Saturday, February 2, 2013

Chasing Christmas Markets

Dec 17, Zurich (pics)
We start early in Zurich having checked in to the hotel in the old down town area across from the central station. Our 1st stop happens to be the Grossmuenster which is the symbol of Zurich aside from it being the financial center. Here we see the original 13th century Charlamagne statue. 2 tall spires of the Grossm√ľnster make the Zurich skyline which competes with the Swiss Alps in the background. It has a strange ambiance this winter morning as we wander the curious back streets which are all very quiet. Fraum√ľnster abbey is across the Limmat river where it hosts large windows painted by Marc Chagall. In the afternoon we take a gander around the large clock on St. Peter's church where fireman are bustling around in response to an alarm...false it turns out to be as they allow us in. A short stroll to Lake Zurich which is at the top of Banofstrasse with a stop at Sprungli for hot chocolate...very Swiss. The Christmas market is inside the Hauptbanhof (central station), a 150+ year old structure that runs over 2500 trains a day...they claim 100% on schedule. There are a lot of people here at the market but I am not sensing the energy I was looking for...perhaps its a Swiss thing or a touch of jet lag? What makes it a buzz kill is that my dear Gluhwien  costs close to 3 times what it is in Germany...what gives Roger Federer? This is our 1st experience at how ridiculously expensive Switzerland is. The sausages don't look as tempting so instead we try some Scandinavian Gluhwien, Regular Gluhwien and some very very watery GluhBier. Overall it was ok...not recommended. But now we are hungry and all day long we have been walking past many kabob restaurants, so it is Donner kabob's for dinner....ironic as it gets as we come to eat the best Donner kabob we have tasted in many years. Across Europe we find that Kabob's are plenty and tasty...a downstream impact of large Arab immigration to the Europe. There is something else in the air about these immigration patterns I have been noticing over the last many years as we have been traveling in Europe...but that is for another day. It's early to bed as we recover from jet-lag as we reflect Zurich's pretty night.

We are late waking up what with trying to sleep when we should be awake and awake when we ought to be asleep. We try to savor the most expensive tea and coffee at the next door Starbucks and then take a 2 min stroll to the Hauptbanhof to catch a train to Zurich airport. here we collect our car to drive up to Frankfurt and the rest of our vacation. It's an easy drive through non Autobahn's from the German border, which we cross in about 30 mins north of Zurich. We stop by a highway service area and are treated to a fabulous lunch....incredibly tasty meal which seems inexpensive given we are paying in Euro after the expensive Swiss Franks. Frankfurt has the largest Christmas market, but unfortunately the watered down Gluhwien at the 1st stop is a little bit of a downer, however the great food begins to make up for some of it while we finally find some shops where the Gluhwien is genuine.

Dec 19, Frankfurt 
We find a Hop-on-Off to tour the city. The Barthlemew church, also called the Dom is a 14th century cathedral that some 50+ Germanic emperors were crowned in. The river Main allows the Frankfurters to refer to their skyline as "Mainhattan"...what ever makes them happy :). It is interesting that while the Deutch bank is the largest bank in the country, it was hard to find an ATM, rather strange I felt and most I asked did not know either....we eventually found one tucked in a non touristy area. We walked by the Main river and over the Iron bridge or Eisner Steg where in the local tradition we used a lock to cement our marriage & love and then threw the key in the river. It appears the entire downtown is the Christimas market the largest in EU I am told. They serve amongst others, all kinds of sausages, potato fritters with apple sauce. Quite the combination....though I liked it better with ketchup.We spend all our time in the market tasting food and chugging down some good Gluhwien and enjoying the rather mild temperatures.

Mainz about 40 mins north west of Frankurt has the cutest Christmas market we have seen so far. The town is on the west back of the famous river Rhine which is the heart line of Germany. The Dom, Mainze Cathedral or St.Martins church is massive and I felt had very good vibes. The gluhwien is not watered down as in Frankfurt and the food is especially good, while people seem friendly and welcoming. Johannes Gutenberg, credited with the invention of the modern printing press with movable type, was born here and died here as well. It is particularly cold today as we navigate the market, eating and drinking the hot wine when I find a hidden jewel on the terrace of the Gutenberg theater where we are rewarded with fabulous views of the city and the Christmas markets. Saritha is keen on the St.Stefens church about 10 mins away as it is the only church windows painted in Germany by Marc Chagall, unique given his Jewish heritage. Mainz offers the cold and cherry Christmas atmosphere we have come to expect in German at this of the year. We are loving it.

