up to the palace in the -1ºC darkness.  Lucky for us, a small coffee stall was open at the top so we could stay warm while waiting for the palace to open. 

The Nasrid palace is huge and beautiful.  The walls are carved with incredibly detailed geometric patterns and the gardens are perfectly manicured.  A constant flow of fresh clean water flows through the many fountains and pools scattered in and around the palace.

We exited the Nasrid palace and and proceeded to Generallife. The name sounds like an insurance company or the name of a famous general, but it’s not. Generallife is another palace that was used during the summer because it lies up the hill in an area with slightly cooler temperatures.

We finished the tour visiting the rest of fortress grounds that overlook the city.

The most impressive part of Alhambra is its sheer size which allows you to appreciate it from the different points around the city. 

Our hotel was really close - we could easily spot it from Alhambra.

For more information about the history about Alhambra and Generallife, here is a good site: https://www.alhambradegranada.org/en/info/historicalintroduction.asp

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1375256 2019-02-05T13:28:00Z 2019-09-02T16:30:55Z Free Tapas in Granada
Granada, the city with so much history... and free tapas! 

We love traveling to discover new foods and thanks to "Anthony Bordain Parts Unknown : Spain", Jen learned that you can get free tapas in Granada, simply by ordering a €2 glass of wine!  It was a done deal - the cool February temperatures were a non-issue - cheap wine and free food would keep us plenty warm.

Ok, free is never really free. 
For N. Americans it's hard to believe that a €2 glass of wine could possibly be an "inflated" prices to cover the tapas since we're used to paying 2-3 times that at our restaurants, but locals here say that elsewhere in Spain, a glass of wine is normally only €1 without tapas.  In our experience, this was certainly the case when we went to San Sebastian, but the restaurants that we went to in Barcelona and Seville still charged €2-3/glass and didn't include tapas.

In any case, we did indeed experience firsthand that when you order a drink at a Tapas bar in Granada, it auto-magically comes with a Tapas plate that will not be charged to your bill.  You don't even have to ask for it - it just.. shows up at your table.  The drink doesn't even need to be alcoholic - Dom loved the local €1.60 mosto ("non-alcoholic wine" aka "grape juice") and every time he ordered it, food followed.

We ended up having great weather while in Granada, the first day only reached 8ºC, but our last days reached 17ºC. We felt especially grateful after hearing from friends and family that Canada was -38ºC with windchill.  

Evening temperatures in Granada cool significantly once the sun goes down, but this made for the perfect opportunity to taste their other local treat - hot chocolate and churros!  The hot chocolate on its own wasn't the greatest, but the combo really hit the spot when we needed to stop and warm up. 
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1394802 2018-12-26T15:53:00Z 2019-08-30T17:26:51Z Christmas in London This year, we decided to stick around and see what the holiday season is like in this part of the world.  We were thrilled that Dom's mom could join us to celebrate Christmas!

During the holiday season, a huge area of Hyde Park is taken over by the Winter Wonderland.  It started out as a small Christmas market back in 2007 and had been growing bigger and busier ever since.  

Best of all - it's free to enter!  

We went on a weekday to avoid the long lines and were amazed at how the peaceful Hyde Park had been transformed into this, massive carnival event.

Christmas is actually a wonderful time to visit London.  The city is covered with beautiful decorations on the buildings and through the streets.  Every high street (aka shopping street) has its own theme and each shop tries to out-do the other with elaborate and artistic window displays.  

Leading up to Christmas, the shopping areas are absolutely packed with people all day and night long.  The atmosphere is energetic yet relaxed, and everyone is out in the streets eating, drinking, shopping, and having a great time.

Then, overnight, the entire city stops.  

We ventured out on Christmas Day and the first things we heard was... silence.  It felt like we were wandering out in one of those zombie apocalypse movies where it feels like something is very wrong - it just feels too eerily quiet.  The trains and buses aren't running, there are very few cars or people in the streets, the neighbourhood shops and restaurants are all closed.  We actually hear the sounds of birds chirping far off in the distance.

If you venture to the main high streets you eventually start to see a few places open and a handful of tourists wandering the streets.  It's the perfect time to take in all of the lovely decorations without getting bumped and pushed around by hoards of people.

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1394803 2018-12-22T15:55:00Z 2019-08-27T03:13:56Z Hampton Court Palace
As Christmas approached, Dom’s mom flew to London to spend 10 days with us.  

Several people had recommended we visit Hampton Court Palace, one of the many palaces of Henry VIII.  Since Dom's mom loves European history, we finally had a good excuse to make our way out there.

The entire grounds are huge so we spent several hours there.  The impressive kitchen was built to feed the hundreds of people living and visiting the palace during Tudor times, and Henry VIII even had a huge 12 foot wine fountain in the middle of the courtyard with both red and white wine flowing for guests to drink.  

If you do plan to visit Hampton Court, definitely check out the events they have going on beforehand.  Apparently they periodically have food festivals and even fire up the palace kitchens to cook some of the traditional dishes from Tudor times!
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1353382 2018-12-10T10:08:00Z 2019-08-19T16:53:21Z 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.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1346560 2018-11-19T21:54:00Z 2019-08-17T14:23:25Z 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!!

