Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Sittard Oktoberfeest

One of the most amazing festivals in our town of Sittard is Oktoberfeest! Although we are in the Netherlands, the Dutch love to celebrate this occasion and for six days Sittard's old town is packed with carnival rides, delicious snack stands with frites, caramel apples, ollie balls, waffles, churros, and of course, bratwurst and kartoffel. But, no Oktoberfeest is complete without the beer tents. There are three main tents, each with their own entertainment and live music each evening. Jon and I were excited that this year, the Ramstein-Cloughs would be joining in on the fun. On Friday night, we all went downtown to scope out the rides. We rode Mission Space (which hoists you 80 meters in the sky with spectacular views of the city), the Spinner Coaster, took a tour through the Rue de Paris fun-house, and the girls were able to glide atop a pool of water in massive beach balls. Despite the frigid temperatures, we had a blast and the girls couldn't wait to return again over the weekend. 

Rue de Paris Fun House

Sybil and Shannon floating in the giant beach balls

Emily, Neil and Jon with their bunny ears

Although they were freezing, Neil and Jon were determined to wear their new tuxedo shirts

We were blessed with beautiful weather over the weekend with blue skies and lots of sunshine. Saturday morning, after a trip to Thorn and its infamous pancake house, we stopped at a pumpkin patch to pick up pumpkins for the girls to carve. Aren't they splendidly evil? 

Later that night, we trekked downtown again to take part in Oktoberfeest celebrations one final time. We met up with some friends in the Erdinger tent and managed to snag a table in the exact location as last year..... right next to the band! We had a blast dancing atop the table benches to all the lively songs, hoisting our beers in the air and enjoying one last chance to fest in our dirndls and lederhosen.

The ladies after snagging our table

The gang

The Cavanaughs - they look so authentically German!

The band did not shy away from pics.... and neither do I

The guys

Our crew of ladies while the guys were out riding rides

My lederhosen-wearing man.... Rrrrrr

The packed Erdinger tent

After four hours in the tent, we left just in time to ride a couple rides before the carnival closed for the night. Honestly, as much as I love to dance and listen to the fun bands, I think my favorite part about Oktoberfeest are the super cool rides! I've always  been a fan of the carnival rides, even in the States where they're especially scary, and Sittard has the best this year I've ever experienced. Alas, after a month of Oktoberfest-ing, I'm pretty fest-ed out and am glad to be hanging up my dirndl for another year. We've truly made the most of this fantastic season and although I'm happy to be seeing it end this year, I know come next September, I'll be itching to take part in all the fun once more. Now to start thinking about Christmas markets..... it's never a dull moment around here!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

These are the days of Oktoberfest.....

There are many seasons and celebrations I anticipate throughout the year; Christmas, Carnaval, July 4th. But, there is one season that is growing more dear to my heart the longer I live in Europe. It is the glorious three-week festival that jump-starts the Autumn atmosphere and gives us a reason to celebrate folk traditions and drink delicious beer between the holidays of Labor Day and Halloween. It's OKTOBERFEST!

This fantastic Bavarian tradition embraces all things German (at least what we Americans think of as typical German), to include traditional Bavarian cuisine, music and dress. I absolutely love my dirndl, and look for any excuse to wear it as often as possible. September was my month to host Bunco, and I decided to throw an Octoberfest-themed night of 'Bunctoberfest.' I had so much fun transforming the kitchen to look like a tent and finding Otkoberfest-themed decor and prizes. For the meal, I prepared a pork roast with red cabbage, potato salad, and apple pie. It was a great success and most of the girls came dressed in costume.

Bunctoberfest Ladies



A few days later, I attended the Oktoberfest party at the Geilenkirchen Air Base. This was my first time to attend and I wasn't sure what to expect, but I was quite surprised with how similarly the tent resembled a real Munich Oktoberfest tent. There wasn't quite the crowds or raucous behavior, but there was a great band, plenty of brews and entertaining antics. The only thing missing was my lederhosen-wearing man.

GK Oktoberfest

GK Oktoberfest

Although Oktoberfest in Munich is only during the last two weeks in September and first week in October, many villages throughout Germany hold Oktoberfest fairs and celebrations throughout the month of October. We recently went to a great fair in the local German village of Haaren with a group of friends. This time Jon was home and able to go and we had a wonderful night of dancing to Oktoberfest tunes and reveling in the fun with our friends. 

Haaren Oktoberfest

The Zinneckers at the Haaren Oktoberfest

Meghan, the bar-maid, at Haaren Oktoberfest
I feel we've definitely made the most of this year's Oktoberfest season! Although Oktoberfest in Germany has come and gone, Sittard is gearing up for their version, OktoberFEEST this weekend. We are looking forward to a crazy good time with friends and family and will be reporting back soon. Prost!

