Monthly Archives: June 2012

Halfway home

I just got back from the train station after seeing my brother, Ben, off to the airport. He was out here for a nice 10-day stretch that included a weekend trip to Ireland. As has been the case with our other visitors, it was incredibly hard to say good-bye. Spending such quality one-on-one time with our friends and family has been a true blessing of this year abroad, but the farewells are always tearful and come way too soon.

While Ben was out here we realized that our time in Munich has passed the halfway point. (Pause for a “Holy geez! Where has the time gone?” reaction.) With a January 9 arrival and an estimated December 15 departure (although we have no clue when our actual get-home date will be) that would make our mid-point somewhere around June 24. We realized this while driving through the Irish countryside — the 10th country we’ve visited this year (which, interestingly enough, is halfway to our lofty goal of 20 countries total by the end of the year).

It’s been an amazing ride so far. Katie and I have been to places and experienced things we’d only ever read about, heard about or dreamt about. We’ve set foot in Germany, Hungary, England, Switzerland, Belgium, Denmark, Austria, Italy, Greece and Ireland, and in each place we’ve experienced cultures that amaze us with their uniqueness but amaze us even more with their similarities. That is — no matter where we live, we’re all trying to make our way in the world – to provide for our families, enjoy the company of others and live life to the fullest. That’s what life is all about.

It is also with great pride that I will say that Katie’s overseas post is going very well. She’s working hard every day to make her time out here a success (and to make enough money to support her house husband!) and by all accounts she’s exceeding expectations. I’m so proud of her for taking on such a big challenge and for doing it with the same touch of grace and compassion as everything else in her life. We wouldn’t be here without her capabilities and courage — something I try to remind myself of every day.

I’ll be posting a blog recapping the Ireland trip later this weekend. As for those interested in our next travel adventure, we’re currently planning a July trip around the Tour de France. Stay tuned!

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Santorini, Greece

Sorry, Venice. Your run at the top of our “favorite city visited in 2012” list has come to an end. Blame it all on Santorini – that little guy in the Mediterranean with perfect weather, perfect food and the perfect setting for an anniversary vacation.

Katie and I made the trip to celebrate our three-year anniversary. We stayed at the Boathouse Hotel and Suites after reading some amazing reviews on Hotels.com and Trip Advisor. The place was an incredible bargain at $50 a night (thankfully we were squeaking in just as the “low season” was ending) and had a view of the water from our balcony. Its location on the northern edge of Kamari beach couldn’t have been more perfect for us. We were a stone’s throw from the beach chairs and a string of restaurants, but away from the truly busy areas. (We were also right next door to a convenience store that sold cheap Greek beer!) Our suite was sparkling clean with a tiled floor, valuted ceiling and very efficient air conditioner. It reminded us a lot of our honeymoon suite in Jamaica. The property had a pool in the courtyard and a wonderful owner/manager named Diane.

Us on the sands (and stones) of Kamari beach.

Kamari beach is known as the “black beach” because of the dark sand and pepples (and rocks, really) that make up the landscape. It’s not really a barefoot beach. The stones can be a little painful and very hot. But once you’re at the water’s edge or even in the water, it’s no issue at all. And if you’re spending most of your beach time on a chair (as we were), it’s definitely not a problem. And the black stones make for just a stunning backdrop.

See. You wouldn’t want to leave either.

The beach in Kamari offers a very chill atmosphere, too — much more relaxed than some of the other towns that appear a little more hustle-and-bustle or congested than Kamari. Those towns are fun to visit (and we certainly did), but for a relaxing beach vacation, Kamari beach is the way to go. The strip at the top of the beach is lined with restaurants, shops, convenience stores, food stands and merchant shops.

We didn’t spend all of our time at the beach, though (although it was very tempting). Santorini island has a ton of things for visitors to busy themselves with. With only a few days on the island, we were only able to get to a handful of them.

We visited Santo Winery to sample their local wines. We had a six-pour tasting, complete with bread and cheese, and the wine was simply delicious. Most of the pours were a little dryer than we typically like, but every one was fantastic. We particularly enjoyed the Visanto and Kimenh. I’m sure the view helped slightly, too.

We didn’t come close to eating all that cheese. We had no problem with the wine, though.

