Sunday, January 24, 2010

The Turtles of Atocha...

We made our third trip to Atocha train station this weekend. And though it was not our main purpose for going...we did stop, once again, to see the turtles. The kids never get tired of it!
Inside the Atocha train station in the middle of Madrid, is a lush tropical garden. It is really beautiful! You can walk right down the middle of it, day or night. The even have little street lamps to light the way if you're strolling through after dark.
It is an unexpected little oasis, complete with a pond full of over 50 turtles! They are so funny to watch. Little ones sitting on the backs of big ones, all fighting for their place on the rocks. They are either trying very hard to get out of the water and up on the rocks, often tipping over backwards and landing right back in the water. In such cases, you'll hear a collective "awe" from the crowd that it always gathered to watch these prehistoric looking little creatures.
They often look as if they are playing a game of freeze tag, with necks and legs and tails held out at odd angles, perfectly still. If slow and steady really does win the race, as the story goes, then these little turtles are winners, hands down! Hasta luego...

Saturday, January 16, 2010

Life Lessons Learned at the Hofbräuhaus...

On our first night in Munich, we tried to visit the Hofbräuhaus around 7pm...Mistake...no seats, long lines, better luck next time. We came back around 2pm the next day, and had better luck. We had a lot of fun, but learned a lot of lessons about dining at a German Brew House. But before we get into all that, here's a little history, and a borrowed photo. I could not, for the life of me, get anything other than a blurry photo of the servers carrying all those steins of beer. This photo is from a blog called True Beer. Here's the link:
http://blog.truebeer.com/files/images/Oktoberfest-Waitress.jpg
One of my friends who lived in Germany refers to the Hofbräuhaus as a tourist trap. I suppose in many respects, it is. It is the first public tavern established in Germany, it serves great food and beer, and...pretty ladies carry around six to ten full steins at a time to your table for your drinking pleasure...Who wouldn't want to see that??? So yes, the Hofbräuhaus is a mecca for hungry and thirsty tourists from all over the world. Lest you think, it's only tourists that frequent the Hofbräuhaus, the restaurant's website lists nearly 100 regular groups, as well as the days of the week their tables are reserved. Pretty cool! As I said before, we had a great time, but our visits to the Hofbräuhaus were not without adversity. We are willing to share our experiences with you, so that you, our friends and followers, will not suffer the same sad fate of dear Husband...receiving no meal at all! **Collective sigh here**
Besides being a restaurant and brew house, the Hofbräuhaus also has a museum upstairs you can walk through while you're waiting for your order. The picture above is of Seven, who is seated in front of a replica of a traditional German meal from days gone by. What??? No wienerschnitzel???? Speaking of history...here's a little history of the Hofbräuhaus from their own website....Wilhelm V, Duke of Bavaria (1579 – 1597), had a thirsty and demanding royal household, which was dissatisfied with the beer brewed in Munich. As a result, beer had to be imported to Munich from the city of Einbeck in Lower Saxony. Wilhelm ordered his royal court to come up with a way to reconcile cost and pleasure. On September 27, 1589, the chamberlains and council members, C. Strabl, A. Amasmeyr, S. Prew and G. Griesmair, approached him with an idea: why not build their own brewery? Wilhelm welcomed the plan with open arms. As a matter of fact, that same day, he recruited the master brewer of the Geisenfeld Monastery, Heimeran Pongraz, to be the planner, developer and the first “brown” Hofbräuhaus’ master brewer, which went into operation at the “Alter Hof” ( Old Court ) in 1592. It was called the “brown” Hofbräuhaus as only brown ale was brewed there.
When Munich’s private brewers and tavern keepers complained that not only the royal servants, but also many commoners indulged in royal Hofbräuhaus beer, King Ludwig I proved himself to be very benevolent. In 1828, he issued a decree that opened up the Hofbräuhaus to the public, marking the onset of operation of the Hofbräuhaus at Platzl as we know it today. In his "Delightful History" of the Munich Hofbräuhaus written in 1883, Johann Mayerhofer reported that thousands of Munich ’s citizens came to enjoy the freshly tapped beer. Even the king showed up for the celebration. For more interesting facts about the Hofbräuhaus, visit their website at http://www.hofbraeuhaus.de/en/index_en.html.
Life Lesson #1-Always know where your food comes from...In this case, that would be the kitchen. Unbeknownst to us, we sat as far away from it as was humanly possible. We decided to sit upstairs, where we had our choice of seats. We chose the end of one of the long tables that seat around 50 people. It was quiet, and on the opposite end of the table from a group of about 15 to 20 people. One waiter served the entire long table...notice I said one...and we were the furthest from him. We suggest you sit at the end of the table closest to the kitchen where the waiter will pass you every time he comes to serve anyone. In our case, it took forever for him to get to us.

