Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Bishkek

(oops, this was meant to be put up during the same month as our other Kyrgyzstan trip report posts)

Our original plan when we organized our trip to Kyrgyzstan was to keep the rental car one day after arriving in Bishkek and check out the national park Ala Archa, a reasonable day trip from the city. By the time we got to Bishkek we needed to not get back in a car so we ditched the plan and never regretted it one moment.

Instead, we took it relatively easy.  Our apartment was pretty central so we could walk a lot. We arrived in the early evening and after settling into the apartment went to the nearby Obama Cafe. A cardboard cutout of our esteemed leader greets guests at the front door, and the kids enjoyed shaking his hand. The meal was pretty good, American/continental fare of course.

Next day we took care of business, returning the car, visiting the Osh Bazaar to get fruits and veg and learning a bit about the bus and taxi systems in the process. We also walked out with 2.5 kilograms of honey, adding to the kilo we'd purchased on the road back to Bishkek from Issyk-kul. We are completely enamored with the honey in this part of the world.  We also discovered a cafe that carried a full line of vegan desserts, enabling Alex to enjoy a rich chocolate cake in a cafe for the first time (Hello, Astana. C'mon, if Bishkek can do it, you can. Seriously, there is nothing you are incapable of achieving if only you want to do it!)

We also ate Nathan's hot dogs (again, c'mon Astana!).  We gorged on cherries and apricots, only to learn upon return home that cherries and apricots had come to Astana too during that week.  We visited the National Museum and checked out a variety of art, reminding me that the kids do have a longer tolerance for museums than they used to and especially when we make an effort to engage them.  We visited the WWII memorial with an eternal flame and tribute to the war years of 1941-1945, and discovered we hadn't taught the kids much about that time.  In preschool in St. Petersburg they learned the Piter story, focusing on the horrific 3 year "blokada" wherein the city was essentially cut off from the rest of the world for years and many starved to death, but neither school nor we had taught them much else about the war.  So on a beautiful sunny day in Kyrgyzstan we talked to the kids about Hitler, and a bit about Stalin.

We visited the old style Panfilov Park, which was essentially a pay-per-ride amusement park where the kids had a great time on rides that would have been condemned in the USA.  The park was insufficiently staffed, and some rides were only open during some times, so the kids didn't get to do everything they wanted but it was still a win.  We ate unfortunately bad Indian food because I just wanted Indian (note: it didn't scratch the itch).

Monday, January 21, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part III

Next stop was Rothenberg ob der Tauber. It is highly recommended among the Frankfurt Consulate Community and I had been saving the trip to do when the whole family was here. The city's oldest part was built about 1000 years ago, and it is a walled city that has retained its entire wall.

We also planned to pick up a couple of holiday gifts at the homeland of Käthe Wohlfahrt, the company whose wooden Christmas items have graced pretty much every Christmas Market I have ever attended. The store can be a bit overwhelming, and it is sort of set like the Duty Free section in an airport - you're forced to walk through every single section from entry to exit - which can be annoying when a child needs the bathroom in the middle of the store and you have to wind your way through half the store just to get out the door (apparently no restrooms for customers there).

Between the bad weather and the too-short amount of time budgeted to this town, we didn't do half of the wandering we'd have liked to do. The Christmas market was darling. The highly recommended Night Watchman Tour, starting at 8pm, was everything we'd been told it would be. The man who runs it has a wonderful theatrical presence, even with a crowd of 50+ people he can be easily heard and the information he relays is interesting even to the kids. It was Alex's favorite part of the trip. We will absolutely make time to go back once more before we leave Germany.

Monday, January 7, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part II

The morning after our return from Köln we hopped in the car and headed down to Heidelberg. I had such high hopes for Heidelberg!!  BUT other than the castle, which is spectacular (I love a good ruin), there was nothing much for us. The multiple Christmas Markets were each tiny with little we hadn't already seen. Or eaten. I was so disappointed with Heidelberg I didn't even keep the glühwein mug.
 View of the castle
View from the castle

Heidelberg is a beautiful city. The bleak weather kept us from venturing up to the Philosopher's Way and the intermittent rain kept us from pulling the camera out at all most of the time.

