Wednesday, July 27, 2011

I Heart European Train Travel

 A friend and I spent a lot of time on various trains for our adventures during a Spring Break visit. It was an easy way to travel and relatively inexpensive. Since there were many hours spent on they train we had to find ways to pass the time. Here are just a few ideas.

*Sleep. We were up early and spent most of our time on the move so the train was a chance to catch up.

*Card games. We played a few hands of Rummy, but a lot more hands of Speed.

*"Pass the Pig". This was a fun game that my friend brought. Two plastic pigs were "rolled" and points earned depending on how they landed.

*Read. We both love to read so this was a chance to finish that good book, or in my case, listen to an audiobook.

*Listen to music. We both had our iPods and listened to music as we watched the scenery go by.

*Have a snack. On a train you can bring your own food or drink and this was a time to have a quick snack before we arrived at our destination.

*Sit back, relax, and chat with a good friend.

Any other suggestions?

Originally posted on my private blog.

Monday, July 25, 2011

A Few Reasons Why You Should Take a Train in Europe

I've taken the train a few times in Europe, mostly for short trips and I've decided this is the way to travel.  After a trip to Berlin on a Deutsche Bahn ICE train, I came up with a few reasons for why train travel is so great.

1. Traffic-there is none! We traveled from Mannheim to Berlin in a quick 5 hours with no traffic jams, construction tie-ups, or stop lights.

2. Leg room-There was plenty of leg room for our long legs. We sat back, stretched out, and relaxed the whole way.

3. Reading-I can't read in the car, but I had no problems on train. I sat back with my new magazines and book and was able to enjoy the passing time.

4. Peace-not one argument about where to turn, which exit to take, or the best parking spot.

5. Green-We didn't have to fill up with gas. Public transportation is a more "green" way to travel.

6. Time-The trains were on time, quick, and efficient.

7. Parking-can be avoided! Parking can be expensive and a garages much too small. Traveling by train takes you into the heart of the city without trying to find a legal spot for the car.

If you're in Europe, I would recommend taking advantage of the trains to travel between cities.

Originally posted on my private blog.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

It's the Little Things-European Hotel Rooms

We've stayed at quite a few hotels during our travels, everything from big chains to small bed and breakfasts. I tend to use several different sites when looking for a hotel. These sites allow for reviews from people who have stayed at the hotel, which is helpful. Everyone is looking for something different in a hotel so I always take what people have written with a grain of salt, but I find that if a hotel is too far away from the sites, really disgusting, or absolutely fabulous you can figure it out from the reviews. We have only stayed in one hotel I wouldn't go back to and it didn't have any reviews. We typically choose budget hotels, unfortunately no 5 stars, and we haven't stayed in any hostels. The hotels are pretty similar to those you might find at home, but there are some differences. Here are a few I've noticed.

1. The bed. I have read several complaints in hotel reviews about the double bed. Most, not all, European rooms have two twin beds that are pushed together instead of an American style queen bed. There is only a flat sheet on each mattress and a down (or down alternative) comforter with a duvet cover. Most of the pillows are big feather pillows, which is usually too soft for me.

2. The bathroom. I have never seen a washcloth in an European hotel room. The shower is always a bit different. In a small hotel in France, the shower was directly across from the window (luckily I figured out how to close the shutters) and the shower doors wouldn't close. In a large business hotel in Germany, the floor was completely tile, with no specific separate area for the shower, and water splashed everywhere. Most of the time, there is a hand held shower head, usually mounted low on a side wall, more for a bath than a shower.

3. The breakfast. You will not find buttermilk biscuits or pancakes at a European breakfast buffet. I have had waffles, but there was no syrup, only honey. Usually there are various cold cuts, cheeses, and rolls, yogurt, and cereals. There might be scrambled or hard-boiled eggs, bacon (never as crisp as I like it), sausages, or fruit. Sometimes there is a wider selection. I usually have a salami and cheese sandwich on roll or a croissant with nutella (so good!) and a cup of the excellent coffee. I enjoy these buffets, although sometimes I miss the biscuits and pancakes.

4. The TV. The TV itself isn't different, but usually the programs will not be in English. This doesn't bother me, I don't go to another city (country) to watch TV. We might be able to watch one or two English channels, usually BBC or CNN news and maybe one other. We've seen quite a few American shows in German and it was fun to watch the German version of American Idol.