Dec 21, Trier (Pics)
We started the day driving from Mainz to Burg Eltz where we are rewarded with views of a spectacular medieval castle we have ever laid our eyes on. From where we parked it was a mile hike in rather irritating drizzle that stopped in time when we snuck in to the castle that was supposedly closed for winter...We went in neverthelss and and strolled around till we got caught and were kicked out. Seemed apt given it was medieval and all. When we got to Trier our first stop after checking in to the hotel was in the old town. Constantine Basicillica which is around 1700 years old stands massive but odd in structure. The Church of our lady or Liebfrauenkirche was just magnificent. Next door is the equally impressive Trier Cathedral where it's is reputed that the tunic/seamless robe of Jesus is safe guarded. The Christmas market is in full flow, music and Gluhwien with all kinds of meats and sausages is devine. We also stroll to the Porta Nigra built in 200 AD which used to be the gate to this 2000 year old city. 
One thing that has become very local in Germany is the proliferation of kabob joints...we partake in some delicious Donner "kabap" as they spell it to go along with the many Gluewien's we have had today, which by the way has been the best to date by a long shot and some.
30 kilometers is what the GPS tells us as we begin in Trier towards Vianden the 2nd largest town in Luxembourg. We wonder aloud why on earth does Luxembourg stay independent when it could perhaps do better if it were a part of Germany or France as we cross the border....but then again Luxembourg is financially stable and thriving due to their financial industry. Vianden is quaint and sleepy as they come by. The only attraction is the famous Vianden castle from the 12 century that the government took over in the 1970 to arrest its ruin and begin restoration. It is a grand castle but I liked the Burg Eltz better from the other day. The castle is at the top of a hill and so it was a good hike from the town which is also known for its hosting of Victor Hugo the famous French author of the Les Misreables fame. In fact we are staying across from his house.......this is all foreign to me as I continue to be educated in European history by Saritha....why until 2 weeks ago when we decided to come here I had never heard of Vianden and only today have I finally learnt to spell it. Then again I had never heard of Trier or even Metz!
After the trek to the castle in a persistent drizzle we while away the time in the cozy bar downstairs over drinks and our iPad.....it is good to do nothing every now and then....just let it not be a habit as the Europeans have made it to be :)...now I guess they will never let me back in. Dinner is at the Restaurant Belle Vue (Hotel Belvedere) where we taste some delicious local vegetables...there is something about the Our river that flows here if Brussel sprouts taste this good!
Easy drive through the country back roads gets us in to the capital city that appears very calm, perhaps it being Sunday had something to do with it. After checking in to the hotel we walk across the Adolphe bridge over the 'grund' or old city to the old town area. The original city was founded some 1000 years ago in the valley with the hilltops forming a natural fortress. The Austrians went one step forward and dug tunnels on the top of the hill to create casemates used to defend the city. Infact dismantling these casements was a condition for their independence. The Cathedral of Notre Dame is very large and beautiful. It was interesting to see tourism take place in parallel with the Sunday mass.....more power to us heathens. We catch a hop on hop of bus to take us around the city. It is clear they have tried to make it attractive but really aside from the JFK boulevard which has all the banks trying to compete with the Swiss on all matters money, it is also one of the 3 EU capitals with Brussels, BE and Strausburg, FR. Lux city includes the European court of justice and a few other EU institutions...the city is not really for tourists. The evening we spend at the Christmas market in the company of some really good Gluhwien (oh how unique!) and potatoe fritters that tasted very much like Indian pakoras. There is live music with school children followed by the adults....very lively fun with lots of families all about. We love it.

