Saturday, October 13, 2018

You know you’ve had a fantastic time at Oktoberfest in Munich when you are literally running from the beer tent to the train station out to the airport while still wearing your traditional dirndl and lederhosen outfits.

During the first week in October, hubby and I met up with some fellow American and German friends in Munich to attend our first real Oktoberfest in Germany. (I say real because the Oktoberfest events that we’ve attended in the US and elsewhere in Europe don’t really count.) Planning for said event had been in the works for nearly a year, and we have already talked about meeting up for the 2019 Oktoberfest.

This year marked the 185th Oktoberfest in Munich. 

Since there are so many blog posts out there providing tips on Oktoberfest, I’m only going to provide a few lessons we learned:

Get into the Bavarian spirit and buy a traditional outfit!
Our German friends highly recommended that we buy an outfit in advance. In fact, you’ll feel out of place in Munich if you aren’t wearing a Bavarian outfit during Oktoberfest. EVERYONE wears one! After a bit of online research, I found that the German website, dirndl.com, had some of the best offerings and shipped to London for a reasonable 20 euros. Expect to pay at least 100 euros each for a decent outfit, and be sure to take actual body measurements as European sizes differ slightly from American ones.

The typical Oktoberfest Dirndl consists of a tight-fitting bodice over a puffy, white, low-cut blouse and a full skirt as well as a coordinated apron. Picture a sexy milk-maid outfit complete with cute braids, but buy the midi dress (knee-length) and not the mini. As far as footwear, anything goes. I saw women wearing everything from ballet flats and heels to hiking boots and popular trainers such as Converse and Vans. I opted for warm, black leather boots and black tights because it was cold during the days we attended Oktoberfest.
Also, instead of bringing a purse, I wore a jacket with multiple pockets and just stuffed everything in there. The tents are crowded and you don’t want to worry about losing anything.

For men, the classic Bavarian outfit is Lederhosen – short or knee-length breeches made of leather that include suspenders worn over a checkered, collared shirt. You can complete your outfit with a feathered hat, which we bought upon arrival in the village of Füssen for 25 euros.

Even if you don’t buy your Bavarian outfit in advance, there are plenty of pop-up stores in Munich selling dirndls and lederhosen. You can buy cheap dirndls, often made from synthetic materials, for about 50 euros. But, as always, you get what you pay for.

Visit Oktoberfest on a Weekday
At Oktoberfest, you can choose from 14 main beer tents plus more than a dozen smaller tents. All beer served at the Oktoberfest tents must be from one of Munich's six breweries —Paulaner, Spaten, Hacker-Pschorr, Augustiner, Hofbräu and Löwenbräu. The beer must also follow the Reinheitsgebot, the purity law of 1516, issued by the Duke of Bavaria, Clement IV.

Even if you don’t have a table reservation, you’ll have a better chance of getting into one of the main beer tents, especially during the daytime on a weekday. We planned our Oktoberfest trip on a Monday to Wednesday and had reservations for only two of those days. On the Monday, we had a table reserved from noon-5 p.m. at the Marstall tent with a group of American, German, a lone Irish man and British friends. We only knew one of those Texan friends that day, but we all quickly became friends at the end of three days together.
Here’s a great Guide to Oktoberfest Beer Tents                      

After our reservation ended, we wandered through a few beer tents just to see what the atmosphere was like. Inside the most famous beer hall internationally, the Hofbräuhaus, we found a very crowded tent filled with locals and foreigners alike. The tent can seat nearly 7,000 people. We found a few inside seats available for a couple, but not enough for our group of six or seven at the time. Luckily, we found a free table underneath an outdoor heater in the surrounding beer garden. But trust me, you won’t always be that lucky unless you are prepared to go early. On the next night, the Hofbräu tent was secured off by police and no more people were being admitted.
On the second day, hubby and I didn’t have any group reservations and we found long queues or ticketed only entrances at nearly every single beer tent. We finally snuck into the side entrance at one of the smaller Heimer beer gardens and found a beer-barrel table for two near an outdoor heater. Twas a wee chilly that night.