5. Family rooms. A few times we've needed a room for three. This is always interesting. In a great B & B, we had a large room with a double bed and bunk beds. In another place, the third bed was two mattresses placed on the floor with no bed frame and there was barely enough space in the room to move. If you are in need of more than a double you might want to call the hotel and ask for details.

6. The elevator. A lot of places have elevators, but there are quite a few that do not. Once we had to take various elevators and stairs, including going up a half floor. In Paris, we couldn't take the elevator all the way to the floor with our room.

You'll find everything you need when you visit a hotel in Europe, although it might be slightly different than what you are used to. Of course, isn't that the point of traveling somewhere new?

Originally posted on my private blog.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

A Walk in the Woods

This cutie pie forces me to get off my couch twice a day and take him for a walk in the woods on the outskirts of the village we live in. I actually truly enjoy these walks, especially on a beautiful day like today, and I captured a few pictures of our journey. I planned to bring my regular camera, but forgot on the way out the door. I had my iPhone so I tried out the Instagram and CameraBag apps, inspired by this post on the Kevin and Amanda blog.
I took this last night. Yes, our floors are turquoise wood laminate.
The daylilies in our yard are blooming. We walk past them our way out of the gate.
There are several gravel paths to venture on.

On the way in and out of town are fields that local farmers and farm companies plant and manage. I've seen fields of wheat, strawberries, cabbage, zucchini, asparagus, and possibly pumpkins, among others. 
Check out those rows of basil. This small garden plot also has artichokes, which I hadn't seen actually growing before.

We usually pass this flower field where you can cut your own stems and then put your money in the trust box.

A list of prices is included.

My pup does not like to pose for pictures, but I managed to capture this one. I had to keep hold of the leash though so he wouldn't walk away. This is the end of the walk and he was tired.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Travel Tips: Budget Eating

Eating out can be a major expense in your travel budget. Restaurants in Germany can be expensive, especially with the lousy exchange rate, and could take up your whole travel budget. Here's just a few ideas for eating on a budget during your travels in Germany (and other places in Europe).

*Make sure your hotel has breakfast. This will eliminate one meal that you need to eat at a restaurant or cafe. German breakfast consists of cold meats and cheeses, rolls, often sausages and bacon, yogurt and cereal. There may be a few other options, but this will be enough to start the day.
*Find a local bakery. France is usually known for its bakeries, but Germany has delicious breads and a trip to the bakery should not be missed! Many bakeries also serve coffee, sweets, and sandwiches for a few Euros. This would be a great option if your hotel doesn't have breakfast, or for a quick lunch or dinner, or snacks for the hotel room. 
*There are often other budget eats along the pedestrian shopping areas. These can include döner shops. Döners are Turkish, somewhat similar to a gyro. It consists of meat, feta cheese, and veggies wrapped in a flatbread. I'm not a huge fan of the mystery meat, but they have a vegetarian option that is good. These shops often have fries, pizzas, sodas, and a couple of other choices. There are also pizza or pretzel stands, and don't rule out Subway, for a relatively healthy and inexpensive meal.
*Visit the farmer's markets. Fresh fruit and veggies, olives, meats and cheeses, bakery stands, and possibly a cart serving breakfast or lunch can be found. Grab something to snack on, gather ingredients for a picnic, or have lunch while watching the locals shop. You can purchase small amounts, asking for just 1 or 2 of something. Here are a few pictures from a visit to the Wiesbaden Farmer's Market.

 *Go grocery shopping. I love visiting grocery stores in other countries. Grocery stores are a great place to get drinks, particularly water and soda, for a less than a restaurant or a convenience store on the main strip. They are also perfect for finding snack foods, getting something for lunch or dinner, or just trying something new. I always like to have an extra bottle of water or soda in my hotel room and have to have some chocolate as a late night snack. This can also be a good place to find some less expensive souvenirs to take home like Italian pasta, biscotti, or wine, German or Swiss chocolates, tea in the U.K., or unique flavors for potato chips anywhere.
*Go to a fest. There are festivals all over Germany just about every weekend from April through December. I love fest food: bratwurts, steak sandwiches, french fries (pommes), pizzas. crepes, waffles, etc. I'm getting hungry just thinking about it! It is worth finding out if you will be near a fest while on your travels.

I'm sure there are a lot more ideas for budget eating. Any other suggestions?

