Starting the New Year in Mittenwald

I like to finish what I started, so even though we are well into March (what?), I am still going to post this final short recap from our travels in France, Austria and Germany over the winter holidays.  After this, I plan to take a hiatus from this blog indefinitely….

We spent the last day of 2014 and the first few of 2015 based in Mittenwald, a small town in the Alps on the German side of the border.  We got tons and tons of snow there, and for the first two days the sky was so dark with snow we could not even see the mountains towering over the town until the sun finally broke through a few days later.  We spent our time in and around Mittenwald doing some amazing winter hikes: a huge hightlight for me was our freezing but beautiful New Year’s Day hike in snow that came over our knees (yet the trails had been cleared).  Here are some photos to summarize this last part of our trip:

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Austria

After a few days in Alsace and a few more in Germany, we left Dinkelsbuhl the morning after Christmas to drive to our next destination, Kufstein, Austria.  The drive there took us further and further into the Alps, and the snow got deeper and deeper.  The traffic also got slower and slower, as the autobahn was clogged with post-Christmas Germans bound for ski holidays.  We got off the autobahn and took back roads instead, which made for a gorgeous drive through the mountains.

We arrived in Kufstein the late afternoon as the sun was going down.  The town is on a lovely location on the River Inn, and we enjoyed ourselves checking out the city centre.  We had much more snow and colder temperatures on our trip from here on out.

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The main feature of Kufstein is the Festungsturm (fortress) which sits high on a cliff over the river.  It is huge and imposing and wildly impressive.  It had closed before we got there so we didn’t actually go to the top.

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We stayed at Auracher Loechl, a quirky hotel in the heart of the main tourist street in Kufstein (really more of an alley), adjacent to the River Inn and located directly under the cliff with the fort.

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This was a really funny little place and I would definitely recommend it.  While our room was pretty small and no-frills, the staff was friendly and the breakfast spread, enjoyed overlooking the river each morning, was quite nice.  The restaurant attached to the hotel was actually really good; so good, in fact, that we ended up eating there twice.

On the first night, we had a drink at the fancy gin bar first.  This is located in the old wine cellar of the restaurant, which is basically a tunnel built into the cliff, so the setting is really cool, and the staff are a bunch of hipsters making gin-based cocktails using all sorts of varieties of gins and other ingredients.  This was really unexpected for Kufstein and really good!

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View out our hotel room the first morning

The next day, Saturday, we boarded a train for Salzburg.  After spending a lot of time in small villages, we were ready for a little urban life (such that Salzburg can offer).  Upon arrival, we walked from the train station to the Aldstad (old town), through Mirabell Palace and across the River Salzach.

River Salzbach

The main pedestrianized area of the Altstadt was more posh than I expected, with a number of designer boutiques.

Altstadt

We stopped at one of the most famous coffeehouses in town, Cafe Tomaselli, for coffee and our first apfelstrudel.  It became my thing to test out the apfelstrudel at almost every place we went in Austria and Germany after this.  This cafe had a wonderful historic atmosphere (although a bit too touristy), excellent coffee and very good apfelstrudel, although we went on to sample slightly better versions later on.

Apfelstrudel 1

We walked up to the fort and castle above the city, the Hohensalzburg Castle, but decided against paying the entry fee to explore the castle itself.  Rather, we discovered that there were loads of walking trails all over the cliffs and did that instead, ultimately ending up at the modern art museum.  In every direction we had amazing views over the city, and this was one of my favorite things we did all day.  Highly recommended.

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By late afternoon, we retired to the Augustiner Bierhall for our first proper beer hall experience, complete with huge tables, huge steins of beer and huge pretzels.  Perfect.  We spent more time walking along the river and around the city center, enjoying the city lights in the evening, and stopped in at Alchimiste Belge for some Belgian beer and a refreshing urban hipster vibe before getting on the train back to Kufstein.

The next morning, we awoke to a snow storm in Kufstein.  Plenty of snow had fallen and more was on the way.

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Regardless, I went for a quick run along the river, since there was a lovely little path there and the path was actually somewhat cleared.  I actually ran in the snow several mornings in Kufstein, and it really was quite peaceful.

