Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The Final Oktoberfeest

I can't believe I'm writing this, but yes, I do believe we have experienced our last Oktoberfeest. We had no clue that when we moved to the Netherlands from Germany three years ago, we would actually have more opportunities to participate in local Oktoberfest celebrations than when in Wiesbaden. Once thing is for sure, Sittard puts out all the stops for their version of Oktoberfest, actually called OktoberFEEST! For five days, the city center becomes a playground with carnival (or kermis) attractions filling the Markt and lining the streets to the festival grounds. There are four beer tents set up, each with their own lively entertainment schedule and a fireworks finale on the last night. Jon and I have enjoyed feesting it up each October for the past three years and will miss this special Sittard tradition immensely. 

Herr and Frau Clough

Luckily, we went out with a bang this year with a great group of friends we were able to feest with. Just as we will miss this event, we will certainly miss each of these friends we've had the opportunity to know while living here. Without which, our time here wouldn't have been quite as sweet. Although Oktoberfeest may be behind us, we still have the grand finale of Carnaval ahead to look forward to. Until then, Prost!

The lovely dirndl-wearing ladies of Oktoberfeest
Enjoying a beer in the Tirolean Alps

The boys - aren't they cute in their lederhosen.

Mandy's Visit

It is no question that visits from family members are the absolute best! I've been so fortunate to have Mandy visit once a year since moving to Europe in 2007. In addition to three family trips, she's come three additional times where the two of us have traveled to Poland, Spain and this time, we met in Paris before spending a week in the Netherlands. We have traveled to Paris together a few times before, but as it's been several years for Mandy, she was eager to return. I am so blessed to have a sister that loves to travel and is able to get away!

The end of September is a great time for travel as the weather usually hasn't taken a drastic turn yet and everything still looks beautiful. We were blessed with beautiful weather in Paris with only intermittent rain. Our first night, we walked from our hotel near the Bastille to the Isle de Cite and Latin Quarter. We were able to see all the beautiful and iconic Paris landmarks lit up in their nighttime glory.

Notre Dame Cathedral

Mandy pointing to the Eiffel Tower from the Pont d'Arts

Posing on the Pont d'Arts
The next day, we began by visiting the captivating Musee de l'Orangerie, an art gallery of impressionist paintings. It is most famous for being the permanent home of eight Water Lilies murals by Monet. Afterward, we toured through the Tuileries garden to Rue de Rivoli and our favorite Parisian Tea Room, Angelina's. This is always a must-visit on any trip to Paris as the African hot dark chocolate is indescribably delicious.

Tuileries Garden

Angelina's Tea Room

Angelina's Tea Room

Tuileries Garden

After another stroll through the Tuilieries garden and Lourve, we walked along the grand Avenue de l'Opera to the Galeries Lafayette department store. The domed-center is truly an incredible site and we enjoyed perusing the famous labels while making our way to the top floor cafeteria and rooftop views of the city. 

Shopping on Avenue de l'Opera 

Galeries Lafayette

Rooftop View from Galeries Lafayette
Afterward, we spent the late afternoon walking around St. Germain and visited the beautiful Luxembourg Garden. That night, we enjoyed dinner at the festive and kitschy restaurant, Le Temple.

Jardin du Luxembourg

Le Temple Restaurant
On Sunday morning, we trekked to the northern part of the city to visit the antique flea market of St. Ouen. We first perused the ethnic goods stands with beautiful silk scarves from India, leather handbags from Morocco and a plethora of cheap shoes. We eventually made our way to the antique stalls where we searched for little treasures. Mandy found a great vintage jacket. We enjoyed a lovely lunch, complete with entertainment, at over-the-top Chez Louisette. Located in the heart of the antique market and only open two days a week, I'm so glad we were able to experience this jewel of a restaurant with traditional French singers. We walked from the St. Ouen area to Montmartre where we saw the Sacre Coeur and explored the lively Place du Tertre, filled with artists and sidewalk cafes.