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Searching for the Perfect Souvenir

I love souvenirs and am always looking for that perfect item that will bring back great memories from our travels. I also want souvenirs that are unique, not the same tourist stuff everyone else has, which isn't always easy to find, especially since I'm on a budget and I have to pack light. I've started several collections- pottery, posters, Christmas ornaments, etc. to help me narrow down my choices, but I always try to find something I'll want to use or display in the future when we no longer live in Europe. Here are a few examples of some things we've found.

In Turkey we bought this beautiful rug from a nomadic weaving center. It hangs on our wall, now, I can't bear to actually step on it.

This is from the small French town of Soufflenheim, which is known for it's pottery.

I found these eggs in Boleslawiec, Poland and they are perfect to decorate for spring. I am still looking for the perfect basket to display them.

These were some inexpensive magnets I found in Barcelona. This mosaic style was everywhere.

We have a huge collection of glassware that I have run out of room to display. We don't actually use many of them, except for these great glasses.

I plan to continue the search on my upcoming adventures. Any ideas?

It's the Little Things-Going out to eat in a Restaurant in Germany

One of the many joys of traveling is trying new foods local to the area. There are lots of great restaurants, cafes, and beerhalls to try on a visit to Germany. European etiquette is a little bit different and it can be a bit intimidating if you don't speak the language or know quite what to do. Here's a few tips I've picked up during our time in Europe... 

*Eating out in a restaurant can be expensive and is meant to be an experience. Take your time, slow down, and enjoy it :)
*When choosing a restaurant, menus are posted outside so you know the type of food and the prices. Many places will be open for lunch and then close until dinner time. Keep this mind while site seeing.
*Once inside, you can usually seat yourself. In some of the less formal places, or in a biergarten, this may involve sharing a table.
*When ordering drinks, it is often true that beer is the same price or cheaper than soda or water! In Germany, water is not free, but ordered by the bottle with a choice of still or sparkling. There aren't any free refills, for any drinks. It is also true that you probably won't have any ice, but you won't need it either. Drinks are served cold and filled to the top of the glass. 
*When you're ready to order, close your menu.  This will signal the server to come back to the table, otherwise, they'll leave you alone to let you decide.  
*Enjoy your meal, drinks, and possibly dessert. Again, eating out is the experience, so slow down and rest your feet, the table is yours until you're ready to go. When ready, you will have to ask for the bill. Servers don't bring the bill with the food or try to rush you. If you have small children, I would recommend asking for the bill as soon as the food comes out-it can sometimes take awhile for the server to bring it.
*Once the server brings the bill, it's usually expected that the customer will pay right away.
*Tipping! Servers in Germany are paid a salary and an extra tip is not needed. The custom is to round up and for the servers to keep the change. However, as an American that worked for far too many years as a server, I always tip at least a couple of Euros, especially if the service is good.  

These tips are for Germany, but they apply for most of Europe.
Do you have a favorite experience while eating out in Europe or did you commit a faux pas that is now a great funny story?

Friday, July 8, 2011

Destination: Binz, Germany

When you think of Germany, what comes to mind? Pretzels, beer, skiing in the Alps, and the beach... No? Last year I discovered a wonderful beach town, Binz, in the far north of Germany on the island of Rügen, which is on the Baltic Sea. The beach is a beautiful length of white sand with unique "strandkorb" (beach baskets) to relax and enjoy the view.

This is a beach destination, and although there are some sites to see and plenty of activities, it is a great place to relax, eat some delicious food, and, if you're brave, swim.  There are plenty of restaurants and cafes for a bite to eat or a drink.  I would recommend the Zum Alten Fritz for locally brewed beer and generous portions of good food or the Rialto for decent pizza. Full disclosure: These are the only places we've eaten in the area. For a good cup of coffee and something sweet, try the Kolonial Stübchen, which has a menu of coffees and teas from around the world.
The Binz Church

The beach has white sand, perfect for soaking in the sun, walking, or even stopping at a beach cafe. Dunes, wildflowers, trees, and a strandpromenade, a cobbled walkway, separate the beach from the hotels. There are various walkways along the strandpromenade leading to the beach with signs detailing the "rules" for that stretch of beach. There are a couple of areas that are doggy beaches, and since this is Europe, also a couple of areas that are for naked swimmers. Beware, the water is cold and the weather may be more chilly than the expected summer temperatures. Bring layers!
 There are a variety of places to stay while visiting. Something I like about this area is that there aren't many big, box hotels. Most have unique architecture and add to the great ambiance of the town.
 If you are visiting northern Germany, you might want to take a detour to this area and enjoy some relaxation. This is a great beach, fun for the whole family!