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We had plans that day to drive to a winter hike we had picked out, but given the snow conditions, we had to skip that idea and instead took the train to Kitzbühel, a ritzy little ski resort that we read had winter hiking trails.  We arrived, walked around the little city center and consulted the tourist office, and boarded a gondola to the top of the mountain for a recommended easy winderwanderweg (winter hike).  Unfortunately, it was essentially white-out conditions at the top.  We could barely tell which way was up and it was nearly impossible to follow the walk markings.

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With the wind howling, snow and ice swirling in every direction, sub-freezing temperatures and little idea of where to go, we walked for about 30 minutes then retired to a lodge on the mountain to warm up.

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Salvation

After that, it did not take long to decide to get off that mountain.  I’m never one to give up easily, especially when it comes to outdoorsy stuff, but I was not having this.

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Trying to convince myself this is fun

So we left there in early afternoon and spent the afternoon/evening exploring Kufstein a bit more before getting to bed early to rest up for our ski day the following day.

We were up early and drove to Alpbach for our ski lessons for the day.  More snow had fallen but the main roads were clear enough.  This was very new territory for us; I had skied a bit in the U.S. as a kid, but it was a very long time ago, and Andy had basically never skied.  We had no idea about gear, lingo, technique, anything, and felt pretty intimidated.  We booked in for a day of beginner lessons with Alpbach Skischule and hired some gear.  Basically, we wanted to test it out and see how we liked the experience before booking a full ski holiday.

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We had a fantastic 74-year-old British ski instructor, Dave, and joined a group that included three Brits on a weeklong holiday and a young Dutch guy wanting to learn to ski to keep up with his girlfriend as he joined her family’s ski holiday.  Dave was great: really friendly and funny and a good teacher.  We practiced our snowplowing and turns on the bunny slope, stopping for a much-needed lunch break halfway through.

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I had so much fun and would love to spend more time skiing, and do a proper ski holiday next time.  The Brits we were with had booked a weeklong package with hotel, half-board (lunch and dinner) and lessons included, which seems like the way to go.  Alpbach was a very friendly little town and seemed to have a number of nice little restaurants and lodges.

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That evening, we joined Dave and the others for an apres-ski drink at the Post Alm pub, and sadly had to leave before it got too late given the falling snow and our drive home.

The next day, we awoke to yet more snow; I think we ended up with two feet total!  I ran along the river some more before we prepared for the next leg of our trip, back on the German side of the border.

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Up next, welcoming the new year in Mittenwald.  Thanks for reading!

Germany: Black Forest and Romantic Road

Picking up where I left off, we departed La Haute Grange on Monday morning, the 22nd of December, and drove across the border to Germany. We stopped in Freiburg for a walk around the city center and our first taste of Germany, literally and figuratively (I had been to Germany just once before, over a decade earlier on short trip to Munich, and this was Andy’s first time).

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Freiburg seemed like a fun little city, with a bustling town center and nice architecture. The Christmas market was very nice, and we split a cup of gluhwein to warm up, and Andy got a sausage while I got a flammekuchen, a thin, pizza-like dish found all over this region (on the France side it is known as tarte flambée).

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Back in the car, we drove further into Germany and into the Black Forest, to arrive at our base for the next few days, the small town of Gengenbach.

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Gengenbach was picture-book adorable.  It is a small village with a medieval main street of half-timbered buildings, anchored by medieval gates to the city.

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The village center was bustling with the Christmas market.  With the sun setting in the background on our first evening there, the atmosphere was magical.

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Gengenbach claims to have the largest Advent calendar in the world, and the main event of each evening is watching that day’s window be unveiled.

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The next day, we set off for exploring the Black Forest.  We took a short train ride (I think about 30 minutes) to the village of Shiltach, another perfect little village at the base of some excellent hiking trails.

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We honestly could not get over how gorgeous this little place was, and would definitely recommend visiting.  The people were quite friendly and the tourist office sorted us out with a hiking map and advice for a short day hike.

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We made our way up out of the village and climbed into the forest.  I know this is cliche, but neither words nor photos do it justice.  We quickly were ascending trails up steep paths past impossibly tall pine trees.  The air was fresh, the trees were beautiful, and the views breathtaking.

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After ascending trails for awhile, things leveled out and we traipsed through meadows and past sun-drenched valleys and the occasional farmhouse.

Germany 1 - 10We had perfect weather and got quite warm at times.  We were surprised there was no snow, but it made for a lovely autumn-like hike and don’t worry, we had plenty of snowy hikes later in this trip.