Sunday lunch at Chez Louisette

Shopping at St. Ouen antique flea market

Sacre Coeur Cathedral
It was a fast and frenzied trip to Paris, but we still managed to hit the highlights, while enjoying time to breathe in the city and explore the side streets. Back in the Netherlands, we spent the week visiting places Mandy had not been to previously. First on the list was a trip to Aachen to visit the Dom, enjoy a German lunch and see the nearby Dreilandenpunt. Yes, this has become a must-see for all my visitors, because there aren't too many places you can say you've stood in three countries at once.

Aachen Markt


Another day we went to Maastricht where we explored the city on both sides of the river, visited many of the lovely shops, had a great lunch at the V&D La Place, followed by a delicious sidewalk waffle. That same day, we trekked to the American Cemetery in Margraten, which is always a humbling site.

Maastricht Cathedral Bookstore

American Cemetery in Margraten

Another day trip was spent in the quaint German town of Monschau. I had only visited here once before and had forgotten how adorable this town was with its numerous half-timbered buildings lining the bubbling creek. We enjoyed a lovely day visiting the glassworks factory, wandering through the town, browsing through the many shops, having lunch and discovering the greatest waffle ever made. Quite a successful day!

Monschau, Germany

Monschau, Germany

Monschau, Germany
I loved having Mandy here to experience some of my daily life activities, including bike rides to the Sittard square, attending the Thursday morning market and even coming to a Bunco night with me. She was great about enjoying down-time and one afternoon we enjoyed a lovely picnic in the orchard with goodies we picked up at the market.

Rose beer on the Sittard Markt

Loaded up with goods from the market

Picnic in the orchard
We spent a lovely day walking around the countryside near Schinnen, a particularly beautiful part of the Limburg area, due to the rolling hills. It was the perfect day to enjoy the countryside

A countryside walk near Sweikhuizen

Making friends on the walk

A countryside walk near Sweikhuizen

Making friends on the walk

And of course no visit to this area would be complete with a visit to the famous Pannekoekenbakker in Thorn. 

Filled up on pancakes and feeling good

Thorn, NL

It was the perfect 9 days of sight-seeing balanced with lots of relaxation and downtime simply enjoying the laid-back Dutch daily living. I'm so glad I was able to have Mandy here to experience a week in my world and will miss these European sister trips immensely. Hopefully we can make them happen again someday down the road. Until then, I look forward to lots of Stateside sister trips in the near future. Thanks again for a great trip, Mandy!

Enjoying our final dinner in Sittard

Having a Ball at the Air Force Ball

A week after returning from Greece, it was time for yet another Air Force Ball, thrown in conjunction with the Air Force's 65th birthday. This was our second time to participate in an Air Force Ball while stationed at GK. The first year we attended, it was held in Kasteel Hoensbroek, but this year it was in a hotel. Although it didn't quite have the ambiance of a castle, it was still a fun night of dressing up in our formal duds and dancing the night away with our friends. We ended up sitting at a jackpot table with our friends, Missy and Chad Zinnecker, and no one else. This meant more wine for the table and no awkward small talk with strangers. We didn't bring our camera that evening, so thank you, Missy, for sharing your pictures!

I was so pleased I got the chance to wear one of my all-time favorite dresses that is actually my mom's from 1974, worn on her first anniversary. She certainly has great style! Jon gets a big kick out of the AF mess dress uniform looking like a cater-waiter uniform, and really played this up by offering to serve everyone wine. It was a fantastic night and I hope we'll be able to take part in many more formal occasions at our next base (much to Jon's chagrin). 

The Cloughs' Greek Island Odyssey

As we are in our last year of living in Europe, we are trying to check off as many bucket-list destinations as possible. I have had the opportunity to visit mainland Greece twice, the second time with Jon during our Athens marathon in 2009. We enjoyed the city of Athens immensely, the mild weather and of course the delicious Greek food.  However, since moving to Europe in 2007, we have been dreaming of a trip to the Greek Cyclades, and finally made that dream a reality during the last week in August. Though we would have loved to spend several weeks touring the many gorgeous islands in the Cyclades region, with limited vacation time, we decided to focus on three islands, spending two days a piece on each. We couldn't wait to visit these renown islands, with their cubist architecture, and white and blue color schemes. Although each of the three islands are a part of the similar Cycladic tradition, we chose three scenically unique islands to spend our time.

We began our journey with an early morning arrival on the island of Mykonos. With its iconic thatched windmills and famous party scene, Mykonos proved to be a great jumping off point for our adventure.

