Monthly Archives: May 2012

Venice and Verona

Our good friends Steve and Emily are in town for a week-long visit and, in addition to spending several days in Munich, we all decided to spend their weekend abroad in Venice, Italy. It’s only a five-hour ride from Munich so we rented a car and made the quick trip to what has since become our favorite visited city of 2012.

The ride to Venice was uneventful and beautiful. It was a clear, sunny day and the mountains gave us breathtaking view after breathtaking view as we motored from Germany through Austria (we bought a toll pass this time!) and into Italy.

Cars aren’t allowed on the island (for good reason — they’d have nowhere to go). There are two large parking structures at the city’s entrance and we opted to park in the Tronchetto (the one that’s slightly further away and slightly cheaper). It was easy enough to get to and from there it was a short walk to Piazzale Roma where we caught a vaporetto to our hotel. Vaporetti are Venice’s answer to public transportation. Since they can’t really do the bus and subway thing, they have boats running along the Grand Canal and around the entire city to get people to where they need to go. Our hotel was walkable from Piazzale Roma (and, as we learned, everything in Venice is truly walkable since it’s such a small, condensed city), but navigating the small, crowded city streets (whose names change every block) with our luggage didn’t seem like the best option. Plus, we wanted to experience the Grand Canal from a boat. So we hopped on board and rode to the Ca’ d’Oro stop where we were met by our hotel contact who walked us to our rented apartment.

An apartment with a view. A canal view!

By the time we got settled and made a mad dash to the local grocery store (for cheap wine, of course), it was pretty late. We grabbed a bite to eat at a restaurant near our apartment — a meal that included the freshest pesto I have ever tasted in my entire life — and went back to Ca’ d’Oro to meet up with Marco and Alexa, friends of Emily and Steve from Germany who were joining us for the weekend. The six of us returned to our place and called it a night.

We spent the next day walking around as a group and soaking in the sights and sounds (and smells) of Venice. We focused mostly on the eastern part of the island. We walked to and over the Rialto bridge to the Rialto Market where we feasted on fresh and surprisingly affordable fruit. We stopped for coffee. We watched Marco choke down his first attempt at oysters. We window shopped and made mental notes of the things we wanted to buy before we left. And we took photos. Tons and tons of photos.

You see, Venice is unlike any other city in the world. Literally. It’s made up of over 100 islands separated by over 100 canals and connected by bridges of all sizes. Every corner you turn is another view that makes you say, “Wow. I need a picture.” So we took a lot of canal photos. But we made sure to take a few pictures with us in them, too:

Happy tourists. (From the left: Marco, Alexa, Matt, Katie, Emily, Steve)

After grabbing a quick sandwich for lunch, we made our way to Venice’s famous St. Mark’s Square where we took a tour of St. Mark’s Cathedral. Our four friends opted to pay to go to the top of the Campanile Tower for some impressive views of Venice while Katie and I walked along the waterfront (St. Mark’s Square sits on the south end of the island). Then the six of us headed to an area just outside of the northwest corner of St. Mark’s Square where it’s easy to catch a gondola ride. It was like a taxi station at the airport with lines of people waiting to board a boat. We waited our turn and eventually boarded a gondola for a 45-minute ride to the Grand Canal and back.

It’s a pricey activity — it’s 80 Euros for the 45 minutes regardless of your group size — but well worth it. Even though Venice’s popularity as a travel destination means the canals are flooded with gondolas, the ride still seems somewhat isolated and intimate. You feel as if you’re in your own little world for a few moments. Plus, you get photos you can’t get anywhere else.

The gondola ride was worth every Euro.

The views from a gondola ride are awesome.

Afterwards we decided to head back to the apartment for a home cooked Italian meal. As good as the food in the restaurants was, that night’s meal was right up there. We bought fresh ingredients from the market and the grocery store and sat down to a feast of prosciutto and melon, caprese salad, salami and cheese, and gnocchi with homemade marinara sauce. And wine. Lots of wine.

I helped with the dishes.

The following day we set out as a group and stumbled upon an event known as the Vogalonga. It’s an annual event in Venice where man-powered boats (no engines) flood the canals for a day-long parade. Boat after boat floats by and it’s fun to see the various countries, boats and rowing styles represented.

