Nuremberg, Germany

Munich’s markets were spectacular and we could have easily spent our entire trip basking in their glow (and snacking on their bratwurst), but we wanted to see the most famous: Nuremberg’s. Going back to at least the early 1600s, it may not have been the earliest market, but it is one of the largest in Germany and probably the most well-known. We joined a throng of other tourists on a morning train out of Munich, a smooth ride across the snow-free countryside that didn’t feel particularly wintery from the comfort of the carriage.


Stepping out of the train station in Nuremberg, it was impossible to get lost. Signs point the way to the central square and we couldn’t miss the lines of people moving in the same direction. Some red-and-white roofed stalls escaped the main market and lined the other avenues. There was no escape from mulled wine or lebkuchen! Others sell fresh fruit or lace. More modern cabins/foodtrucks hawked sushi and Asian fusion food.


The entire Hauptmarkt was covered by the wooden cabins. They squeezed in at the edges and surrounded the Schöner Brunnen fountain. Unlike many markets, the majority of the stalls sold decorations and gifts rather than food, though there were plenty of those as well. Handmade glass-blown ornaments, snow globes, nutcrackers, and traditional figurines made of dried fruit and nuts were all given plenty of shelf space. Finger-sized Nuremberger sausages proved a perfect snack as did the fresh lebkuchen topped with icing and almonds.


The rest of Nuremberg is beautiful as well. Just outside of the old center, the Kaiserburg provides a loftier view over the rooftops, though clouds kept the horizon muted. Narrow medieval streets and buildings were rebuilt after World War II so that the center retains its pedestrian feel. Plenty of small bakeries and shops sell regional specialties and gingerbread.


Naturally we ended up back at the market as the sun set. The rain, which had been keeping some of the crowd away during midday, had ceased. We noticed several balconies overlooking the square and decided it looked like a better spot to enjoy the spiced wine. Late afternoon and evening seemed to be the high water mark for visitors, with people flocking to the squares.

A Children’s Market was set up in another nearby plaza, focusing on sweets and handmade toys circling around several carnival rides. On top of each cabin, animatronic figures drummed or assembled toys. There was also an international market where vendors from Nuremberg’s sister cities sell more exotic goods. Held every year for the last couple of decades it is a fun way to bring in traditions from the rest of the globe. We found the stand from Atlanta, US which had Hersey’s bars and Reese’s.


Nuremberg certainly deserves its title as Christmas capital. The whole city embraces the season, all year long. Its Christkindlmarkt was by far the most traditional looking of all the ones we saw. And a day trip was the perfect way to see it. We had enough time to visit the whole market and wander around the town itself before heading back to Munich’s greater variety of markets.


Munich, Germany

We rolled into our final Christmas market destination just a few days before the holiday. But of the three regions we visited, Munich certainly showed the most spirit. Germany LOVES Christmas and getting ready for Christmas and shopping for Christmas. As proof I submit the dozens of markets in and around the city and the amount of garlanded and lit windows and frantic shoppers we witnessed. Even our Airbnb host got into the spirit, greeting us with poinsettias and a tiny decorated (and real!) tree.

After our arrival we grabbed a few basic groceries and then headed to the nearest Christkindlmarkt at Sendlinger Tor. The market was crowded but not crushing and full of scents of mulled wine and beer and bratwurst. After eyeing the glass ornaments and nutcrackers for sale, we found glasses of mulled beer (a first for us that the markets to the south should copy) made with spices reminiscent of gingerbread. Plenty of locals grabbed a post-work pint and snack with tourists mixed in.

A10 pass in Austria, decorations in our apartment and at markets

We made a concerted effort to see as many markets as possible before they closed on December 23 or 24. Our second stop turned out to be Tollwood. Held on the Oktoberfest grounds at Theresienwiese, there is markedly less beer this time of year. With large tents housing bazaars of local handcrafted goods and another tent covering a food court, it was the easiest one to spend long amounts of time at. And we found that the goulash soup and potatoes made a perfect winter meal.