Mykonos Hora

Iconic Mykonos Windmill

After checking into our hotel and strolling around the main port town, Hora, we quickly realized the reputation of this being a big destination for gays still very much exists. We later found out that there was a conference taking place during the exact time we were there, which would make sense why we (a hetero couple) seemed to be in the minority. Our first morning we also had the pleasure of meeting the honorary Mayor of Mykonos. We ended up having the pleasure of seeing this pelican several times during our two-day stay. He was quite the crowd-pleaser and especially liked to roam around the outdoor restaurant tables looking for handouts. 

We had made an agreement that this trip would be purely a vacation/recreational trip, devoid of any history or cultural sites. But, this is Greece after all, and you can't swing a cat without coming across some ruins of some kind. So, we decided to sacrifice our first afternoon to visiting the nearby island of Delos. This small, sacred island is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece, first inhabited in the 3rd millennium B.C. Despite the intense afternoon heat that day, we were grateful we took the short ferry trip here as it was astounding to see these ruins of once grand terraces, mansions and sacred temples. 

Hiking up Mt. Kythos overlooking the ruins of Delos 
Terrace of the Lions, Delos
The next day, we rented a scooter with the plan to seek out as many secluded, off-the-beaten-path beaches as possible. As we were traveling during the busy season of August, we wanted to avoid the crowds at the beaches near the towns. Luckily, the islands are small with beaches-a-plenty, so it wasn't too difficult to find some with few people. The first beach we visited was Fokos beach. The water was a beautiful brilliant turquoise blue, and I couldn't wait to bask in the sun on the soft sand. Jon was able to do that for about 5 minutes before getting bored and taking off on his own adventure. This consisted of climbing the rock wall that surrounds the beach and bay to his destination of the furthest rock out in the water. This endeavor provided great entertainment for me and a group of older Italians.

Fokos Beach

Every beach has a taverna that serves traditional and fresh Greek dishes. We ate a fantastic lunch before embarking to the opposite side of the island to Lia Beach. This was much more of an established beach with chairs, umbrellas and a few different restaurants. On the far right side of the beach, we ended up finding some large flat rocks where we could be a bit more secluded and have a great jumping off point into beautiful and clear deep water. 

Lia Beach

Lia Beach

We adored our hotel in Mykonos - our favorite of the three. The traditional design was beautiful and we loved evening cocktails at the pool bar. 

Poseidon Hotel

Everything happens on a much later schedule in Greece. Dinner isn't normally until 10 or 11 (or later), and the shops stay open until 2 or 3 in the morning. I loved this, because I didn't feel the pressure to do any shopping during the day but could browse the stores between dinner and drinks. Mykonos was absolutely magnificent and I only hoped the other two islands could live up to our experiences we've had thus far. 

Pre-dinner drinks in Hora's "Little Venice"

Hora by night

Perusing the shops of Hora
Our third morning, we hopped a 1.5 hour ferry to Naxos; the largest of the Cyclades island, and also one of the less-touristed. It was halfway between Mykonos and Santorini, and seemed to be a good break between the hustle and bustle of these two very touristed-islands. We immediately discovered that Naxos was a great deal cheaper than the other two and is the most fertile, which was a nice break from the sparseness of most Cycladic islands. It is also the most self-sufficient island with a large local population throughout the year, unlike some of the other islands. We are so grateful we traveled here in order to get a taste of authentic Greek island life. 

The unfinished Temple of Apollo in Chora, Naxos
After dropping our bags at our pension and a delicious (and cheap!) lunch, we explored the streets of the Kastro, or castle district. This had a much more serene, calm atmosphere than the bustling streets of Mykonos.

Chora, Naxos

Chora, Naxos

Chora, Naxos
Our next day in Naxos, we rented another scooter to better explore the island. The scenery inland was breathtaking with large rock formations strewn about and white villages in the distance that looked like snowfall on a mountainside.

Our handsome steed

Scenes from a scooter - the town of Filoti

Scenes from a scooter

We scooter-ed up to the base of Mt. Zeus, where we followed the steep and rocky 3km path to the summit. This 3,300 foot mountain is the highest in the Cyclades and provides breathtaking views of Naxos and other surrounding islands.

