December 27, 2011

Holiday Cheer in the Netherlands

Christian and I were naughty over the holidays—we didn’t put up a single Christmas decoration! Since we knew we were coming to Cali for the holidays, we thought ‘eh no putting them up, no cleaning up!’  Also Jack the cat likes the tear off every single Christmas ball from our mini Christmas tree and play a game of cat ‘n we thought we’d avoid the annual ‘look under the couches for all of the Christmas ornaments’ task...Jack was not happy...sorry Jack. Just because we didn’t decorate doesn’t mean we didn’t feel the magic of Christmas though. The streets of Amsterdam are beautiful in the Winter. Twinkly lights line the streets, a huge Christmas tree frequents Dam Square for several weeks and since the Fall was relatively dry with not a cloud in sight, it was perfect for a little Christmas bike ride around town.

Maastricht, a small Dutch town in the south where Christian’s family is from, is completely different from Amsterdam but has its own element of ‘gezelligheid’ (that means ‘coziness’ for all you non-Dutch!) at all times of the year. When we went to celebrate Christmas with Christian’s family, we spent a couple hours wandering around their annual Christmas market—Winterland. Set up in the main square in Maastricht (the Vrijtof), it’s a compilation of stands selling trinkets, offering rides and and ice-skating  and plenty of wintry foods—gluhwein, bratwurst, warm ham sandwiches with honey-mustard sauce and these REALLY delicious, salty German potato patties. I’ve heard the German Christmas markets are even better!! Hopefully we’ll add a German Christmas market to our agenda in 2012 :)


December 23, 2011

Dogsledding, snowmobiling and Christmas cheer Finnish-style!

Christmas is just around the corner and we always get a bit giddy around this time of the year, not just because of the presents and cheeriness in the air but Christian and I ACTUALLY visited Santa’s house in the North Pole. No really! One of the highlights of our time in Finland was visiting the Arctic Circle with Christian’s brother and we took part in a slew of wintry activities near Rovaniemi, waaaaay up in Northern Finland. About a 12 hour train ride from where we were living in Lappeenranta, Rovaniemi is right where the Arctic Circle begins in Finland.

For 5 days, we bundled up to prepare for -30 degrees exploring the Arctic Circle (thanks mom and pops for those Columbia boots!) and prepared for one of the most unique experiences I’ve ever had. We first walked around Santa Claus village, visiting all of the little houses (i.e. Santa’s desk where he makes his ‘list’ and where Mrs. Claus does all of her baking) surrounded by giant snowmen and lots of Christmas cheer, even though it was only February. Christian’s brother, Maurice, made an awesome schedule complete with a visit to the Poro Cup (that means Reindeer Cup to all you non-Finns!), snowmobiling and dog-sledding! Yep I said it...DOG-SLEDDING! Coming from California, I thought dog-sledding was only seen in movies and even when I was sitting in the sleigh watching those cute lil pups whisk us off through the woods, I was in AWE with the biggest smile on my face and laughter bellowing from all parts of me. After 1-2 hours of dog-sledding and thinking ‘I-can-seriously-never-explain-this-to-anyone-ever!’, we finished the experience at a husky farm in the woods. They had  some hot drinks to warm us up in a cozy little cottage but I couldn't help but walk around and give some cuddles to every husky in sight! Huskies of all ages have their own cozy wooden dog houses spread out between the trees and quite a few of them were happily rolling in the snow. Snowy conditions are most certainly the preferred environments for huskies and their thick fur...and they can’t get enough of diving face first into a mound of fresh powder.

Like dog-sledding, snowmobiling was absolutely incredible. We each had our own snowmobile and a very thick-accented Finn guided us over ice-covered lakes (more like hauled-ass over those lakes!) with views of a snow covered tundra all-around and ice fisherman tents illuminated on the far side of the lake awaiting their catch. Before I knew it, we ventured through the woods, up hills, down hills and through trees while powdery snow was tossed in all directions. It was exhilarating but my heart really got pumping when I tipped mine over and went sprawling over the snow...oops :). There is something really magical about being in what looks like uncharted forest covered in snow. Unfortunately we had to return the snowmobiles, but we did a little walk in the woods before we boarded our overnight train back to the South and took in the beauty and the silence...but not too far out, Siberia couldn’t be too far away! 

Ready to take off for the race. Yep those are Finns harnessed to reindeers!!

December 21, 2011

Me 'n Mom in Venice, Italy

Italy will cast a spell on you. The food...ooooh the food, the wine and really the entire country is absolutely beautiful. I mean you have those places where only a few cities in the country are nice and the rest is eh-so-so, but Italy will take you as its slave and keep you coming back for more--and it's without a doubt the country I've visited most in Europe. With so many options for budget airlines, sometimes its even cheaper to go spend a weekend in Italy (cheapest I ever paid for a Ryanair flight to Italy was 25 EUR roundtrip, including taxes!) than stay in Holland. 

I am a real sucker for canals and age-old cities, so it's no surprise that Venice captured my heart. The canals, crumbling buildings, mouth-watering pizzas, mista salads and endless gelato spots are the perfect combination for a long weekend. I've been lucky enough to be three times--the first time with Christian (that lil romantic!), the second time with one of my best friends and THE partner-in-crime Smitty (a culmination of a 9 day soiree around Italy that included A LOT of wine and outbursts of laughter) and most recently with my mom (for Mother's day!) after she decided to make a last minute trip out to visit me in Amsterdam. Christian was super busy with work and couldn't take too much time off to hang out with us while she was in town, so he did what every absolutely-out-of-this-world-amazing boyfriend would do, he bought me and my mom a weekend trip in Venice! My mom was STOKED and had a smile on her face the entire time :).

We arrived pretty late but this just meant my mom got a sneak peek of Venice with the lights glistening off the water and dark passage ways adding only more mystery to the city she was about to fall in love with. We arranged a last minute B&B right in the middle of old Venice, tucked in to bed and were graciously awakened by Silvia, the owner of the place, asking us how we'd like our eggs prepared and what other deliciousness we wanted to start our day. And then we were off to explore! My mom and I decided to just get lost--we wandered the canals like an endless maze and were in awe at the turn of every corner. Every now and then we'd discover a new piazza or trattoria and escape inside for a panini or an array of Italian appetizers which were ofcourse accompanied with a fresh glass of wine (a few of them on the house!). The city was especially colorful this weekend because the Pope was coming to town, so everyone was in their best dress, including Venice itself. We savored every moment--sitting next to a beautiful canal enjoying random bouts of 'hehe we're in Venice!' with a generous portion of gelato, dining in the dodgiest Silvia-recommended trattoria with the most delicious fresh salads (unlike the electricity which went out 3 times during dinner...but hey candlelight Mother's day dinner in Venice? Yes please!) and forgetting about the fact that, on any other week, a whole ocean separates us. I love traveling with my mom, she's always eager to grab a map, explore and speak to the locals, wearing her sense of adventure right on her sleeve and carry a 'young-at-heart' spirit. She's always had the travel bug ever since I can remember and made sure I got that bug too :).