Thursday, April 21, 2011

Berlin at a Fast Pace

April kicked off "race into shape" month, and the first race on the agenda was the Berlin half marathon. Some friends had planned to do this race and extended the invitation for us to join in the fun and although this was my fifth visit (Jon's third), to Berlin, we are always up for another adventure in this energetic and hip city. Although we only had a weekend, we managed to experience Berlin at a fast pace both off and on the race course.

We arrived Friday night after a grueling 6 hours on the autobahn with plenty of 'staus' (traffic jams) and construction sites along the way. We immediately headed out for a night on the town and headed to Oranienburgstrasse where we frequented some of our favorite bars - an underground pub and a vacant warehouse now utilized as a rotating artist exhibits and a thriving music scene with several different bars and clubs. We ended the night in the neighborhood around our hotel at a communist-themed bar with great live music. One thing's for sure, there is nightlife abounding in Berlin to suit anyone's taste.

Underground pub on Oranienburgerstrasse
Meandering through the many floors of the warehouse checking out the Berlin art scene
Warehouse Pose
Behind warehouse with bar shacks and a sandy "beach" atmoshphere
The red-lit commi bar behind our hotel with Kalashnikovs as decoration
On Saturday, we spent our entire day being outdoors as much as possible to enjoy the warmer Spring weather. We walked from our hotel to the nearby Berliner Dom and continued down Berlin's most famous avenue, the Unter den Linden, to the Brandenburg Gate. The picture below captures both the grandness of the Berliner Dom with the TV tower in the distance. Considered the symbol of Berlin, the tower was completed in 1969. The Dom represents the rebuilding of the city after the war (as the dome was completely destroyed from a bomb) and the TV tower represents the enduring strength of Berliners after Communist rule who would not stand for oppression of love or worship. It is incredible to be in a city with not only so much history, but recent history at that.

Brandenburg Tor
The guys (Jon G., Jon and Brian) in between the U.S. Embassy and the Brandenburg Tor
 Jewish Memorial
After a morning of sight-seeing with our friends, and an afternoon at the half-marathon expo where we picked up our race numbers, we were quite exhausted from the activity-packed day. We relaxed on the rooftop of our hotel, soaking up the sunshine and kicking up our heels in preparation of the upcoming race.  After a group dinner, Jon proceeded to move at a fast pace by hanging with the guys for a night out, while I retired to my room in hope to get some good sleep and rest my legs.

Relaxing on the roof of our hotel
Guys night out on the town
We awoke to a beautiful, sunny race day and were in high spirits before the race, despite our tired legs. We lined up at the start with over 26,000 fellow runners and began our 13.1 mile journey crossing through the former East and West of Berlin. The race course itself was a sight-seeing adventure, running down the Unter den Linden, through the Brandenburg Tor, the Tiergarten, over to the former West, turning by Schloss Charlottenburg, past Potsdamer Platz and Checkpoint Charlie, and circling around Alexanderplatz. Due to the sheer numbers of the race, it was impossible to set into a consistent pace until about mile 6, and by then I was worn out from all the dodging and weaving. I realized that I probably wouldn't set a PR on this course, but Jon and I both still managed to finish within 2 minutes of our goal time.

Berlin Half Marathon race course

Jon posing in the midst of the Berlin Victory Column
Ladies at the Finish
Finisher Photo with the Flag of Berlin
Although our time was quite short, we managed to experience an incredible weekend in Berlin at a fast pace and are already looking forward to our return to explore more of this fascinating city. Now... off to Budapest to complete the month of April with a bang!

Monday, April 11, 2011

Spring has Sprung

Spring has officially sprung in our backyard. Only a mere few weeks ago, the trees were still bare in the orchard and the hedges were only just starting to fill in with their leafy covering. It is absolutely beautiful to see the gorgeous apple and cherry trees in full bloom, and minuscule purple and yellow flowers covering the ground. We have been enjoying some of the most gorgeous spring weather this past week with blue skies, plenty of sunshine and temperatures in the mid 60-s and low 70s. Unfortunately, our weather is about to take a turn, so I wanted to capture this perfect day with some pictures of the backyard. Of course a camera does not do justice to the real thing, but here's a glimpse of a beautiful April day in the Netherlands.

Apple and cherry trees in bloom

The large cherry tree in the back is just ending its blooming period and the two walnut trees are the last to grow its leaves. Pretty soon, our wall of green will be completely filled in and we won't be able to see a bit of the brick building behind us.

Jon has spent the past couple weeks on his hands and knees scrubbin' the deck to rid the weeds and moss that grew between the tiles. It was hard meticulous work, but it looks so much better and was finished just in time to kick-off the start of outdoor BBQ season. On Sunday, we enjoyed having friends over for a post-race BBQ at the house. It was the perfect celebration of our first annual participation in the Sittard Mooiste (beautiful) 15k run. 