Path to the summit of Mt. Zeus

A the top, channeling my inner-Rocky pose

Jon's signature pose

Posing for a pic on our descent

After our strenuous hike (well, strenuous for me), we made our way to our favorite beach yet, Mikri Vigla, and were rewarded with a fantastic lunch at the beach taverna. 

This beach had at all, endless smooth white sand, beautiful turquoise waters, an outcropping of rocks to swim and snorkel around, and the perfect view of the sun slipping into the sea. If we had had an extra day in Naxos, I know we would have been happy to spend the entire day at this beautiful spot. 

Mikri Vigla

Mikri Vigla

Can you spot him?

Mikri Vigla
That evening, we attended a concert of traditional music and dancing at the 13th century Venetian castle in the Chora. The tickets came with complimentary local wines made on the island. At the end of the performance, they moved aside the chairs and showed the audience how to Greek dance. Later that night, we stumbled upon a restaurant playing live music with only a few patrons. We decided to watch for a bit, but after awhile, we were pulled up on stage by some of the locals and got to put into practice what we learned earlier that evening. Dancing around Zorba-style with our new Greek friends was an absolute highlight of the trip.

Folk music and dance performance

Dancing Zorba-style
The scenic finale of our trip was hands down, Santorini. I had heard that every picture taken here is like a postcard, and after visiting there, I must agree (that's why I have so many pics for this section!). Yes, it's the most touristed and overpriced island with very little that seems authentically local, but there's no doubt that the scenery make up for any shortcomings. We took a 2.5 hour ferry from Naxos to Santorini and made our way to the outdoor terrace for the magnificent sheer cliff views coming into the harbor. 

Ferry to Santorini

Views of Santorini

Santorini Fira Harbor
After a late lunch and some pool time at our hotel, we headed out for a night of exploring the main village of Fira. Set atop a sheer cliff, there are many steep winding paths and stairs used to navigate the village. There are also donkeys that you can hitch a ride with from the port to the village center. We enjoyed seeing them numerous times during our stay.

Donkeys patrolling by our restaurant at dinner

Fira by night
We couldn't wait to explore the island in greater depth the next morning, and once again, rented a scooter to get around this small island. Our first stop was the Red Beach, named for its high red cliffs and hand-sized pebbles submerged under the clear water. Because this is a well-known site to see, it was swarming with tourists, so after a quick dip, we moved on to our next location.

Santorini - it's a long and winding path down to the ferry harbor

Red Beach

Santorini Scooter

Luckily, we had gotten a great recommendation about a secluded beach that takes a little bit more effort to get to. We were pleased to see a long stretch of water and pebbly beach with hardly anyone there and plenty of area to explore. 

Making our way to Eos Beach

Eos Beach

Eos Beach
Santorini is ALL about the sunsets. We joked that each night is the sunset show and you better be sure you have your tickets to the show, because it might get sold out. This was the mentality many people had and especially in Oia, where the sunsets were the best, due to an un-obstructed view of the sun setting into the water. We decided to join the frenzy and scooter to Oia, which is a gorgeous, idyllic Greek village. By the time we got there, the prime real estate for watching the sunset show was taken, and the streets were lined with tourists. We managed to squeeze in a great spot on the edge of the village where we could not only watch the sun melt into the sea, but also see the changing light reflected off the white village buildings. It truly was a sight to behold.



The donkeys were in Oia too




View of the villages that dot the cliffs of Santorini



Our final day in Santorini, we spent the morning relaxing by our pool with gorgeous views of the ocean. We wanted to explore more of the beautiful architecture and walked along the cliffside villages of Fira, Firostefani and Imerovigli. The views on this island are captivating and we enjoyed posing in front of the iconic white, blue-domed buildings. We found a lovely place for our final Greek dinner and final Santorini sunset.

Cocktails at our hotel pool







View of Santorini sunset during dinner

It was an incredible week in the Greek Cyclades and I'm so glad we chose to spend time in three uniquely different and wonderful destinations. The fantastic shopping and nightlife in Mykonos, the secluded beaches and local atmoshpere of Naxos and the sublime scenery of Santorini all contributed to the perfect vacation. As they say in Greek, Yiamas, or Cheers!