Life Lesson #2-Know what you want in life and always have a fall back plan. It took forever for the waiter to work his way to us. We wanted to order food and drink at the same time, but the menus on the table were in German. Even though we pretty much knew what we wanted, we wanted to ask for an English menu, just in case there were some things we wanted to try that we didn't recognize in German. So we asked our waiter to bring us English menus when he took our drink order. This was another mistake, as it took him forever to get back to us with our drinks and take our food order...We should have just ordered the good old standby...Wienerschnitzel!
Life Lesson #3-Like Maya Angelou says, "When you see crazy coming...cross the street!"-We never should have sat down at our table, but we weren't paying attention to the crazy redhead running around everywhere. Remember the group of 15 to 20 people, that I said were on the kitchen end of our table? Well, they were on a tour with this pushy Russian tour guide (see the redhead above). And every five minutes or so, another group of 15 to 20 people would come in and she would call to them, hug them, and sit them down at our table between us and our waiter. And as it turned out...between us and our food. Every time our waiter tried to make it down to us, she would grab him...literally...and get him to take drink orders for these new people. At first, we thought it was a family reunion or something. Then, we realized it was a tour group, a really large tour group that ended up being about 100 people. Our waiter was trying to get to us, giving us pleading looks of understanding. He was finally able to bring us two wienerschnitzels and one roast chicken platter, but there were four of us and not three, so what gives??? Husband was waiting on his pork knuckle (a.k.a. ham schank), a traditional German dish served with potatoes. Apparently, pork knuckle is very popular with the Russians because pork knuckle platter after pork knuckle platter came out of the kitchen, and the pushy Russian tour guide grabbed the arm of our waiter and pointed to the empty placemats in front of her charges, and long story short...Husband never got his pork knuckle. That's okay, he performed his duties as the human vaccuum cleaner quite well, eating everything the kids didn't want.

Life Lesson #4-When someone steals your pork knuckle, eat wienerschnitzel!-If you are willing to be flexible, you just might find that your family of four can eat for the price of a family of three! Hasta luego...

Thursday, January 14, 2010

It's a bird, it's a plane...

It's the sun!!! Thank God...after nearly a month of rain, snow & clouds, the sun has come out to play! Yeah!!! Hope she sticks around for a while...

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

How do you get Munich out of München??

I don't know the answer to this question...but I do know that whatever word you choose to use...I loved it! After our New Year's Eve experience in Frankfurt, we were looking for something a little more tranquil. The ICE train to Munich was just what the psychiatrist ordered. The ICE (Inter-City Express) train is the high speed train that whisked us away from all the craziness of Frankfurt and transported us in comfort and style to our next destination...Munich. The boys had never traveled by train from one city to another. Well, Twelve did when he was a baby, Amtrak from New York to North Carolina, but he doesn't remember it, so that doesn't count. We had a great time on the ICE. We were able to ride first class, which was very affordable, and our seats were wonderful. We sat facing each other with a table between us, so we were able to talk to one another and play card games while the German countryside provided the perfect backdrop.
We didn't want the hassle of renting a car while we were in Germany. Tiff's family did rent a car, as they wanted to go off and revisit some of their old haunts from when they used to live there. After two days in Munich we'd planned to meet back up with them in Garmisch, a picturesque little town nestled in the Bavarian Alps. We arrived in Munich in the afternoon, and hopped on the U-Bahn (Underground Train) that stopped right by our hotel. The subway system in Munich is extensive and super affordable. For 22 Euros, the four of us had unlimited use of the city's trains, trams, and buses for three days. It was both easy and convenient to take all over the city. We checked into our rooms, dropped off our bags, had a little snack and headed out to the Marien Platz (Munich's main square) to see what there was to see, namely the another gorgeous Christmas tree and the "Ratskeller" otherwise known as the Town Hall. Weird to me, but apparently it's a perfectly normal word and every town has one. The Ratskeller in Munich is a huge gothic structure that dominates the square. Another Kodak moment...
From the U-Bahn, we were able to walk right up into the square. It reminded me of being in Paris and coming up the subway stairs and have the glorious sight of the Arc d' Triomphe staring you in the face. It was very impressive, to say the least. Our plan for our first night in Munich was to walk around the city and hit the Hofbrauhaus, the famous German restaurant where the busty ladies carry up to eight big steins of beer at one time, and enjoy some good German fare. As many people will tell you, it is a tourist trap, but it was a tourist trap I desperately want to patronize, plus I needed to buy a Hofbrauhaus beer stein for a friend. By the time we walked around and were ready for some dinner, it was 7pm and the Hofbrauhaus was packed!!! We decided that it would be too hard to find four seats together on the main floor and the upstairs was closed for a private party. Oh well, my purchase would have to wait. We'd seen several other rowdy German restaurants along the way, and with Seven's new love of German food, we were sure we'd be able to avoid eating at McDonalds on our first night in a new city...again. We were wrong!
German restaurant after German restaurant was packed...no tables and no prospect of getting one any time soon. So it was with heavy hearts and growling stomachs that we succumbed to fast-food yet again on our first night in a new city. Good thing I love McDonalds, and for the record...since I have now sampled McDonalds in Spain, France, AND Germany, I can say one thing for sure...Germany has the best fries, hands down! And with mayo??? The best! With our bellies full, we braved the blustery Munich streets once more, did a little window shopping and headed back to the hotel to get a good night's sleep.
I don't usually provide "teasers," but be on the look out for my next post about the world famous Hofbrauhaus...Tales of good food, good drink, and a pushy Russian tour guide await you. Hasta luego...