After watching for 30 minutes or so, we continued on and decided to break up into twos so that we could enjoy some alone time as couples in one of Italy’s more romantic cities. Katie and I opted to head to the south side of the Grand Canal and make our way to the Accademia bridge. We stopped for pizza and sandwiches along the way and otherwise allowed ourselves to get lost in the small, narrow streets of Venice. We had a small map that was hard to read (since the street names change almost every block, it’s very hard to produce a map that isn’t on a huge sheet of paper), but every couple of blocks there’s a sign that points to a major bridge of landmark, so you always know which direction you’re headed in. We just walked and talked and took in the beautiful buildings and canals that surrounded us.

We eventually made our way back to some markets just off of St. Mark’s Square where we purchased a Christmas ornament made from Murano glass. Murano glass is a famous Venetian export, made just north of the main island on the island of Murano. We’re buying an ornament from every country we visit, so it was a no-brainer to find one made of Murano glass. Now the challenge will be to get it home in one piece!

We met up with Emily, Steve, Marco and Alexa for dinner at a place in Piazza San Stefano which was followed by our sixth helping of gelato of the weekend. (You can never have too much gelato.) We capped the night with a stroll back through St. Mark’s. It was still plenty busy with gorgeous music coming from the bands that play at the three main restaurants in the square. It’s expensive to sit and listen to them play (the food and drink prices at the restaurants are criminal), but there’s no cost to stand in the back and listen.

The view looking south from St. Mark’s Square toward San Giorgio Maggiore island.

The next morning we packed up and set out to have an early lunch at a place that Katie had read about. It was a place with cheap eats, no seating charge (something most restaurants in Venice do) and popular among the locals — always a sign of good food. But trying to find a place in Venice without a guide isn’t that easy. We got turned around on more than one occasion and had to ask four different people where this place was at. Each one made it seem like it was “just around the corner” when in fact it never really was. I don’t think the locals realize how hard it is to navigate their city! We eventually found the place, but not before coming up with a list of five things you should never say when giving someone directions in Venice:

1) It’s next to the canal.
2) It’s just over the bridge.
3) Go into the plaza and take a right. (There are always four rights.)
4) It’s past the monument.
5) It’s next to a place called “Trattoria.”

The food was as good as advertised. I tried squid with black ink for the first time (Steve was brave enough to order it) and found it to be surprisingly tasty. It was more like fish than squid. After lunch we said goodbye to Marco and Alexa (it was their anniversary and they were spending one more day in Venice before heading back to Germany).

We made our way back to the Tronchetto to pick up the car, stopping only for groceries to take with us back to Germany. We decided to take a different route back to Munich — one that was equally as beautiful (if not more so) but that also passed through the town of Verona, Italy. We stopped in Verona and embarked on a quick, two-hour tour of the city (aided by one of Emily and Steve’s guidebooks). It’s a charming town with quite a bit of Roman ruins (since that’s who originally built the city), including city gates, old bridges and a colosseum-like arena. It also has a balcony that is rumored to be Juliet’s balcony from “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s completely made-up, but still, the little square outside of the building is packed with tourists. Verona also produced the best gelato any of us have ever had. Between the four of us we had pear, black cherry, blueberry, papaya and some chocolate-peanut butter concoction. It was heavenly. And a wonderful way to top off 3+ days in Italy.

Verona’s Ponte Pietra (“Stone bridge”).

The rest of our ride back was like the ride in — uneventful and gorgeous. We ended up on the famous A13 highway which takes you through a beautiful part of Austria with spectacular views of the mountainside. And since it’s light out here these days until about 9:30, we had scenic views for most of the ride home.

We’re still holding fast to the opinion that Munich is the best European city we’ve ever been to. But we see it in a different light since we live here. As far as cities we’ve visited this year, Venice now ranks #1 on both of our lists. It can seem overrun with tourists (and it really is), but it’s still worth a visit if you ever find yourself in northern Italy. Like we said above, it’s unlike any other city in the world. And there’s rumors it might one day sink, so don’t wait too long!