Monday, October 17, 2011

Good Times in Gent

To celebrate Jon's return at the end of September and the un-seasonably beautiful weather we were experiencing, we embarked on an overnight trip to Gent, Belgium. Other than seeing this city on signposts in Belgium, we really didn't know much about this capital and largest city of the East Flanders province.

Gent is often compared to with Bruges, with its many canals, bridges and gabled buildings. However, whereas Bruges is storybook charming and thronging with tourists, Gent has more of a city feel with a vibrant university population. We had been looking forward to a trip to Gent since June when we met a fun couple in Lisbon from this city. We were sat next to them at dinner and struck up a conversation which resulted in spending the rest of the night exploring Lisbon's nightlife together. They explained that Gent is a favorite city among Belgians, who feel that Bruges is too touristy. Unfortunately, we were not able to meet up with them on our visit, but we managed to have an incredible time exploring Gent's charms.

The Graslei

The must-see sights are few in Gent, and could easily be covered in a day. There are several churches in the old town and we visited St. Bavo to see the Adoration of the Mystic Lamb Altarpiece. We also climbed to the top of the Belfry, a belltower, to see commanding views of Gent. 

St. Nicholas Church viewed from the Belfry

View of Gent from the Belfry
But mostly, our sight-seeing consisted of meandering along the Graslei and viewing the gorgeous architecture of the old town, and stopping at cafes to experience local brews. We also managed to find a great place for dinner with all-you-can-eat ribs. It. Was. Awesome.

After a night to ourselves in Gent, we were joined the next day by great friends, the Grimms and Moones. They decided to make a day trip to Gent and we had a blast exploring shops together, eating lunch and cruising the old town streets. 

Sipping Klokke Rollands at the famous Waterhuis aan de Bierkant
The Graslei at Night

Enjoying a Night with Belgian Beers

Our trip was short and sweet, but we couldn't have asked for a better time in Gent complete with gorgeous weather, stunning architecture, a laid-back ambiance, good friends and delicious food and brews. We definitely hope to get back to Gent!

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Dos Hermanas in Andalucía

In early September, two days after returning from Sweden, Jon and I were packing yet again for individual excursions. He was off on another mini-deployment and I was bound for Spain to meet up with Mandy. She was visiting a college friend in Madrid, but met me in Sevilla where we enjoyed four days in the Andalucía region known for its Spanish guitar, flamenco dancing, bullfights, tapas, sangria and lots of sunshine!

At the Bullfight Arena in Sevilla

After meeting up at the hotel, we immediately visited the Sevilla Cathedral and Giralda Tower. It is the third largest church in Europe and the largest Gothic cathedral. It was built on the site for a former mosque in 1401 and the architecture still has many Moorish influences. The Giralda Bell Tower is a remnant of the original mosque and rises 330 feet above the city providing spectacular views. The spiraling ramp, rather than stairs, was designed to accommodate riders on horseback who galloped up five times a day to give the Muslim call to prayer. 

View of Sevilla from Giralda Bell Tower

After the Cathedral tour we visited Alcazar, a former Moorish palace from the 10th century. This building still functions as a royal palace and is the oldest in use in Europe. The Moorish design was gorgeous with arched doorways, reflective pools, fountains and beautiful tile work and mosaics. The most amazing thing about the palace are the expansive gardens behind the palace, filled with tropical flowers and cool fountains. 

Alcazar Palace

Gardens of Alcazar Palace

Gardens of Alcazar Palace

This was my second time to visit this wonderful city, and I was most excited to have the chance to visit the amazing tapas bars on my return. This city knows how to make some tapas and the many classic old bars throughout the narrow alleys of the Santa Cruz neighborhood do it best. We enjoyed a tapas bar-hop dinner before taking in a flamenco dance performance later that night. Touristy? Yes, but still a must while in Sevilla where the flamenco dance was born. The costumes are fantastic and the music is eerily beautiful. 

Tapas at a street-side cafe

Tapas at Las Teresas where Ham Hangs Above the Bar

Flamenco Dance Performance

Our next day in Sevilla, we visited the Plaza de Espana, which I hadn't seen on my first visit. I was blown away by this enormous square, built for the 1929 international fair. The Spanish Pavilion is outlined in tiles showing historic scenes and maps from every province of Spain. Here we embarked on a horse and buggy ride that took us around the square, Maria Luisa Park, downtown Sevilla and back. It was a fun and relaxing way to see this beautiful city from a new perspective. 