One afternoon we walked around the town of Fira on the western coast of the island. Fira is the town where cruise ships dock so that tourists can explore Santorini amidst their week-long adventures — so it can get a little crowded.  During our visit we had the greatest gyro we’ve ever had. I love gyros. I eat them often back in the States. But I don’t think I’ll ever think of them the same after tasting gyro perfection in Fira. The meat was so incredibly tender and fresh – and well seasoned. Coupled with the ridiculously fresh vegetables, it was a dream meal. And for only 2.50 Euros! We also learned that the Greeks are somewhat ashamed of the U.S. version of gyros, saying that they don’t like how we eat them without the freshest of vegetables and meats.

We also hiked from Fira to Oia — a very popular hike that we read quite a bit about. But while all of the reviews were similar (people highly recommend it), the time estimation was all over the place. We read that it could take as many as two hours and as little as one hour. As it turns out, it took us about three hours with all of the stopping for photos (and there was a lot of stopping). We also slowed down a bit at the end as the 90-degree heat (yes, 90 degrees) started to get to us. It probably wasn’t the best idea to do the walk in the early afternoon, either. It was pretty hot. For the last half of the hike there’s really no shade coverage and the sun starts to drain your energy pretty quickly. But despite the challenge, we’re really glad we did it. The walk – which takes place along a fairly unmarked path (the advice of others is to keep the water on your left — good advice!) – offers scenic view after scenic view after scenic view.

Worth every step.

We put the walk into RunKeeper if you want a better glimpse of the actual route. It’s seven miles long. So if you ever do it, our advice would be to bring plenty of water (though you can buy some along the way), wear a hat, apply sun screen every hour and go early in the morning.

We took a bus back to Fira to pick up the ATV we had rented that morning. What? I didn’t mention that we had rented an ATV? We did. And it was the greatest $30 (including gas) I’ve ever spent in my entire life. We rented it that morning because we knew we wanted to ride out to Oia that night for a sunset. Taking buses for the hike and then later that night would have been about as much money as an ATV and we wanted the flexibility (and excitement) of our own transportation. We picked it up in the morning and, after a two-minute lesson from the guy renting it to us, were off and riding. It is THE way to see Santorini. It’s a small island and very conquerable if you have a moped or an ATV. The ride to and from Oia in the evening — where we went to watch an amazing sunset — was truly a life highlight for me. To be riding in the open air, hugging the sides of cliffs and staring at the gorgeous Santorini landscape as dusk turns to darkness was a magical and even spiritual experience. I’d go back to Santorini just to do that again.

The sunset in Oia was a neat experience, too. Katie read that some have called it the most beautiful sunset in the world. I think the photos we took seem to support that notion.

Here’s a little video of both the sunset and Katie riding the ATV. (It was a windy night so apologies in advance for any audio spikes.)

The town of Oia itself is very compact and full of color to complement its white buildings. It’s what you picture when you think of a Greek island. Our night in town was packed with tourists — likely a common evening occurence because of the sunset — but we still managed to walk around most of the village.

A view of Oia facing south (away from the sunset).

Earlier that day we had lunch at a place called Roka (a reward to ourselves after the long hike). It was there that Katie had what she called “the greatest chicken dish I have ever had in my entire life.” Many of you know that Katie is an amazing cook. So to hear her say that speaks volumes. Definitely put that restaurant on your list if you ever visit the island.

Speaking of the food — it’s pretty darn good. We had lamb wrapped in wine leaves, chicken souvlaki, lamb stew, baked fish, tomato fritters … all so good. Greek beer isn’t bad, either. We enjoyed our fair share of Mythos, Fix and Yellow Donkey brews. And, of course, some Santorini wines. The Greeks know their food.

“The greatest chicken I have ever had.” — Katie

Our trip was far too short. We talked to many people vacationing on Kamari beach and all of them were in the middle of one- or two-week vacations (of course, those Europeans have a wee bit more vacation time to play with than us Americans). We’re already talking about a return trip someday (maybe even this year??). We’d love to see the “red beach” in person, to have a sunset dinner in Oia and to explore the island’s ancient ruins.

We took more photos in Santorini than we could have ever expected. We put several dozen on our Flickr site and have a few hundred on our computer to forever remind us of one of the best vacations of our lives. We strongly encourage you to check out the photo gallery to get a glimpse into why we never wanted to leave.