We will leave you with our favorite photo from the weekend, along with a reminder that you can see many more pictures from Venice and Verona on our Flickr page. Ciao!

Just beautiful.

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Champions League final

What a game. Bayern Munich vs. Chelsea for the Champions League title, a game played on Munich’s home soil. Never in the history of the Champions League has a squad played in a final match that was also in their home stadium. Munich was buzzing for most of the week, but particularly so on Saturday. We spent part of the afternoon in the English Gardens and you could hear booming team songs, chants and cheers from all corners of the gardens. Many people were already well past the point of drunkenness and most everyone was wearing a Munich jersey or shirt, or at least the color red.

Katie and I watched the match at an outdoor viewing party at the Seehaus Beer Garden in the gardens. Needless to say, the place was packed. It was a sea of red and white (Bayern Munich colors) and standing room only. We got there about 15 minutes before kick-off and settled for a spot on the far left side of the viewing area (see the video at the bottom of this post). We were there for the entire game and split time between watching the match and chatting with a couple of English-speaking college students that we met.

Not a whole lot of Chelsea blue in the crowd.

You could feel the excitement and anxiousness of the fans, but you could also sense the nerves. It was a scoreless game for the most part. Bayern Munich struck first with a goal in the 83rd minute at which point the crowd we were with went absolutely nuts. But minutes later, Chelsea answered with a header goal to tie the game. Everyone was stunned. You could hear a few people moaning, but otherwise there was complete silence. After a scoreless overtime, the game went into penalty kicks. Munich had an early lead but eventually lost 4-3. Chelsea had capped off a more or less Cinderella season with European soccer’s biggest prize.

Personally, it was so nice to cheer for Munich but not be as emotionally connected as everyone else. I could see the pain – real pain – on the faces of the Bayern fans when the game was over and my heart broke for them. It took me back to 2003 when the Chicago Cubs blew what seemed like a guaranteed trip to the World Series. That postseason collapse took months to heal from and I’m guessing the same will be true for Bayern fans. Losing the game is one thing, but to lose after being up with just minutes to play – and then after leading on penalty kicks – is hard to bear. To make matters worse, the team had a couple of solid chances at ending the game in extra time but failed to capitalize.

I finally got to put my Bayern Munich scarf to good use.

When the game was finally over, the viewing party crowd dispersed rather quickly (and, to the credit of Bayern fans, rather peacefully). There was no rioting or other inappropriate behavior. And after recent displays of how violent soccer fans around the world can be when showing support (or disgust) with their teams, this actually surprised me. I thought there’d be a little more outrage. Instead, from what we could see, most turned to what Germans do rather well – drinking! And we happily partook in a few “sorrow cleansing” beverages before calling it a night.

We haven’t seen a live soccer game yet. We’re waiting for the start of the new season in the fall. But in the meantime, Munich’s run to the Champions League final gave us some fun games to watch on TV with our temporary neighbors. And as a Cubs fan, my advice to the still-sulking Munich fans is simply: There’s always next year!

(I’ll include a link to one of the many game recaps for those interested in reading about the match with a touch more detail than what I provided here.)

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A twisted afternoon

It was only a matter of time. I’m just surprised we didn’t get around to this sooner.

Katie and I made homemade soft pretzels today after spending much of the past few months gorging ourselves on the popular German snack. We used a simple pretzel recipe (of course, without Katie I would have screwed something up — especially given that we were buying German ingredients and everything is in grams – sigh) and the process broke down into four main steps — two of which required work and two of which required patience.

Step 1

We added warm water, sugar, salt and yeast to a large mixing bowl (thankfully our apartment’s owner had one in the kitchen). After about five minutes the mixture began to foam. At that point we added flour and melted butter and began to endure a few minutes of arm-cramp-inducing stirring. The recipe calls for a Kitchen Aid mixer with a dough hook. Katie owns one of those, so it’s nice to know that any decision to replicate this experience next year in Milwaukee will be a little easier. Without a dough hook it gets pretty tough to stir after the first minute.

Once it was mixed into a solid ball, Katie kneaded the dough for a few minutes and then placed it back in the newly-washed bowl (that was my job) coated in oil. We covered it and put it in a warm part of the kitchen for our hour wait.