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Happy New Year....Frankfurt-Style!

We just got back from a nine-day vacation in Germany. It was my first time and it was amazing, and sometimes, life-threatening. What is a "vacay" without a little excitement??? Tiff's family and ours wanted to take a trip together over Christmas Break, after much debate, we settled on Germany. We decided to spend New Year's Eve in Frankfurt am Main, enjoying the fireworks on the Main (pronounced "mine") River, then going our separate ways and meeting up a few days later in the Garmisch, nestled in the German Alps. I will be publishing posts over the next several days about our entire trip, but today post will focus on our exciting, and sometimes harrowing, New Year's Eve in Frankfurt...
We flew into Frankfurt on New Year's Eve afternoon, linked up with Tiff's family and headed out for the Romer Platz to see what was going on in the square for New Year's Eve. The Romer Platz is just a block off of the Main River. The square was completely destroyed during World War II and has been reconstructed to look as it did before the war. Apparently, Frankfurt is well-known for its New Year's Eve fireworks. Tiff's husband had heard about it and they found some youtube videos taken from inside the Romer Platz and it looked amazing. The Lufthansa in-flight magazine even touted Frankfurt as an "lively and exciting" place in which to countdown to the New Year.
Once we got down to the Romer Platz, we took in the beautiful buildings, the church holding Christmas Eve mass, and of course, the lighted "Tannenbaum" glowing in the square. We walked around the square reading the menus posted outside the restaurants and finally chose to eat at the Braustub'l Haus because of it's good looking eats and the fact that they had a children's menu. It was great choice. Our first German meal was outstanding, and Seven discovered he liked German food, just like Miss Tiff said he would.
The only bad thing was we had to be done with dinner by 7pm because someone else had a reservation for our table. At about 6:50, we left the restaurant and tried to figure out how we were going to spend the next 4 hours. It wasn't too cold, so we thought we'd walk around the city a bit. We killed about 20 minutes letting the kids pose as statues on what looked to be a podium for that purpose in the Romer Platz.
Against the Mommies wishes, the Daddies bought the kids these light-up flying spinners (and yes, that is the official name of the toy, hmmp). It actually tunred out to be a good purchase as the kids spent a good 40 minutes with the vendor figuring out how to shoot them up as high in the sky as possible. He even replaced one of the toys for free when it broke...bonus!
We had been surprised the Romer Platz and the riverbanks weren't more crowded when we came downtown. If this had been the United States, people would have been staking their claims since early that morning. Our waiter told us people wouldn't start coming out until about 11pm. It had been drizzling most of the evening, and a fog had settled over the city. We were worried we may not be able to see the show. Then the rain really started coming down and we worried there may not be a show at all. We looked for a restaurant to take refuge in, but by then they were all closed for private parties. The kids started complaining, then we adults started complaining, and without knowing for sure whether or not the show was going to be a go, we thought about packing it in. With no German restaurants available, we headed to Starbucks to regroup. After some hot drinks and snacks, the rain had stopped. With our spirits lifted, we headed out into the dark night once more and headed for the river. The streets were starting to get lively, more beer and gluwein stands had been set up, and people were walking around with fireworks poking out of the tops of their backpacks. As we found a place at the railing along the riverbank, we noticed that people were starting to set off some of those fireworks...onesies and twosies, here and there. These weren't the kinds of fireworks you buy at roadside stands in the states. Well, some of them were, but most were more like those you'd expect to see at professional fireworks display. We couldn't believe it was legal to shoot off fireworks like that in the city limits, but there were no police out telling people to stop. In fact, it was hard to find a cop anywhere.