At the Christkindlmarkts

The market at Marienplatz was a must, the huge tree dominating the wooden houses set up around the square. We walked through a number of times, and as it ended on the afternoon of the 24th, listened to brass band play Christmas carols from an open deck below the Glockenspiel. This main market didn’t have a better selection but certainly catered to larger crowds.

On Wittelsbacherplatz, the Mittelaltermarkt held the title for most distinct. Basically a Renaissance Faire dolled up for the holiday, they fully embrace the middle ages theme. Everyone is dressed in period-ish clothing and there are more ragouts and stews for snacking and weighty ceramic cups and plates. One corner was full of the wafting scent of salmon, slow-cooked in a wood-fired oven. The market around the Chinese Pagoda in the English Garden seemed the most kid-friendly. They also were serving up Urbock, one of the tastier non-spiced beers. The sunny day balanced out the beer’s chill nicely.

More market goodness

The rest of Munich was just as beautiful and welcoming as the two previous times we visited (during quicker stopovers on more traditional vacations). Though we’d already been to Asamkirche it was worth a second stop. The ornate interior is so densely decorated that it was hard to pick our individual details from the general splendor. Still, the skeleton cutting someone’s tenuous connection to life drives home the central point in the entryway.

Christmas day itself was especially warm, and we wandered along the Isar River to the English Garden. Lots of kids were trying out new bikes and it seemed like surfers at the Wave might have received some new gear as well. Munich takes the week between Christmas and the new year seriously – many small shops and restaurants shut down completely and even larger places operate on limited hours. We grocery shopped in advance and enjoyed the quieter neighborhood vibe.

One more tree, inside Asam Church, the Wave

Having already seen the Residenz, the main royal palace in Munich, Schloss Nymphenburg filled our palace and castle line item for this stop. Built as a summer home when the surroundings were countryside rather than city streets, it feels more relaxed though it sprawls out to either direction for what feels like miles. The interior rooms are heavily muraled and bedecked with matching furniture. Outside, man-made canals and lakes form the centerpieces of a heavily landscaped vista that encompassed hundreds of acres now fronted by tram stops and backed by a train line.

Schloss Nymphenburg

Munich’s art museums are clustered in the Maxvorstadt neighborhood. We stopped by the Alte Pinakothek, which focused on works up through the 18th century. Currently under renovation, several galleries are shuttered and some masterworks are housed in temporary positions. Still, we felt like we got a good overview of the collection. For some reason it felt like more of the paintings dealt with bar and drinking scenes…

Alte Pinakothek, a 250mb hard drive at the Deutsches Museum

We missed the Deutsches Museum on previous trips, even though it is the largest technology and science museum on the continent. When we arrived, ticket lines stretched several hundred feet out of the courtyard and down the sidewalk. Rather than wait in falling snow, we opted to buy our tickets on our phone as we stood in the lobby. Several other families were doing the same; though it cost a euro extra for the privilege it saved us at least 40 minutes of queueing. It was shocking as well – walking by a few days earlier there had been no wait at all. Inside the museum there are miles of tech-related exhibits, many of which are interactive. Telescopes, centuries-old globes, airplanes, and ships share the space with a recreation of a coal mine, a cave, glassblowing, and interactive physics experiments. The old computer equipment was among the most mind-blowing. For example, the washing-machine-sized hard drive in the image above stores just 250 megabyes; the image I took of it on my phone is too large to fit on it. A cloud chamber entranced us for quite a while. Charged particles cause puffs of condensed water vapor to form, a direct way to visualize the radiation all around us, some of which is the universe’s background voice.

Munich is always lovely, and each time I leave I miss it. In many ways it feels like home. Having grown up with the background of German midwestern influence, much of the food and cultural tics are at least a little familiar. I’d absolutely visit again, in any season, for any length of time.


Moving north from Sarajevo, we opted to spend a month in Zagreb. Our stay timed well with the opening of the Advent markets which can claim the honor of being the best in Europe. We watched excitedly as the little huts were arranged on the squares, lights hung, and an ice skating park assembled near our apartment. The markets didn’t open until December 2, however, so we spent the first three weeks distracting ourselves with other things to do.