Dec 24, Nancy (Pics)
Nancy is in Lorraine, France, about 2 hours from Luxembourg. I did not need to see the sign that said 'France' to know I was in France, the landscape said it as much as the signage....a sort of depressing ambiance. It has been over 17 years since I was last in France as a poor student. I remember the superior than thou attitude of the French in Paris, now with a few more Euro's in my pocket I don't see any difference in the attitude, though if you took the time to engage them, they were a little less aloof I felt here far far from Paris...encouraging. In Nancy our hotel is in the main Stanislas Place. Parking here is an experiment in patience and technology....I barely pass. While we wander the square that I would rate the prettiest I have ever seen and the fact that it is 50 and sunny is unbeatable. Lunch is a classic Lorraine cuisine that includes Quiche Lorraine, fish, jambon/ham, pies and mousse.....well that necessitated a walk all about town to tour the various sites and lose some of those happy calories. This is a pretty town, with building from the 15th century. The evening is spent like Europeans in cafes and brassieres overlooking the Stanislas square with pastries, beir and wines....we will spend some time here before we go to the mid night mass in the local tradition.
Midnight mass is at the Nancy Cathedral that was led by the Bishop of Nancy. Having been to midnight masses in many towns around the world....I will venture at the risk of blasphemy, that I was amused at the rituals. I can not imagine Jesus Christ at any time would condone the use of young boys well past their bed time to carry the Bishops skull-cap. Oh well...us humans have strange ways to communicate with the superior power.
We drive south east to Strasbourg, the Christmas capital of Europe or so they claim proudly. They are also third of the EU capitals with Luxembourg and Brussels. I am under the weather today...Saritha blames the French wine...I blame lack of sleep due to the mid-night mass. I have never heard of people being sick because of alcohol :)! I spend the afternoon napping while Saritha is the patient wife waiting on me....lucky me. In the evening we wander in to the town and the Christmas markets. It is indeed full of energy, lights, food and Gluhwien. The town is anchored by the famous Strasbourg Cathedral that is non-symmetrical in its structure with a single spire....they ran out of time and money or something along those lines I guess. But what is on the ground is grand and majestic. We spend a lot of time staring at its facade and inside where there are decorations with a Nativity scene. The other constructs are magnificent such as the column of angels, the statue of Christ in the garden of Gethsemani and the astronomical clock. The town has a palace built for a famous bishop, Cardinal Armand Gaston Maximilien de Rohan. I feel famous for this as the town has hotels, cafe etc name for the bishop....however I could not find a souvenir with my name on it.
We decide to stay in the center of the Rue du Vin (wine route) where they make a ton of Reislings. The route has a smattering of really cute villages that support the thousands of wine yards. Before getting to Saint Hippolyte we stop by the Haut Koeingburg castle, a 10th century Franco-German castle of unknown beginnings. The castle is fairly well reconstructed and maintained and attracted this morning a ton of visitors, apparently Boxing Day is a big holiday in Alsace. The weather is sunny but drizzling so the views are interesting but also gives us a panorama of the Rue du Vin. Later in the evening we drive to check our other villages including Riqueville and Ribeville. Riqueville in particular is decked out for Christmas and the entire village of 2 streets is a market with all kinds of cheeses, patisseries and wine tastings. We try the local Reislings but are left very unimpress unfortunately. We like German Reislings better as they are more dry compared to the French side. Dinner at the Aux Ducs de Lorraine, the hotel we are staying in Saint Hippolyte ......includes fish, chicken, fois da gras and rabbit, all very delicious. The French can cook afterall :)
 
Dec 27 Today is a travel day so to speak given every day has been a travel day, but really the intent is to drive back to Zurich, return the car and chill in the most expensive European city. 
We drive the Rue du Vin that makes a 35km route about 90 mins to drive given the spectacular scenery despite the pouring rain. The road from France takes us to Germany back in to Switzerland and Germany before finally getting in to Switzerland. The nonchalant boundaries truly reflect the world of the future I hope....borderless. BTW note to self never buy gas in Switzerland, it is 20% higher than in Germany. Anyway as we return the car we rue the missed opportunity to ski due to some poor planning by somebody who will go unnamed for now, but we will make up by going up in to the Alps tomorrow. I have loved driving in Europe these past 10 days and I am going to miss the particularly nimble and fast VW Polo I rented...wonder how we can make driving more enjoyable in the US. 

Dec 28, Luzern (Pics)
Our plan is to go up mount Titilis, which is part of the Swiss alps, about 2 hours from Zurich. The mountain is 3000 meters or 10000 feet at the summit. We first drive to Engelberg through Luzern where we get a cable car to a mid point, where we transfer to a rotary car that rotates 360 degree as it climbs up to the summit. At the summit across from the glacier, the Swiss have a 6 floor structure that includes restaurants, theater, shops etc as well as exit to the summit. It is minus 5 Fahrenheit but with relatively calm winds for the altitude. It is a clear day and we get quite the view of various peaks of the Alps. Some hot cocoa makes this almost perfect....would have been better if I could have skied....next time. Back down we spend some time in Luzern strolling the streets that are all decked up for the holidays. Very pretty with great sights across the Lake Lucerne in the fading light...it is time to go back up to Zurich and then head home tomorrow.