Spanish Pavilion Tiles

Plaza de Espana

Our Carriage

After some post-siesta shopping (this city has some fantastic stores with the most gorgeous shoes you've ever seen), we toured the Bullfight Museum. The bullfight tradition is still alive and well throughout Spain, and especially in this region. The Matadors are revered as heroes and fights occur weekly throughout the summer. 

Ole from the Bullfight Arena

After learning about the art of the bullfight, we trekked to the Triana neighborhood for dinner with a spectacular view. We dined on the rooftop of a restaurant along the river and enjoyed watching the Spaniards at play in this magnificent city. 

View of Cathedral from Triana Neighborhood

Our third day in Spain, we traveled South to the white hill towns, or pueblos blancos, to experience the Andalucían countryside. We drove two hours to Arcos de la Frontera, the queen of the white hill towns. Surrounded by rolling hills, this town is situated atop a hill along a cliff on two sides. There is only one way up to the old town and one way down. After getting a little over-confident of my driving skills in the narrow old town, I missed a turn, tried to correct and got in a little bit of a pickle trying to make a second turn. Luckily, a seasoned local was there to bail me out, take the wheel and make the turn into the narrow alley up to the main square. All while an entire audience of cafe-patrons put down their drinks to watch. After a half hour of complete embarrassment, I was able to compose myself enough to enjoy a relaxing lunch and pitcher of sangria to ease the humiliation. Our hotel was in a prime location overlooking the main square and situated along one of the cliffs. We had spectacular views of the town, ravine and countryside below. 

View of Arcos Old Town from Hotel Terrace

Lunch in Arcos

On the Main Square, the Plaza del Cabildo, which provides a great look-out point

Plaza del Cabildo look-out point

Arcos Alleys

Other than the church, there are no main sites to see in Arcos except the beautiful town itself. We loved  through the white-washed alleys and dipping in to shops to view beautiful artwork and handi-crafts. After dinner, we would come back to the terrace and enjoy a glass of wine with views of a dimly lit Arcos in the background.

Arcos at Night, Viewed from the Hotel Terrace

Arcos de la Frontera

With Arcos as our base camp, we made a day excursion to two other beautiful white hill towns. First was Grazalema, a beautiful postcard-pretty hill town. As much as we loved Grazalema and its quaintness, we also loved the drive getting there. Our route took us through the enormous Grazalema Natural Park, with views of rolling hills and blue sky as far as the eye could see. 

Grazalema Natural Park


Next we drove to Ronda, a unique town that straddles a gorge with the Moorish quarter on one side and the Mercadillo quarter on the other. After a delicious lunch cliffside, we walked along the gorge to view its three gorge-spanning bridges. We then hiked 10-minutes down a steep path to get pictures of the largest bridge below. A beautiful crystal clear creek with waterfalls and pools lay at the bottom of the steep gorge. 

Ronda Gorge

Ronda Gorge

Back in Arcos, we enjoyed one last sunset and tapas dinner in this picture-perfect town where time seems to stand still. Tomorrow, we would be leaving the Andalucían countryside and bound for the bustling capital of Madrid. 

View from Hotel Balcony

View from Plaza del Cabildo

Our Final Tapas Dinner

Our train ride to Madrid was one of the most beautiful train rides I've experienced. It may not have had the Alps of Switzerland or the fjords of Norway, but the dry desert-high plain, mountainous landscape was gorgeous and refreshingly different from the rest of Europe. Mandy's friend, Elizabeth, met us at the station and immediately took us on a whirlwind tour of the city. First stop was Retiro Park, Madrid's version of Central Park. This 300-acre park was beautifully shaded with a large lake in the middle. Next, we visited the Prado museum where we viewed masterpieces by Velazquez and Goya.

Retiro Park

Retiro Park

Afterward, we walked through the Puerta del Sol and the Plaza Mayor, the two main squares of the city. Our final stop was the covered Mercado de San Miguel, filled with high-end food vendors. I made a bee-line to the olive counter where they had olives stuffed with everything imaginable. Ahhhh.... I love fresh olives!

Mercado de San Miguel

Plaza Mayor

Our final night in Spain, we ate a superb dinner in Elizabeth's town of Alcala, a suburb of Madrid. She and her family so graciously hosted us for the night and took us to the airport the following day. I will treasure these memories with mi hermana mayor siempre. I am so fortunate to have not one, but two sisters, who love traveling as much as me, and to be able to spend time with them exploring new cultures and scenery is so special. Gracias per todo, mi hermana, y te amo mucho!