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1345928 2018-10-07T21:26:00Z 2019-08-12T03:30:25Z 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 :) 

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1309067 2018-06-11T10:20:00Z 2019-08-21T17:18:51Z 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!  

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1324338 2018-06-03T10:28:00Z 2019-02-24T09:34:21Z 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.
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1324337 2018-05-28T10:25:00Z 2019-02-09T23:01:14Z 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:
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1283283 2018-05-13T20:05:00Z 2019-01-24T20:19:44Z 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! ;)
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1283293 2018-05-08T09:12:00Z 2019-01-21T00:09:36Z 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!  
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1283284 2018-04-15T08:05:00Z 2018-12-24T15:24:26Z 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!
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1268639 2018-04-02T21:46:00Z 2018-12-15T09:09:23Z 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! :)
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1269898 2018-02-18T11:51:00Z 2018-11-25T00:02:54Z Liverpool
One weekend we decided to visit Liverpool, home of the Beatles.

We visited a few iconic sites and the Beatles Story museum.  

Wandered around the city checking out the port and various architectural sites.

We also strolled through one of the most unique looking cathedrals we've seen in our travels - Metropolitan Cathedral.

Apparently Liverpool has the oldest Chinatown in Europe, and we happened to be there during Chinese new year!  We decided to stop by the Chinese supermarket for some supplies, checked out some of the New Years festivities, and ended our evening by warming up with a big bowl of noodle soup.

Before heading home, we stopped by the local Costco to buy a few things :)

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1203145 2017-10-16T01:30:00Z 2018-11-17T00:03:57Z Via Ferrata in Switzerland
During our first trip to Switzerland, we learned about Via Ferratas from Jen's cousin, Shannon. Unfortunately, it was too cold and late in the season for us to go. 

Since the weather was really nice this time, Shannon offered to take us and it was SO worth it!  

A Via Ferrata is a route making method to make passage easier and more secure. It’s done by a installing steel steps, handles, ladder rungs, and a steel cable in places where the trail steepens. Now, they are used for adventure seeker trying to explore the mountains in a different way.

We woke up early morning to meet up with Shannon and her boyfriend, Oleg.  We drove for about 2 hours and took 2 cable cars up the mountain to Murren where we had lunch in a plaza overlooking the valley.

After lunch, Oleg left us to go paragliding while we went to rent equipment for the Via Ferrata.  

Here are some interesting facts: 
 - Length: 2.2 km
 - Starts in Murren, 1670m above the valley
 - Ends in Gimmelwald, 1370m above the valley
 - Length of the Nepal bridge: 80m

One unique thing about this particular Via Ferrata is that it actually descends about 300m to the end point, whereas via ferratas typically ascend to their end location.  

Here are some of the views along the way

Part way through, we encountered 3 base jumpers just as they were preparing to leap from a base jumping platform.  

Our group was attached to the mountain with thick metal ropes and we felt super nervous just walking out to look over the platform!!  It was just incredibly crazy to actually see people leaping off the edge without any hesitation!

After a couple of hours we finished and met up with Oleg in Gimmewald. We then walked through the valley soaking in more amazing views before going for dinner at Shannon’s and Oleg’s favourite burger joint in Interlaken (Hüsi Bierhaus).

We spent the entire day amazed at the non-stop breathtaking views.  It's such a beautiful country and we had such a great time!   

Many thanks to Shannon and Oleg for being our guides on such a fun and awesome adventure!!
tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1198235 2017-10-07T16:41:00Z 2018-10-13T11:04:11Z Science Fiction Party
While in Sri Lanka, we met up with our Swiss friends, Fabian and Iris, and they invited us to their place for another epic Iris Party - Episode 2. The moment Dom heard the theme for her birthday party was "Science Fiction", the tickets were booked.. in fact, thinking back, maybe they didn't invite us.. maybe Dom actually invited himself :P. 

Finding a costume for a party when you're not in your hometown is tricky. Different costume ideas crossed our minds (Dom was originally thinking of going has Optimus Prime!), but after considering our limited time to finding the perfect materials and put it all together, we both decided to go as Jawas. 

A lot of fun went into preparing for the party:

We also met one of Fabian’s friend Michael (dressed as a character from Men in Black) who had just released this cool new music video: 

tag:beyondthemapletree.com,2013:Post/1324708 2017-10-02T11:26:00Z 2018-10-12T09:33:17Z Balassagyarmat
From Bratislava, we took a train to Vác where Krisztina picked us up for a quick visit with her and the kids.

We went out to a local festival to watch some live music and eat cotton candy.

We took a ferry to Visegrád where we rode the bobsled, had a delicious fried fish picnic, ate more cotton candy, and hiked up to the top of the hill for a beautiful view.

On the last night, we taught Bogi how to make her own pizzas :)

Many thanks to Krisztina for taking time out of her very busy schedule and treating us to such a lovely weekend!