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We covered about 11 kilometers total, and eventually found ourselves back in Shiltach.  We tried in vain to get a slice of Black Forest cake at one of the recommended tea shops in the village but no luck!  Apparently they sell out quick each day.  Lesson learned: get your cake before the hike.  I would much rather enjoy my cake after the hike than before, hmmph.  No matter, we boarded the train back to Gengenbach.  This was easily one of the highlights of the entire trip for me, and I’d love to explore more of the Black Forest.

The next morning, I awoke early for a run through and around Gengenbach, including a dash up to Jakobskapelle, a chapel overlooking the town.  It was a steep climb to the top but did not take long at all, and I was rewarded with views of the sunrise over the town.

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I rounded out the run with an out and back along the river stretching out of town.  It wasn’t always easy to work out on this trip; most of the locations we were in had some running paths, but our days were actually quite packed and I somehow got in the habit of having a lie-in until at least 7 or 8am most days.  Typically I am up by 6am, but the sun didn’t rise until 8 in most places, and while at home I would run in the dark, I was not interested in doing that in unfamiliar places.  Besides, we were on holiday.  Since we did lots of hikes and long walks most days, I figured it all worked out.

After another trip to the excellent breakfast buffet (we are really well at all of our hotels on this trip; love the European tradition of providing a true “Continental” breakfast with loads of breads, cheeses, fruits, vegetables, yogurt, muesli, and more – including champagne!) we headed deeper into Germany, driving a few hours to the small Bavarian city of Dinkelsbuhl, on the Romantic Road.  This was to be our destination for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

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Dinkelsbuhl was a very cute and very quiet city at Christmas.  We quickly learned that it shut up tight as a drum for Christmas Eve.  When we first arrived we were not terribly hungry (see above about the fabulous breakfast spreads) so we explored the town and had a coffee but no real lunch –> mistake.

As we realized that every restaurant was closing for dinner, we decided to make the best of it.  All I really wanted to do for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day was relax and take it easy, and we had a nice dinner booked in for Christmas night so we were fine with winging it.  We drove around the area, watched the sunset, and procured some snacks to have in the room for dinner.  We spent the evening back in our hotel room having assorted fruits, bread and other snacks with a bottle of Alsatian wine and movies on the iPad.  It was actually really fun.

The next morning, I got up for a peaceful Christmas day run around the old city walls, followed by breakfast at our hotel and later, a nice Christmas day walk around the village with Andy.

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We also spent some quality time reading and having tea, before heading off for our evening plans.  We first went to the city center of Nordlingen, where we watched the sun go down and the Christmas lights come up, and stopped for a pre-dinner drink at a lovely little wine bar.  Then, we moved on to the main event, dinner at Meyers Keller, which turned out to be one of the best meals of the trip; it was traditional German cuisine but done with a modern twist, in a lovely rustic farmhouse setting.  The food was excellent and while the service was a bit odd, we later gathered that this was typical German service so nothing to be concerned about.

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It was an excellent meal and a wonderful, unconventional Christmas for us.  Up next, on to Austria!

Christmas in Alsace

Over Christmas and the New Year, Andy and I traveled around eastern France, southern Germany and Austria.  We flew into Freiburg where we picked up a rental car and spent the next two weeks weaving in and out of rural villages, Alpine landscapes, deep forests and mid-size cities back and forth over the French, German and Austrian borders.  I hope to capture the highlights of our trip in a short series of blog posts, starting today with the Alsace region in eastern France. We spent the first few days exploring the villages of Alsace and checking out the adorable Christmas markets.

After checking into our hotel in Illhaeusern on the first day (more on that later) we ventured to Riquewihr to wander around for the afternoon.

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This was so much fun; we felt like we were in a fairy tale village (a theme of the trip) and there is something so giddy about the first day of vacation.

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No stress, no work, nothing to do but enjoy ourselves.  We had our first mug of hot mulled wine (vin chaud) and toasted to a fantastic holiday.

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We stayed in the tiny village of Illhaeusern on our first night, at the Hotel des Berges on the banks of the River Ill.

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This was absolutely beautiful and we had dinner that night at the Auberge d’Ill.

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This was an unforgettable experience; it was so quintessentially French, so steeped in tradition and class, yet the cuisine was modern and fresh.  We had a multi-course tasting menu with wine pairings and there is really no way to describe the level of service and quality.