On our last day, hubby and I hung out at the Löwenbräu tent – the one with a 15-foot lion sign that lets out a majestic roar of “Lööööwenbräu” every now and then. We had booked an extremely good deal via our Citibank Premier Mastercard for a table reservation that cost 35 euros per person, plus tax, for a reserved table plus two beers and a half-roasted chicken. We shared our table with a few different German families and other couples who were impressed with our Bavarian outfits during the three hours we stayed.
Drink and Be Merry
By the end of our three-day Oktoberfest visit, we happily sung along to the “Ein Prosit” – the popular German song the bands seemed to play every 10 minutes and required mandatory toasts with your table mates. Here are the lyrics:
Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit
Ein Prosit, Ein Prosit, der Gemütlichkeit
Eins, zwei, drei, g'suffa!
Follow with Prost, clink and drink! 
However, I don’t think our version sounded quite like that.
Bizarrely, the German bands also played several English-speaking songs like the “Sweet Caroline,” popular hits by Abba, “You’re the one that I want,” “Country Roads” by John Denver and the Lion King theme song – aptly played while we were in the Löwenbräu tent. I had a blast singing along to most of these with a giant stein of radler in one hand.

Book Early
It probably goes without saying that you must book your accommodation and flights early to Munich. In fact, we booked our hotel stay at the Four Points Sheraton Hotel, located right by the Oktoberfest grounds, 11 months in advance and cashed in credit card points to do so. Upon arrival, we also got upgraded because of our SPG point status. So my advice is that if you have any credit card points, now would be a good time to use them.
Our view of the Oktoberfest grounds from our fifth-floor room.

Oktoberfest was a fun and crazy event with new and old friends, and I would happily do it all over again.

Have you been to Oktoberfest in Munich?

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Wednesday, September 26, 2018

When we planned to visit Brussels, our main goal was to visit the beautiful Christmas markets. But along the way, we discovered some fabulous street art as well.

Besides popping into numerous chocolate shops (Yum!), we wandered around many small side streets and found a city filled with fun, colorful cartoons and murals on many of its buildings. Before our trip, I had read that Brussels was known for its comic book characters such as Rin Tin Tin, but I still had no idea. These delightful characters also play a major part in the city’s Comic Book Route, which features large murals paying homage to Belgian comic artists.
Let’s take a tour of Brussel’s street art scene!

Comic Book Route
One of the most fun and unusual ways to explore Brussels is by taking the Comic Book Route. The project started in 1991 with the intention to embellish empty walls in the city, while paying tribute to famous Belgian comic artists. The route itself features over 50 mural paintings from iconic greats to lesser-known characters. You can find a map of the route here.

Here are a couple of the comic book murals that we found:
The Broussaille Wall and Olivier Rameau & friends mural Rue du Chêne
The Broussaille Wall was the first comic strip mural to be painted in July 1991. The wall illustrates a cheerful couple, Broussaille and his girlfriend, going for a brisk walk around the city. Based on a comic series created by Frank Pé, the series was first published in 1978 in the local Spirou magazine.

Victor Sackville Wall
Rue du Marché au Charbon
Not too far from the Broussaille Wall is the Victor Sackville Wall. The scene on the wall comes from The Opera of Death, the first comic of the Code Zimmerman series created by Francis Carin in 1985. The mural depicts the main character Victor Sackville, a British spy that lands in Brussels, on the Rue du Marché au Charbon as it looked during WWI.
Spike and Suzy
Rue de Laeken 111
Without stopping peeing, the Manneken Pis, the famous symbol of Brussels, holds five of Belgium's best-known comic strip heroes in one hand.

Manneken Pis
Be prepared to fight off hordes of tourists to see one of Brussel’s “little” attractions – the Manneken Pis (“little pee man” in Flemish). The peeing boy is a small, bronze, 17th-century fountain statue that measures just 61cm (24 inches). I'm not sure why everyone finds this statue endearing, but they do and he did look cute in his Christmas outfit. In fact, the statue even has an outfit for every season and national holiday.
A nearby mural called Manneken Peace on Rue du Chêne was painted by artist HMI. He is a member of the Brussels CNN group, a famous group of Belgian hip-hop artists for the last 30 years.