Step 2

We were supposed to wait about an hour for the dough to double in size. For whatever reason (probably because our apartment was a little cooler than the recipe would have liked), it took about 90 minutes for our dough to get there.

Step 3

Once we were satisfied with that the dough had risen enough, we went to work on the rest of the recipe. We pre-heated the oven and brushed a cookie sheet with oil. We sectioned off the dough into eight equal pieces and rolled each one out to a length of two feet (61 centimeters for those keeping score in Europe). Thanks to some helpful YouTube videos we were able to quickly become experts on twisting the dough (it’s not that complicated).

The next part is weird. You have to dip each pretzel, one at a time, into a pot containing boiling water and baking soda. For any science geeks out there, this has something to do with pH levels, which is what gives the pretzel the crunchy brown outside and a soft, chewy inside (mmm). You scoop the pretzel out after about 30 seconds and place it on the cookie sheet. Then you brush with an egg wash and drizzle some pretzel salt on top.

Step 4

Then we baked our twisted dough at 450 degrees (225 Celsius) for 12 minutes. They came out golden brown — maybe a little too brown — so we baked the second batch for only 10 minutes. They were a little lighter in color and both sets were extremely delicious. We now have a basket of pretzels in our kitchen that, given my track record, will be gone before the weekend is over.

The entire effort consists of about half an hour of prep time and 90 minutes of waiting/baking. If you know a thing or two about baking (and even if you don’t), it’s a relatively easy recipe to follow. Give it a shot the next time it’s pouring outside and you don’t know what to do with the kids (or your husband, as Katie says).

So good.

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Return to Basel; Discovery of Lindau

After 2+ weeks back home and a handful of days in Switzerland, we finally made it back to Munich late Friday night. The Munich we left behind is not the Munich we returned to. Spring did most of her work while we were gone and the entire city is littered with shades of green and blooming flowers. Entire landscapes seem to have changed and, in some ways, it’s like we’re experiencing the city for the first time again. It all makes us excited for a summer in Europe and what we’re calling “Phase II” of our trip (Phase I was the period up until our trip home and Phase II will conclude when we return home in August.)

As I mentioned in the last entry, we spent two days in Basel after our short trip to Zurich. We had been to the city in February and this trip couldn’t have been more different. With spring in full bloom and the weather not preventing us from only being outside in 15 minute intervals, we were able to see a different side of the city (and much more of it). Basel is an incredibly charming little city. It was still as expensive as we remember, but it seemed to matter less this time around.

A shot of Basel’s western bank of the Rhine river with the Münster church in the background.

The hotel we stayed at was on the north end of the city so we were provided with free metro passes. Public transportation in Basel, as it is in most European cities, was fantastic. It’s amazing to us how comprehensive such a small city’s public transportation system can be (their population is less than 200,000) when we think of our home city, Milwaukee, and the fact that they only have buses and cabs (city population of about 650,000). It makes for an easy time getting around and seeing the sights.

We enjoyed a few nice meals while in town — all fish. It’s also asparagus season in Europe so in the past several days (including last night for a home-cooked meal) we’ve eaten quite a bit of white and green asparagus. It tastes the same as back home. : )

We left Basel on Friday and had a six-hour train ride ahead of us. Katie had to be on a conference call at 5 p.m. our time, so we decided to schedule an extended layover in Lindau, Germany, so she could hop on the call. There was an Internet cafe across the street from the train station which made it easy and I was able to walk around Lindau and grab some photos while she worked. We had seen Lindau briefly on our way to Zurich (we had a one-hour layover there) and I was excited for a chance to take some more photos. After Friday’s visit, Katie and I are already talking about a return trip.

It’s a charming little island city right on majestic Lake Constance. It has the cobblestone streets and small cafes that make Europe so wonderful. The entrance to its tiny port is flanked by an old lighthouse and a Bavarian lion sculpture, which kept making me think of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. (Okay, these aren’t nearly as big, but the idea seems to be the same.) The clear waters of Lake Constance are filled with sail boats and rest next to a stunning backdrop of mountain peaks. We grabbed some dinner at a cafe on the water before we left and found the prices to be reasonable. Best of all, it’s only a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from Munich (which can be done without having to transfer) and, since it’s in Bavaria, we can use the “Bavaria ticket” for an incredibly cheap ride.