Some of the standouts included maki amuse bouche, our first taste of gewurtztraminer wine (not normally white wine people, especially with dinner, but this was so amazing and appropriate with this food), lobster with champagne sauce, excellent breads and cheeses and desserts, and so much more.  Absolutely amazing splurge for us.

The next morning, I awoke early for a short run through the quiet village and empty country lanes, before having a (wonderful) breakfast at the hotel and sadly departing Illhaeusern.  So beautiful!

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Egg vending machine: essential

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We drove to Obernai and explored the town and market, and walked around the old city walls circumventing the village.

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Next, we checked into our B&B for the next two days, La Haute Grange, high up on a mountainside outside Fréland.  This is a large farmhouse with just four guest rooms, and we were given a huge room with a huge bathroom.

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I loved it.  The hosts, a Scottish/French couple, were extremely welcoming, showing us around the large, impeccably kept house and giving us loads of advice and tips on tourism in the area, including wine tasting and dining recommendations.  They even booked us in for a meal that night since it was a busy Saturday night before Christmas and it would be impossible to get a table without a reservation. That afternoon we visited Turckheim, did a wine tasting and watched the traditional ceremony in the town center of the Advent calendar lighting.

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We moved on to Kaysersberg, a popular, picturesque medieval village.  We walked around the Christmas market stalls before our dinner at Winstub at Chambard that evening.  The food was excellent but the restaurant was overcrowded so we were put into an overflow dining room that was lovely, but a bit formal and didn’t have the tavern-esque vibe of a traditional weinstube.  After dinner we walked through the empty village, now void of tourists, and enjoyed the stillness.

The next morning I did a short run of hill sprints on the mountainside and saw an incredible sunrise peeking through the mountains, but sadly didn’t have my phone.  Breakfast at La Haute Grange was unreal; the owners make the breakfast from scratch and it included the most amazing homemade Christmas jam, homemade yogurt and bircher muesli, breads and cheeses – fantastic.

We returned to Kaysersberg with the intention of doing a nice country walk through the vineyards to neighboring villages.

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It was a beautiful clear day and quite warm.

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It took us about 90 minutes to get to Riquewihr, which was quite crowded that day, being the Sunday before Christmas.  We sampled wine and St. Alphonse Christmas beer (so good) and browsed the market stalls, taking a rest to read in a cafe.

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We eventually returned to Kaysersberg via a shuttle bus, then moved on to Eguisheim, where we explored their Christmas market and watched their Advent calendar ceremony, seemingly a tradition in many of these villages.

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We had dinner booked at Au Vieux Porche.  Another excellent meal; the lobster lentil dish really stood out, and an excellent creme brûlée for dessert.

On Monday morning, we had breakfast at the hotel and then moved along for our next destination, over the German border.  Sad to leave France!  I love practicing my language skills and the food and villages were unreal.  I would love to go back and explore more.

Up next, the Black Forest!

Country Walk in Sussex

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Last Friday night, Andy and I decided somewhat last minute to get out of London for the day and do a country walk on Saturday.

30 walksWe used Time Out’s guide to 30 Country Walks Near London, which is excellent.  Every walk featured is accessible from central London by train.  Most of the walks listed seem to start with about a 1 to 2 hour train journey, all originating in London, and when you arrive at the destination, you do a walk of anywhere from about 5 to 12 miles, all doable in one day.  It seems that all of the walks have various options for shorter or longer distances, include recommendations for pub lunches and tea stops, and bring you back to where you started to board the train back to London at the end of the day.  Perfect.

Stonegate Circular walk - 05So we chose a walk somewhat at random, deciding to do a shorter walk for our first attempt.  We took the train from Charing Cross and one hour later, there we were at a rural train station in Stonegate, in Sussex, which basically felt like the middle of nowhere.  The book offers extremely detailed directions (and provides a map, but the map is not very helpful).  We set off on a country road, and proceeding to ramble over fields, past cows and sheep, over streams, through woods.

Stonegate Circular walk - 04The first half of our walk was about three to four miles of rolling terrain and we didn’t see a single person the entire time, just cows and sheep.

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It was glorious: stereotypical rolling English countryside with green fields, blue skies and fluffy clouds.  The book’s directions were extremely detailed and pretty accurate and easy to follow, with just a few moments where we had to stop and guess on a few turns.  For future walks, especially longer ones, I think I want to get some copies of Ordnance Survey maps just in case.