It was around 11:15 by this time. We were debating whether or not the spot we had chosen was going to be good or not. Originally, we wanted to be up on one of the bridges, but we were afraid our view would be obstructed by the steel spans overhead. Now that we were down, by the river, we worried the bridge might obstruct our view of the show. So we asked a local...Was this a good place to watch the fireworks from? When would they start? Could we see the big ones from this side of the bridge? She assured us that we had picked a great location, people would continue shooting off their fireworks and then we'd really see a show at midnight. Great!

More and more people were gathering on the bridges and along both banks of the Main. It was 11:30 and it was hoppin'! People were setting off fireworks and they were doing it closer and closer to us. Tiff's daughter, M was getting really nervous. It was getting loud, and her gut was telling her flight, not fight, was the best option. With just 15 minutes to go until midnight, M was ready to leave and her Dad was ready to take her back to the Starbucks. It was starting to get pretty crazy. Popping firecrackers were going off all around us. Big "boomers" that sounded like military artillery simulators, as well as twisting and twirling fireworks shot off from empty beer, gluwein and wine bottles were all a part of the mix. Dining and dancing riverboat cruises were sailing up and down the Main and people were shooting off fireworks directly AT the boats. It was insane. M had her face buried in Tiff's coat and Tiff was covering both of M's ears with her hands. We all wanted to stayed together and we assured M and her Dad, that once the show started, everyone would quit shooting off there own fireworks and watch the "real" show. There was just one problem with that...This WAS the "show" and it was just getting started...

video
There WERE tons of fireworks going off, but there wasn't a professional one in the bunch! It never occurred to us the New Year's Eve fireworks that travel books, Lufthansa, and youtube raved about would be anything BUT professional. This, however, was the closest thing to anarchy that I've ever experienced. The boys, Seven, Twelve, and Tiff's son, B, were having a great time...the louder the better! Woo hoo! We rang in the New Year, whooping it up, while constantly looking over our shoulders. Drunken fireworks firers were starting to get sloppy on the launching pad. Some of those glass bottles they used to launch from were tipping over and fireworks meant to go vertical were going horizontal and firing into the crowd. The back of Seven's coat was punctured by a falling stick used to launch one of the fireworks. Luckily it wasn't on fire, but it still hurt. It was definitely time to go back to the hotel...and fast.

video
Tiff's hubby suggested we walk down river, away from the Romer area to catch a cab, passed all the gridlock. It was a good idea in theory, but as we heading along the street that was now a parking lot, people decided it would be fun to set off fireworks right next to the trapped cars. I saw Husband and Seven head around the side of a car where someone had just lit a device. I tried to scream at them to stop, but they couldn't hear me. I heard Husband yell to Seven, "Run!!" He grabbed Seven's hand and pulled him along just before the firework exploded. Then one of those horizontal side-winders whizzed right by our heads and right into someone's face. M's screamed, we all screamed and Tiff's hubby yelled that we needed to get across the street and away from the river. Tiff's hubby had M, Husband had Seven in his arms, I grabbed Twelve and B by their coats and we took off across the street, dodging cars and fireworks. It was like running through a warzone, like Call of Duty on the xbox 360, said the boys. When we regrouped on the other side of the street, we'd lost Tiff. Luckily, at the beginning of the night, Tiff's family did what they always do them they go out to crowded public places, they set up a rally point. If the kids became separated from us, they were to meet us at the Christmas tree in the Romer Platz. Now that we had been separated from Tiff, we headed to the rally point, ourselves, to wait for her. Getting to the Romer Platz provided yet another challenge. We were definitely going against the flow of human traffic. I warned the Twelve and B not to keep their footing as we pushed through the crowd because broken bottles littered the streets. Once we made our way through the crowd, I apologized to the boys for having to manhandle them, but they said they were just fine with it. Once inside the Romer Platz, we were still a little nervous. People were still shooting off fireworks, and the tall buildings surrounding the square made it feel a bit claustrophobic. Thankfully, people still had sense enough not to set off fireworks next to potential "firewood," so we felt pretty safe waiting by the tree. After a few minutes, Tiff showed up at the tree. She told us someone lit an explosive right in front of her, and she crouched and turned her back on it. When it exploded it was so hot that she felt her hair to see if it was singed. Thankfully, it was not! But when she stood back up, we were gone. Reunited again, we headed out the other side of the Romer Platz searching for a taxi stand. We saw taxis in line on the next square over. Just before we hopped in the taxi, someone shot off another firework that ricocheted off a tree into a young couple. The girl was hurt, crouched down and holding her hands to her face. We hope she was okay, but we'll never know. On the way back to the hotel, the kids were going on about all that happened that evening. M said, "Daddy saved my life. If it weren't for Daddy, I wouldn't be here right now." Dramatic? Yes...but probably not far from the truth. Not wanting them to be scarred for life, we talked to the kids about how it was really exciting and fun, right up until it wasn't and then we got the heck out of there. Lesson of the day...Alcohol and fireworks don't mix...Happy New Year and hasta luego...