Zagreb Views

An earthquake in 1880 caused the destruction of parts of the city and it was rebuilt with grand buildings and park spaces. It makes the city a sight in its own right. We walked, rather than funiculared, up to the Upper Town to get a better view. Near St. Mark’s Square (which holds the eponymous church with the brightly tiled roof) is the Museum of Broken Relationships. Items left over from failed relationships – a book, a wedding dress, a trinket, a toaster – are donated along with stories tied to their meaning. Sometimes sad, sometimes hysterically funny, it made me grateful to have someone to share the experience with.

Lots of murals and a little relationship regret

Also before the Advent season got into full swing, we had a couple events to attend. The first was InfoGamer, the largest video game expo in the Balkans. Compared to PAX, it was nearly empty of people. Of course, we went in the middle of the day in the middle of the week and InfoGamer spreads out over six days rather than just four. All the major devices and games were represented. We tried out the new Mario Odyssey and a game called Inked that boasted an art style straight out of a paper notebook, and then spent most of our time checking out the smaller games built by Croatian start-ups. One called I Hate Running Backwards was a particularly addicting multiplayer.

Advent Celebrations

We also happened to be in town for the International Festival of Wine and Culinary Art. Though the focus centered mostly on Croatian wine, there were some other countries from around the region represented as well. For just a $30 entry per person, we were able to sample as much as we wanted (really just as much as we had time for) for the six hours were stayed. With about 150 wineries each serving three or more wines, there was far too much to have a chance to taste everything. But we tried. And thankfully, almost everything was delicious (at least from what we remember). A few breweries and distilleries also showcased their wares, especially those evoking holiday flavors. And then there were a few stands slicing up cured Dalmatian pršut, an aged ham tender enough to nearly melt in our mouths.

Everyone claims Tesla; Dolac Market, lights

And then, finally, on the last weekend we were in Zagreb, the Advent celebrations kicked off. The lightings in different squares took place on Saturday evening, as did concerts and the rolling out of a tram decorated as Santa Claus. Mulled wine was a must for staying warm, but it was readily available and cheap. Sausages were also being served up on every square along with balls of fried dough and germknödel, a pastry stuffed with spiced plum jam for dessert. The ice skating park finally opened, full of lights and music. We avoided crowds and skated on a Tuesday morning. Chilly weather is not our strong suit – living out of two backpacks apiece doesn’t let us carry many winter clothes. But most markets have plenty of heaters and warm snacks, and a coffee or pastry shop is rarely more than a block away.

Market mulled wine, spiciness! mulling spices, tastes of the States

Zagreb is a large enough city to embrace a fully worldwide culinary cross-section. In addition to Balkan specialties like cevapi and štrukle (a cheese-and-cream-filled pastry), we found exceptional locally-made hot sauces and spicy ajvars, and even shops selling imported goods from Asia and the US. It was fun to have ranch and Poptarts back on the menu at least for a few days.

And of course there was plenty of Croatian wine. As the temperature got cooler, we headed to the sprawling Dolac Market for spices and citrus fruits meant for mulling. The wine is usually good by itself, but adding a few spices never hurt.

Zagreb is at least as charming as the coast, and there are fewer tourists, especially as soon as you step away from the Christmas markets. The cost of living was lower too, which definitely appealed to us. I’d like to return someday, though maybe in warmer weather.


Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia was a natural next stop after Vilnius, and we were thrilled to spend a month there given how much we seemed to enjoy Baltic culture. Riga was similarly relaxed, though noticeably more touristed than Lithuania’s capital. We stayed outside the Old Town center in a quiet area that was connected to the core through parks. Wandering around was our main activity, especially since the weather was often perfect for walking. The Old Town seems to have a church steeple down every street and a pretty building on every corner.

House of Blackheads, European Choir Games

Hundreds of years of varied architecture are represented. From Germanic/Hanseatic influences to Art Nouveau and Soviet-era blocks, Riga has it all. Each street and square feels unique. We were near the Art Nouveau neighborhood, with its sculptured facades and wide streets.