For what I am sure were solid reasons at the time, I had booked us for two nights in Heidelberg - our only two-nighter of the trip. For the second day we ended up deciding to pop over to Speyer. In hindsight, this might have been a blessing in disguise because otherwise we would not have ventured over there and the city is darling, the Christmas Market is lovely, and the Technology Museum is absolutely worth the visit. It was by far the most expensive museum I have visited in Germany and we're talking about going back. It has an incredible collection of machinery - cars, boats, airplanes, helicopters, motorcycles, even a space shuttle - and visitors are able to wander around inside many of the exhibits. A major highlight was the submarine. This was the pouring-rainiest day of the entire trip so no photos of the market. Here's one of a piece of the Berlin Wall and mannequins in period costume. The light blue car in the bottom corner is a Trabi.

Friday, January 4, 2019

Christmas Market time, Part I

Terry was here for the kids' winter holiday (which is still ongoing, entering its third week, dear Lord will we survive this much togetherness?) To celebrate the last winter in Germany, we went a-Christmas Market-ing.

Stop One - Köln. Home of the only decent Ferris Wheel we saw the entire trip. In hindsight, I feel a little bad about only letting the kids go on once. The Chocolate Museum was decent although compared to other museums on the trip, pricey for what it was. A major highlight for the kids was, as usual, the bunk beds in the hotel room. Köln Cathedral never ceases to stop me in my tracks, although this was the first time I went inside.

On our way to Köln the train was switched out for another train that was exactly the same except the car numbers were different which means that no reservations were honored. Thankfully we were able to secure identical type seating to what we had paid for so no complaints. On the return trip, however, we got to the station too early so when we saw that train was also switched out I went to the DB travel office to see if we could switch to an earlier train given that our reservations didn't matter anyway. The lady first explained that I couldn't switch us to an earlier train because of the class of ticket we had purchased ... but ... we could depart on a train that left 30 minutes after our scheduled one, and arrived 30 minutes earlier and have the exact same type of seating to what we reserved. Customer Service!!!

* Tip to the wise: Frankfurt to Köln can be a 1 hour trip or a 2 hour trip, so pay attention when booking tickets.

Monday, November 19, 2018

Why do we buy them toys?

Each child has spent a large part of this evening entirely encased in a sleeping bag. First they wandered around testing out life as an inchworm/a caterpillar. Then of course they started bug battles that ended with my son suffering an objectively minor, but emotionally major, wound. This will not end well.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Epic Road Trip part 3: Wroclaw

From Saxon Switzerland, we headed into Poland. Although we stopped at Boleslawic for the night and a bit of pottery shopping in the morning, our real destination was Wroclaw. All we knew about it was that it was a little city filled with brass gnomes. You can buy maps at the tourist info center, or find maps online, or just wander around with eyes peeled. Gnome hunting was a highlight of the entire trip for the kids.


 It reminded me a bit of Boston's Freedom Trail, in that the gnomes seemed specifically placed in neighborhoods around the city that tourists might not otherwise visit, but that the city might benefit from tourists discovering. Once such location that comes to mind is a small network of back alleys that sheltered, in addition to the gnomes, some brass farm animals and a number of independent shops, cafes and souvenir stores.

In addition to the gnomes, the town center area is also quite picturesque.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Epic Three-country Road Trip, Part 2: Saxon Switzerland National Park

On Day 3 of the Epic Road Trip we left Pilsen for Saxon Switzerland National Park, which is not in Saxony nor in Switzerland, but instead in Germany near the borders of Czech Republic and Poland.

Kudos to Microsoft or whoever has that program of rotating beautiful places on earth as the logon background.  That's where I first saw a photo of the place a couple of years ago, with its spectacular rugged rock formations. By then I knew I was on my way to Germany for my next tour and I made a plan to get to it. It's a big pain to get to from Frankfurt, but it is a mere convenient waystation on the Epic Road Trip!

We took the usual tourist route across the Bastei Bridge, which is free although parking costs a little bit. The half-price fare (due to construction) to go into the space that was once an old castle was more than worth it, as it had several decent exhibits and signs explaining what used to be where. It also had some of the best views and closest approaches to the edges of rock. Imagining what could have encouraged people to try to live in such a harsh environment was a fun mental exercise.

We also got to watch a number of rock climbers try their luck against the sharply peaking faces. But apparently none of those photos met with Terry's critical eye because none of them appeared again after he finished editing everything.

 Iconic photo of Bastei Bridge
 That is not a person. It is a sculpture known as the Angel.
Terry and Alex hanging out in a cave while Zoltan and I rest elsewhere. It's hard being 8 when everyone else is older and stronger.