Tuesday, January 5, 2010

One of the Things I Love About Spain...

Humongous ice cubes!!!! Look at the size of this chunk of ice!! Have you ever seen anything like it?? I had not, until, that is, I came to Spain! The day we moved into our rented house in Spain, Tiff brought over some food and drinks for our movers. She also brought a bag of ice she bought at the OpenCor (a Spanish 7-11) and I was dumbstruck. Ok, fine, so it doesn't take much to impress me, but I really was impressed! These ice cubes on steroids, these voluptous hunks of ice are the most perfect chillers to add to your drinks! They are big, as you can see, so they cool down your sangria or Coca-Cola Light in no time, and because they ARE so big, they take a really long time to melt! Why is this important? Because it keeps your drinks, especially the carbonated ones, from getting too diluted too quickly. Brilliant! I'll put my spanish ice cubes up against crushed ice on a hot Madrid day anytime! No one can accuse me of not being able to appreciate the simple joys of everyday life...Like Forrest Gump says, "That's all I have to say about that!" Hasta luego...

Wordless Wednesday #39

Monday, January 4, 2010

Memories of Warm Days in the Parque...

Though it's cold and dreary outside, through the powers of digital pictures and video, I am transported back to a warm October day in Madrid's Parque Del Retiro. It was one of those perfect days when summer is just barely slipping into fall. My in-laws were in town, and Twelve, then Eleven, was on a hiking trip, so the rest of us went into the city for the day. At one point, we walked across the entire length of the Parque Del Retiro. This park was created as a retreat for the Royal Family and it is to Madrid what Central Park is to New York City. Not only is it an amazing "green space," but it has awesome playgrounds, gigantic, larger than life sculptures, monuments, as well as a lake in the center where you can rent rowboats and paddleboats. How fun is that?
Then, of course, there are all the street performers. This little video clip is of one such street performer, or in this case, park performer. We've also seen him near the Plaza Mayor. He's not as exciting as the "Street Sweeper Guy," but it is amazing that he can move at all with all that clay slathered all over him. He must have help getting ready to perform. Maybe we should submit this guy to the "Dirty Jobs" show in the States...wonder if the host, Mike Rowe, has ever thought of going global...hmmmm! Something to think about. Hasta luego...

video

Sunday, January 3, 2010

Tapas for One!

According to Wikipedia, "Tapas (IPA: [ˈtaˌpas]) is the name of a wide variety of appetizers, or snacks, in Spanish cuisine. They may be cold (such as mixed olives and cheese) or warm (such as puntillitas, which are battered, fried baby squid). In North America and the United Kingdom, as well as in select bars in Spain, tapas have evolved into an entire, and sometimes sophisticated, cuisine. In these countries, patrons of tapas restaurants can order many different tapas and combine them to make a full meal. The serving of tapas is designed to encourage conversation because people are not so focused upon eating an entire meal that is set before them."
While I respect that the point of tapas is to "share," sometimes nobody wants to share with you...and why should this keep you from having the tapas you desire??? Well, I don't think it should...that's why I decided to institute my "Tapas for One" menu...swapping many "small plates" for one big one! Me, Myself and I think it was a great success...and we highly recommend it to all!
On the Tapas for One menu at Mi Casa is silver dollar-sized chorizo, manchego cheese, my favorite Bimbo crackers, and spanish olives. Served with my favorite "pre-made" sangria from Don Simon, it's heaven on a plate in short order. Time to eat! Hasta luego...



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