Memorial to the Berlin Wall and Riga’s Barricades, Three Brothers houses, narrow streets

My favorite structure is the National Library. Supposedly it is shaped like a mountain in reference to a Latvian folktale. It might be one featuring a knight climbing a mountain to a sleeping princess or another where a mountain rises out of the earth once Latvia regains it independence. The exterior is striking and unique, and the inside is full of books. Hard to go wrong.

Latvian National Library, inside and out

Over all the city is a fabulous mix of old and new. There are recently built (or renovated) upscale malls next to centuries-old churches. Remnants of the city wall are just a few minutes walk from parks with modern statues.

Wall of city crests, your typical chimpanzee astronaut statue

Riga’s massive Central Market was the place to find all sorts of local eats. Located in massive buildings that were originally Zeppelin hangars, it is the largest farmer’s market in Europe. The hangars are airy and bright, perfect for admiring the selections of local meats, fish, and produce.

The summer season meant berries and veggies were in fresh, including some kinds we’d never seen before. Service berries, similar to a blueberry with more noticeable seeds, and cloudberries, which turn bright orange when fully ripe, were delicious. Fresh black currants looked shiny and tasty but were too bitter to eat raw.

Service berries, cloud berries, rye bread & cranberry ice cream, Latvian deep fried garlic bread

Latvia drinking culture also tends toward beer, and that means bar snacks. The most famous is Latvian garlic bread, a deep fried, oil-and-butter-rich snack that seems ideal for staving off hangovers. Another is ‘grey peas.’ Actually made with brown peas, it is a Latvian specialty, featuring copious amounts of bacon and onions. Let the mix simmer for hours to blend the flavors, and serve in as large a portion as possible.

Local grape wine isn’t common (or that delicious) but local fruit wines are worth seeking out. We attended a wine festival in Sabile, and had the chance to sample wines made from rhubarb, sea buckthorn, currants, raspberry, apple, oak leaves (who knew?), and quince. Many were made by small producers who were excited to show off their family recipes.

I am going to miss Riga – the moderate summer temperatures, the parks, the main market. Sadly our time in Europe’s Schengen area was up, so we had to move on. I felt more comfortable in Riga than just about any other city I’ve lived in, and I definitely hope to return.


Trakai, Lithuania

Just 30 kilometers outside Vilnius is Trakai, a small tourist town known for castles and surrounded by a beautiful set of peaceful lakes. We scheduled a kayaking tour of the lakes (thanks credit card rewards) for a Saturday afternoon during our stay in Vilnius. We were fortunate – rain that had plagued our weeks in the city cleared and July day was warm. It was perfect for paddling.

Skaistis Lake solitude and in front of Trakai Island Castle

We walked to the main station in Vilnius, bought tickets for the next bus to Trakai, and had just a few minutes to wait. The journey was quick, and from the Trakai bus station, it took about ten minutes to walk to the waterfront where were to meet for kayaking. To our surprise, we were the only ones on the trip for the day. Tomas, our guide from North North East, was fabulous. He took us around the castle, along the edge of the more crowded Galvė Lake and the Trakai waterfront, through a hidden passage to small ponds, and into the peaceful Skaistis Lake. Stopping for lunch on a small island, we enjoyed kibinai and apple-honey tart. My favorite portion was on the quiet out-of-the-way lakes, separated from the dozens of paddleboats and partyboats. Our arms were still feeling good after several hours of kayaking, and we had plenty of daylight left to see the rest of Trakai after returning the kayaks.

Quiet lunch spot, going around the Castle

We toured the Trakai Island Castle, the main tourist draw. It is incredibly scenic – reconstructed red brick towers and halls on small islands connected by bridges. At one time it was completely surrounded by water but lake levels have lowered over the centuries, and we walked around it, sharing the path with wedding parties and picnickers. Inside is a small history museum and a few collections of porcelain, ceramics, coins, and smoking pipes (apparently guys in the 18th century liked to have flirty ladies put on their pipes… which is something, I suppose).