Monday, November 12, 2018

Epic Three-country Road Trip, Part 1: Pilsen

Terry came for the kids' fall break and we took a road trip - something we normally don't do. Something we probably won't do too much again. But as the title indicates, it was epic.

We started with a plan to get to Pilsen early enough for one of the last Pilsner Urquell tours of the day. However, they were sold out so we got a tour for the next day. And for good measure, we went ahead and bought tickets to the Pilsen Underground tour for the next day as well.


Terry and the brewery and a stunningly beautiful day

Pilsen has nice parks. The kids had a great time playing on a series of mosaic'd faces and animals they lay on the path between the town center and the Pilsner Urquell brewery.
I've got to be honest - we have gone on a LOT of brewery tours. This was without question the worst. I don't know if our tour guide was new and didn't know anything or if this was the norm, but we spent a lot of time just waiting for things or watching a movie or two. For comparison, the Guinness tour was a 100% electronic experience and they still did a better job of getting the tourists interested in the brewing process and the history of the brewery.


Tour highlights: riding in the Czech Republic's largest elevator - in the brewery - then eating lunch in the Czech Republic's largest restaurant - on the brewery property. Other highlights included getting beer mugs for each of us and letting the kids get theirs engraved because, as Terry noted, this may be the only time Zoltan gets a touristy tchotchke with his name on it.

After lunch it was time to head to the Underground tour, which was far more interesting. To be fair, tromping through a city's hidden world is always going to be interesting no matter what, and it was a nice touch to have signs marking which street corners now-closed passages to the surface would have opened onto. Apparently people kept many of their valuables in the underground passages, to include, for some, their livestock. I can only imagine how that worked!

Another stop on our Pilsen experience was to the Great Synagogue. It was absolutely stunning and a testament to the size and wealth of some previous Jewish citizenry.

Saturday, November 10, 2018

Lisbon

We went to Portugal nearly a year ago, when Terry and the kids came to visit me last winter break. It took Terry a while to edit the photos.

After three days in Porto, we hopped a train down to Lisbon. There, we cashed in hotel points and stayed at the Marriott. It's a lovely hotel, but a bit far from most things.

On the day that was supposed to be rainy (but was in fact sunny), we went to the Lisbon oceanarium - one of the world's best aquariums. My family would definitely agree with the assessment, as we ended up spending the entire day there. Zoltan even spent allowance to acquire Oscar the otter to commemorate one of our favorite exhibits.
 Puffins!
 This guy doesn't even look real
 The otter was absolutely the highlight

The next day was supposed to have nice weather and rained all morning. Gloriously, as we approached our tour guide around noon at the appointed spot, the rain softened and dried up and we went on our "food tour" - put into quotation marks because it was so much more. Our tour guide, Silvia, was recommended by a friend who had been in Lisbon about a month before us and who also had kids.

She took us all around the city, introduced us to the city's "secret" street elevators, mounds of delicious food (and got our very reluctant kids to at least try more different dishes that Terry and I could have on our own). We had alerted her to Alex's intolerance so after bringing us to what she considered the best place to get Pasteis de Belém, she took us to a different bakery for treats Alex could try.In addition to all the food, she was a wealth of information about Lisbon's, and Portugal's history and some contemporary issues. I was so skeptical of some of what she told me I went and looked it up myself (yes, tempura, that Japanese delicacy, came from Portugal!)

 We took very few photos in Lisbon. This gem is of a comic depicting Lisbon's history, painted into an archway by a public toilet.

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Kronberg

Friends invited us to accompany them to the "Apfel Fest" in Kronberg that boasted 100 different varieties of apples. Like Milli Vanilli, we'll blame it on the rain, but there were only two different stands of apples that included fewer than two dozen different types. Admittedly, within that much smaller sampling there were a bunch we had never heard of, much less tasted. And of course we brought home several kilograms of apples to eat fresh, make apple chips, apple crisp, and other delicious apple treats.

Then we took the opportunity to wander around the town. Absolutely charming. The kids gave out assignments: they handled scouting duties, I was the photographer, one friend was the "noticer" (noticing and pointing out cool things to look at) and the other friend was the all-around "helper."

I hope I fulfilled my duties sufficiently :-)

 Half-timber, but with brick
 Carving on the corner of someone's house. 
The guy who makes up the beam on the right has a flower covering his crotch.
 A Socratic quote someone decided to paint on their home. 
The real question is, why don't we all do this?

According to the slate numbers (look closely among the slate tiles), the house was originally built in 1456.