Lindau’s lighthouse on the edge of Lake Constance.

Our three-hour stay in Lindau got us to thinking about all of the small towns in Germany that offer similar charming, quaint, historical experiences. Rothenburg is on our must-see list. And I’m sure there will be many more we take day trips to before the year is up.

Check out our Flick page for more Lindau photos, as well as photos from our Basel and Zurich trips.

It’s back to business as usual this week. We might attempt to make homemade soft pretzels one of these nights. That could make for an enlightening blog post. We’ll see …

But before I say farewell, I did want to update everyone on my grandma, Lorraine Kitzke, who I had mentioned was in hospice care. When we left last Sunday she was on day six of hospice and still showing strong vitals. Later in the week she started to weaken and on Thursday morning she passed away. She was comfortable and calm, and surrounded by her three surviving children. Funeral services will be held this Tuesday morning in South Milwaukee. You can read her obituary here.

It’s hard to know I’ll miss the funeral due to my being in Europe, but I am so incredibly grateful that I had the time at home that I did have with her. I was able to see her often and tell her how much I loved her, how much I would miss her. I’m helping a little with the funeral planning from afar and know that it will be a wonderful celebration of a life well lived.

The best news in all of this is that my grandma is now back with the love of her life, my grandpa, who passed away in December. And that makes me smile.

In loving memory of Gene and Lorraine Kitzke.

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Zurich, Switzerland

After 24 consecutive hours of travel — we left Milwaukee at 2:00 p.m. on Sunday afternoon, eventually left Chicago at 7:00 p.m. that night, landed in Munich at 11:00 a.m. local time, boarded a train to Switzerland at 2:00 p.m. and, after missing one of our connections, made it to our hotel by 9:30 p.m. (or 2:30 p.m. Central Time) — Katie and I made it into Zurich late Monday night. Well, actually we made it into Regensdorf, a town just a few miles northwest of Zurich, which is where Katie’s conference is being held.

Unfortunately for Katie, this is going to be one of those trips where she doesn’t get to see any of the sights. As was the case in London, she’s not going to be able to find any time to sneak in any tourist activities here in Zurich. But as was the case when we went to Basel in February, we’re telling ourselves that we’ll be back. This country is too close to Munich and it’s too much of a hot-bed of activity for Katie’s industry. (Speaking of Basel, we’re heading there tonight.)

And I’m really glad we’ll likely be returning to Zurich at some point. It’s a gorgeous city — very well laid out, very clean, full of happy people, rich with history — and one that warrants more than an afternoon walking tour. But that’s exactly what I did yesterday.

I caught the 11:15 train and was in Zurich by 11:30 a.m. As is the case in Munich, the public transportation in Zurich (at least for the shorter rides) appears to be on the honor system. No one ever checked my ticket. After grabbing an economical lunch of pizza and a coke at the train station to quiet my hunger pains (the thought of paying $30 for lunch in the city did not appeal to me), I grabbed a map from the station’s Tourist Office and set out on a pre-determined route throughout the old city. If someone only has a few hours to spend in Zurich, this is the area you want to walk through. It’s the area just south of the Hauptbahnhof train station, along both sides of the Limmat river, all the way to Lake Zurich. (The city is of course much larger and offers plenty of other interesting things to see for those who have the time.)

The first thing that catches your eye when walking south from the train station is the river and its many bridges. There are seven of them between the train station and the lake, each with its own unique look. The potential for photographs is endless.

The Mühlesteg bridge.

A shot of the Münster bridge with the Fraumünster church to the right.

The eastern side of the river contains much of the “old city” with narrow, cobblestone streets, side-by-side buildings and fairly steep hills between blocks. This stretch of Zurich is very much a valley as walking away from the river on either side means ascending quite a number of stairs. There are an abundance of cafes along this side of the river (mainly on the Niederdorfstrasse) and I might plan a return trip just to make it to one or two of them (thanks to my pizza lunch at the train station, I had no reason to stop for food).