Island Castle courtyard; my favorite ceramics in the museum

We saw the rest of Trakai fairly quickly. The waterfront is crowded with restaurants and souvenir stands. Other streets are quiet with colorful houses. We wandered back to the bus station to catch the next transfer back to Vilnius. The bus arrived quickly but the driver waited until it was full to start; not a big deal to us since we had the time.




August Update

After several weeks on hiatus, I’m finally catching up on our recent European travels. The next blog about Prague will be published next week.

Part of the reason for the gap after Uruguay was the launch of a new blog, Awayfarers. My husband and I are working on this new project together. It has a much different and more formal feel than this blog, which I started for family. The pace of articles will be a bit slower, and we will be looking back on our 20 months of travel so far. Feel free to check it out – while some of the content will overlap, it will also feature more about the experience of living in each country. In the meantime, we will keep traveling.


Punta Arenas – Part 2

Since Punta Arenas is a town where visitors usually spend a few days, it doesn’t have the tourist focal points a larger city would. We managed to enjoy our entire month, even though you can feasibly see the entire city in a day or two. There is no real tying this post into any semblance of a narrative, it is just a miscellaneous collection of the little things we did around the area.

On recommendations by Chileans we met in Santiago, we visited the municipal cemetery, the Cementerio Sara Braun. Some travel publications list it as one of the most beautiful cemeteries in the world. Tradition dictates that Sara Braun donated the land but on the condition she would be the last one to enter the main gate. Even today, the main doors are shuttered and people use an entrance to the side. There are large mausoleums and outdoor columbariums, and many rows have massive, well-trimmed evergreens. Families seem to spend a lot of time there, keeping graves clear and reminiscing. Since the environment is so harsh, many flowers are fake, but even those are kept fresh and brightly colored. The overall effect is to make it seem less dreary than most cemeteries I’ve been through.

Sara Braun Municipal Cemetery

Many days we walked along the waterfront to enjoy views across the Strait of Magellan and to look for whales and dolphins. Many of the buildings are covered in murals celebrating the seafaring and industrial history of the area. Stray dogs also hang out on the boardwalk. Some seem intent on adopting any family that walks by – one particularly stubborn one followed us for more than half an hour, until he was distracted by another group eating lunch. Apparently the food made them the better option. The largest monument is to Magellan and others along the shore commemorate shipwrecks.

Mural and mirador

Austral claims to be the southernmost brewery, but I think the Cerveceria Artesanal Hernando de Magallanes might be winning that title by a foot or two. We first noticed it when we were walking around on our cruise-stop day in town, but it was closed on that Sunday. They have a small operation – their fresh-tasting beers are all hand-bottled. I liked their barley wine the most, but when we stopped in a second time, it was already sold out. Next time we know to stop back in sooner…

An even more local beer than Austral, San Pedro – patron saint of fishermen – at the Mercado, monument to Magellan

We happened to be in Punta Arenas for the February 26, 2017 solar eclipse. While it was a total eclipse farther to the north, we still managed to see the sun about 70% covered at the peak. Since we didn’t have welding goggles, we projected the eclipse onto the ground though a pinhole in a piece of cardboard. But, since Patagonia is famous for quickly changing weather, clouds soon covered the sun (we were lucky the sun was out at all). Amazingly, the clouds were just dense enough that we could watch the eclipse though them without needing thick glasses and still see the moon crossing the sun’s face. The entire event lasted a couple of hours. For having almost no advance warning – we only learned it was occurring the day before – we were thrilled to witness it. This is doubly true since we will probably miss the total eclipse that will be crossing the US in August.

Feb. 26, 2017 – Annular solar eclipse

Punta Arenas was the nearest we’ve come to winter in more than a year. Temperatures in the 40s are about as close as I like to actual cold, especially with the severe winds that Patagonia can produce. Now that we’ve moved on to Uruguay, I have to say that 75-80 is much more enjoyable for me.