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Stonegate Circular walk - 07After about two hours we emerged into a churchyard in the small village of Burwash.

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We ambled down the short high street to the lunch destination, the Rose and Crown pub.

Stonegate Circular walk - 13This was the most adorable little country pub, complete with old fellows at the bar, low timbered ceilings, fish and chips on the menu and pints of bitter on cask.  We had a pint and lunch and soaked up the atmosphere.  I didn’t take photos inside because I was trying not to be overly touristy.

After lunch, we continued on the high street and set off for the second half of the walk, through hops fields and along more country walking paths.

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The walk looped us back to the train station where we began.  We only had to wait about 20 minutes, then boarded a train and an hour later we were back in central London.  Unreal.

I loved the the rural countryside and outdoorsy things like this are so easy to get to from the city.  It was a perfect day and I can’t wait to work our way through more of the walks in this book!

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Liverpool Weekend

This past weekend, I took my first trip out of London.  Andy and I went up to Liverpool to explore the city and see a football (soccer) match.IMG_6089

We went up late on Friday evening on a train, which was quick and easy.  Checked into our hotel, a basic chain hotel on Albert Dock around midnight, and woke up the next morning to clear, sunny skies. IMG_6090

I was dying for a run along the waterfront but I am sidelined for the moment by my IT band issue, so instead we took a walk around, had coffee by the water, and visited the Merseyside Maritime Museum and International Slavery Museum, both of which were excellent and offered interesting views into Liverpool’s past.

Later, we walked into city centre and of course checked out the (rebuilt) Cavern Club, where the Beatles got their start.IMG_6092

I was pleasantly surprised to see what a vibrant little downtown Liverpool has.  The city has a nice scale and there were plenty of people out and about on Saturday walking and shopping along the many pedestrianized streets.  IMG_6093 IMG_6095

We also explored the Ropewalks, the more hipster/indie part of the city, and had a fabulous Lebanese lunch.IMG_6099

We also went into St. Luke’s Church, bombed out in WWII and now used as a cool community space for arts, music and special events.  Very cool. IMG_6101

And visited the Liverpool Cathedral, the fifth-largest cathedral in the world.  It was massive; photos could never capture the scale.  The architect also built Battersea Power Station and you can see the resemblance in person. IMG_6109

Later we wandered around, stopping off at historic pubs and checking out side streets, and eventually ending up at a music festival with tons of local bands, some of whom were really good.  Liverpool is definitely a cool city, with interesting local culture and pride.IMG_6116

And on Sunday, we went to see LFC play a friendly against Dortmund.  It was so much fun to be at Anfield, to see the players in person and get to experience it all firsthand.  Looking forward to lots more football this year!IMG_6131The trip home was a bit of a hassle because trains weren’t running so we took a bus and it was a bit of a cluster…but we got home eventually.  It’s funny how when you live in a new place and then go away, coming back can make your new home feel a bit more like “home”.

San Francisco: Love, Love

In early May I was fortunate to spend several days in San Francisco for work.  I had been to SF a few times before but it had been awhile.  Man, I love that city.  The whole time there I was deliriously happy.  I love it the way I love New York City.  Both cities are like no place else in America.  I love the architecture, the density, the mix of cultures, the views, the food – the amazing food.

IMG_5159On my first morning there I went for an amazing sunrise run.  The hills were killer but I loved every second. IMG_5127 IMG_5130 IMG_5131 IMG_5132 IMG_5137 IMG_5139 IMG_5157 IMG_5141

Most of the time I was there I was working, but I did get to have some great dinners out, including an amazing Vietnamese fusion meal at The Slanted Door.

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On my last evening there I was on my own to relax.  I climbed up to Mission Dolores Park for views over the city.

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And treated myself to a homebrew and an empanada at a fantastic cerveceria near the park.

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Other food highlights included an excellent veggie taco and some guacamole and freshly made chips:

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And a stop at Mikkeller bar for a Tenderloin IPA. I am a huge fan of Mikkeller beers and this NYT article only made me more fascinated.

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On my last morning there I went for another run.   IMG_5211

And saw a fantastic exhibit on yoga history and art at the Asian Art Museum.     IMG_5227

My last stop was a wander around Hayes Valley, where I had Blue Bottle coffee and pretended I was a hipster.IMG_5226 IMG_5228 IMG_5231

Sad to leave. Love, love San Francisco.IMG_5237