Oh – and we stopped in Athens on our way back from Santorini. We spent our day there walking around the city and seeing what we could (despite many of the ruins exhibits being closed). A few photos are online.

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Santorini sunset

Katie and I are back at our hotel in Athens, recharging our batteries after a day-long walking tour before heading back out to dinner. Today’s one-day visit to Greece’s capital comes on the heels of a few days on the Greek island of Santorini, the latter of which proved to be the best trip of 2012 and perhaps of our lives. We’ll write more in the coming days (with photos, of course), but in the meantime we wanted to share a couple of photos from one of the more memorable moments of the trip — watching the sunset in the town of Oia in Santorini.

The town of Oia about an hour before sunset.

A view from just outside of Oia about 15 minutes before sunset.

About 10 minutes before sunset with another island in the distance.

Just minutes before sunset. Beautiful.

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The other “City of Festivals”?

The thought of a summer in Europe is certainly exciting. With trips to Greece, Ireland, France, Spain and the Czech Republic in the works, along with exploring other parts of Germany, it promises to be an unforgettable few months. But we still can’t help but lament what missing a summer in Milwaukee means. No softball. No volleyball. No Summerfest. No State Fair. No weekends at our lake cottage. No baseball games. No cookouts. Yes, all things we’re happy to miss for one year in order to experience a life abroad. But we’re still allowed to miss them, right?

Something we would have readily added to that list a few days ago would have been “No street festivals.” But that couldn’t be further from the truth. Katie read about a street festival called “Street Life” that took place this past weekend (with a follow up version scheduled for September). It stretched for well over a mile along Leopoldstrasse, one of Munich’s busiest streets. The entire street is closed to traffic and both sides are lined with vendors of all types — food, drinks, games, entertainment, products, social causes, etc. Naturally, all of the live bands were singing songs in English. On more than one occasion we thought we were walking down the streets of Cedarburg during the town’s annual Wine and Harvest Festival.

It turns out that Munchkins love their street festivals as much as we do in Milwaukee. (Do the comparisons ever end??)

We already experienced and wrote about Fasching Tuesday. Then there was Starkbierfest (“Strong Beer Festival”) in March/April. The arrival of Spring had its own festival — Fruhlingsfest (“Spring Festival”). The Auer Dult is a very popular craft fair that takes place three times a year (and has been going on since the 1300’s!) in a relatively quiet part of the city. The arrival of July means the arrival of the annual Tollwood Festival — 25 days of world cuisine, markets, music and entertainment — all set in Munich’s gorgeous Olympic Park. Also in July is the Kaltenberg Knight’s Festival (their slogan is “Party like it’s 999”). You may have heard of a festival that spans September and October called Oktoberfest. And the latter part of the year includes the annual Christmas markets. And this is just a partial list!

So when Katie and I aren’t exploring some new corner of the world, we’ll likely find ourselves at a Munich festival — taking in some German traditions while enjoying some comforts of home.

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Locks of love

Today Katie and I celebrate our third wedding anniversary. I would imagine every couple on every anniversary says, “Wow. I can’t believe it’s been that long already.” It’s no different for us. We’re amazed at how fast these three years have flown by and how much we’ve been through, seen and done as a married couple.

We decided a while ago that our gifts to one another this year would be a trip to Greece. We’re going to spend some time in Santorini and Athens next weekend. Normally I’m happy to be taken off the hook of having to buy a gift — one less thing to worry about! But ever since our first walk through the English Gardens in early March, I knew what I wanted to buy Katie for our anniversary and I wasn’t going to let the “no gifts” rule get in the way. Plus, it’s definitely a sentimental gift and not very expensive, so I felt I’d be given a pass.

I don’t know if this is big in America — if it is, I never noticed it — but here in Germany and likely in other European countries it’s common for couples to commemorate their love for one another by engraving their names on locks and attaching them to fences or gates in romantic areas. There’s a waterfall in the English Gardens that Katie and I really like and the small railing that borders the bridge has a few of these locks on them. And as of today it has one more:

Happy Anniversary, Katie!

I further turned up the romance dial by listing Katie’s name first. I’m such a gentleman.

Barring someone swinging by with a pair of bolt cutters or the city of Munich deciding to replace the fence, the lock should sit there forever — eternal proof of our one year in Munich!

It took us a while to find a knob that our lock would fit over. We prevailed in the end.

They even spelled our names right.

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