I found the ramp to be a much easier climb than the stairs.

The route I was on took me past three of the most well-known churches in all of Zurich — Prediger, Grossmünster and Fraumünster. The Grossmünster church stood out the most given its twin towers and sheer size. It’s incredibly old — built between 1100 and 1220 — and switched from Catholic to Protestant as part of the Swiss Reformation in the 1500’s. On the other side of the river — directly across from Grossmünster — is the Fraumünster church. Apparently the two churches used to try to edge out the other in terms of overall prominence. It seems silly to me that two incredibly large churches would be built so close to one another. But they make for good pictures:

Grossmünster church. Excited I finally learned how to type a ü on my keyboard.

All good European photos must include a lamp post.

Just past the pair of churches is the northern tip of Lake Zurich. There were hundreds if not thousands of people sitting on the edge of the lake during the lunch hour. It was a clear day and the Alps could easily be seen across the lake.

Lake Zurich (and the Alps) as seen from the Quai bridge.

Walking along the west side of the river back toward the train station meant a stroll along the famous Bahnhofstrasse (to put it into Chicago terms, it’s Zurich’s Michigan Avenue). I stopped in the Läderach chocolate shop to pick up a bag of truffles for Katie. The variety was seemingly endless and it took me a good 20 minutes to decide which ones to buy. They were quite good and not terribly expensive given Switzerland’s typical high prices.

The last thing I did before returning to the train station was climb to the top of Lindenhof hill to get a more arial view of the city. If I lived and worked in Zurich, I would eat lunch at this spot every day. The views are breathtaking.

Makes you want to live here, doesn’t it?

The entire walk took me about three hours. I would have stayed longer but had to get back for a conference call. Afterwards, I met up with Katie and a colleague for dinner at Gasthof Hirschen in Regensdorf. It was recommended to us by our hotel as the best place in town for authentic Swiss/German food. Adopting the “when in Rome” mentality I opted for fresh perch from Lake Zurich (with almonds, boiled potatoes and seasonal vegetables). It was delicious.

As for today, we’re getting a lot of rain with no end in sight. Katie is back at the conference and the plan is to catch an early evening train to Basel where we’ll spend all day Thursday and half of Friday before returning to Munich. I’m excited to return to Basel. Our last visit there was incredibly cold which made it hard to see the city. It’s supposed to be 75 and sunny there tomorrow so we’re expecting a different experience this time around.

More photos from my trip into Zurich yesterday are on our Flickr page.

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Back to Munich

Sorry for the delay between posts, but we were State-side longer than we had anticipated. Katie and I fly out of Chicago tonight at 6 p.m. and are due back in Munich at 10 a.m. (local time) tomorrow. We originally planned on returning to Germany this past Wednesday, but my grandma’s health gave us reason to delay our return trip for a few days.

As many of you know, my grandma (Lorraine) suffered a series of seizures on the same day as the annual Concert for Life. After a few days in the hospital she was moved back to her nursing home where, after it was determined she could no longer swallow on her own, she was placed into hospice care. Today is her sixth day of hospice. While she continues to slow down more and more and open her eyes less and less, her vitals remain strong. But we all know it’s only a matter of time and are praying for her continued comfort and peace. My grandma is 91 and lived a wonderful life. Still, death is never easy — no matter the age. I’m just thankful I happened to be home for this current stretch so that I could spend parts of my days at her bedside and say my final goodbyes.

We certainly enjoyed our time home. We hit many (but not all) of the restaurants we had our stomachs set on and saw as many people as we could as we tried to maximize every possible second of free time. It was a nice taste of what we’ll return to for two weeks in August and for good in December. In the meantime, we’re looking forward to a summer in Europe which will include trips to Italy, Ireland, Greece and France.

As for tomorrow, we’ll only be in Munich for a few hours before boarding a train. Katie and I will spend most of this next week in Switzerland as she undertakes a hectic four-day tour of conferences and meetings that will take her to Zurich, Basel and Geneva. We’ll “officially” be back home next Saturday.

More as it comes. Thanks in advance for any prayers for my grandma. She is comfortable, without pain and surrounded by her children and grandchildren. God is most definitely watching over her.

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