Nothing like fresh spring flowers to decorate the house and a branch from an apple tree to hang Easter eggs from.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Brunssum Charity Night

Last weekend, Jon and I had yet another opportunity to dress up in the month of March at the Brunssum Charity Night. Brunssum is the nearby NATO base in the Netherlands, and their spouses club organizes a charity night with a different theme each year. Last year it was a 60s theme, and this year it was "A Night at the Movies." This theme leaves your costume quite open for interpretation, but most people came as characters from movies. Some of the more creative costume ideas included V for Vendetta, Eliza Doolittle, Natalie Portman from the Black Swan (a couple of those), the Joker, and many more. There were even a few who chose to dress up from Zorro - including us!

Antonio Jonderas and Cathleen Zeta-Clough

People weren't sure if his Zorro was to represent Antonio Banderas or George Hamilton, but he did a great job getting into character, and I was his sultry senorita, (aka. Cathleen Zeta-Clough) for the night. We had a blast dancing, tasting all the different nation's food booths and hangin' with our friends.
Zorro and Pete Mitchell from Top Gun

The Ladies of the Night

With all the heavy dancing, by the end of the night, the wig came off. Another thing that came off, as of today, is Jon's mustache. He's enjoyed growing his 'stache during Mustache March, and being referred to by people as Clark Gable and Errol Flynn, but April 1 couldn't come soon enough for me. His face is simply too handsome to be hiding behind a 'stache and I will certainly cherish the next 11 months before March comes round again.

Cheerio from the Swiss Alps!

Switzerland - the land of Alpine escapes, mountain villages, cheese and Brits. Yes, that's correct, Switzerland (especially the village of Wengen) was swarming with Brits on holiday in early March during our ski-tastic week in the Berner Oberland. We were exposed to more "Cheerios" than "Gruetzis" during our stay, but then again that could have something to do with the fact that all the Brits in Wengen happened to be staying in our hotel.  

Presenting the village of Wengen from our hotel room balcony
Hotel Falken in Wengen
We were by far the youngest people in our hotel, and although everyone else seemed to know each other, we still enjoyed the old world ambiance of the hotel, built in the 1890s. There were no TVs, but several parlors and a beautiful piano room and bar where everyone would gather for post-dinner entertainment. Jon and I would scurry out to the town to visit some pubs, and by the time we returned, the retired Brits were still singing away with the piano man and not even close to retiring to their rooms.

Our first day of skiing, we ventured to the top of the Jungfrau mountain. Once difficult to access, the Jungfraubahn cog railway now runs inside the mountain, up to the Jungfraujoch railway station at 11,332 ft, the highest in Europe. The glacial wind was incredibly fierce at the top, but we managed to spend a few minutes out on the observatory deck to gaze at the incredible views around us. The whole area constitutes the largest glaciated area in the Alps as well as in EuropeThe Jungfrau complex is quite extensive with an ice palace, several restaurants and viewing platforms. 

In the Ice Palace, which had several ice sculptures on display

On Day 2 of skiing, we trekked to another famous peak, the Schilthorn via a series of cable cars. Once again, the view was magnificent and after enoying the panoramic scenery, we had breakfast in the revolving cafe at the summit. Jon was especially thrilled to be at the Schilthorn, as he calls his snowsuit onesie very Bonds-like, which fits at this location where the James Bond flick "On Her Majesty's Secret Service" was set. 

At the top of the Schilthorn
There was only one ski run down, and of course, it was crazy steep and narrow. I had been getting more and more anxious during our time on the Schilthorn thinking about the descent and was on verge of a freak-out when this picture was taken. But, like anything, after taking that first step forward, my anxiety dissipated, and by the end of the run, I even thought I might like to do it again.... but we didn't.

Jon making his way down the Schilthorn
The best snow and skiing was on the Schilthorn side of the mountain
The last day of skiing, we visited the third area of the Jungfrau ski region above Grindelwald. Although we still had patches of sun and blue sky, this was our first day to have any clouds. The skiing was still excellent, and although it took a lot of travel time to get to this area, it was worth it to ski the entire Jungfrau complex. We traveled via train, cable cars and ski lifts to reach the various ski trails. It is quite a mountain network!

Training on the Wengeralpbahn from Lauterbrunnen to Wengen
Jon  looking oh-so-Swiss

Three days straight of skiing can get quite tiring, so we made sure to make lots of rest stops for coffee, beer and gluwein. By Day 3, we had found our favorite places for mid-ski breaks and we planned our final run of the day to hit up all of them. 

The Rancher Bar in Grindelwald where we had a mid-ski coffee break 
Enjoying an Apres Ski party (complete with a band) at the Wasch bar
At the Allmend cafe where we stopped at the end of each ski day as our hotel was merely a short ski away
We loved being able to ski directly to our hotel (yellow building in distance)

Of course, no trip to Switzerland would be complete without a fondue experience. We had two! On two separate occasions we shared a delicious cheesy pot of fondue and a traditional Swiss rosti. It was quite yummy, but after our stint in Switzerland, we were definitely cheesed out for a while. I am so glad that we were able to experience this beautiful part of Switzerland that I had heard so much about, including Wengen, Murren, Lauterbrunnen, and Grindelwald. Although it was magnificent in winter, I would love to see the Berner Oberland in summer as well. Hmmm, who knows what the future has in store!