MIMA
Located beside the canal in the center of Brussels, housed in the former brewery Belle-Vue, the MIMA or Millennium Iconoclast Museum of Art is an interesting visual arts museum. The MIMA presents temporary exhibitions, concerts and performances and has a permanent collection as well covering four different floors. During our visit, the unfinished cellar looked like it belonged in an abandoned building – complete with crumbling walls and barren concrete floors but filled with amazing murals and paste up art. I was very impressed!
In 2016, American artist Maya Hayuk created “City of Lights” – a modern-like chapel with raised ceilings and stained-glass window treatments – a space for reflection.

Rue des Chandeliers Kandelaars
Here we found the walls on this narrow laneway completely covered in interesting street art and paste ups.

Music Murals
You can find life-sized stencils of Bruce Springsteen as well as John Lennon, Jim Morrison, Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix fittingly on the side of a second-hand record shop, The Collector, located at 7 Rue du Chên.
Galerie de Portraits LGBTQ
On a small street near the Mannekin Pis, Rue du Marché au Charbon, I believe, you will find an incredible colorful series of LGBTQ frescoes and several other pieces in Brussel’s gay quarter, which is in the same area.

Space Invaders
In previous blog posts, I’ve mentioned the French street artist known as Invader on our trip to Paris, but I didn’t realize that Brussels is home to about 40 of his mosaic installations. We found a couple of the tiled creations inspired from the 1970s-video game “Space Invaders” in the city center.
Oh, I should also mention that one of the best ways to see more of Brussel’s street art is to hire a Villo! city bike. This gives you a chance to explore Atomium, a bizarre structure made up of nine metal spheres that represent an iron crystal magnified 165 billion times that was built for the first post-WWII world fair in 1958. Definitely worth the trek!
Love the quote in this mural in Brussels!
Have you been to Brussels? Any other travel tips for our next trip?


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Friday, September 14, 2018

I originally wanted to title this post: “How to kill 5 hours in downtown Houston while renewing your passport.” I looked for street art, ate a giant omelet for breakfast, chased butterflies at the science museum and had an iced coffee while I waited for my expedited passport.
Continuing on my solo road trip, I drove from Austin to Houston in about 3 hours.
After dropping off my proper paperwork at the downtown passport office, I headed to Harry’s, a longtime, Greek family restaurant on the edge of Montrose and Midtown. I ordered a big-as-my-head spinach and feta omelet with hashbrowns and unlimited filter coffee. Man, I do miss bottomless cups of coffee like what you get in the USA!

With a full belly, I continued on my wander of Downtown/Midtown Houston toward Elgin Street. At the bottom of this post, I included a map of my approximate walking area. I will say that some of the blocks here definitely seemed more sketchy than others. I was approached by a few homeless people asking for spare change and got whistled at by a group of guys walking by. My advice is to use your common sense and don’t do anything stupid. I didn’t use my good Canon camera like I usually do, and I kept my mobile phone in my front pocket so I could take photos.

Gorillas
Where: 3100 Smith St.
The Gorillas mural was completed by local Houston artist Nicky Davis in 2015 to mark the coming of western lowland gorillas to the Houston Zoo.
Michael Savoie mural
Where: Elgin and Smith streets
In this colorful mural, Dallas-based artist Michael Savoie depicts an African-American woman with a European look. In 2015, he was selected as a top 3 finalist and finished as the first runner-up in the Bombay Sapphire Artisan Series competition when this mural was unveiled.
Preservons La Creation
Where: 2800 San Jacinto St.
Wow! You can’t miss this 9,750-square-foot mural created by French artist Sebastien “Mr. D” Boileau in 2014. His impressive interpretation of Michelangelo’s Creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel stretches an entire city block. Boileau now lives in Houston and owns a mural company, which does both private and public pieces.

The Bloody Truth mural
Where: 3000 Louisiana St.
This Halloween-ish mural, in support of the Bloody Truth Houston blood drive, also was designed by Boileau.
"The Earth is but one country and mankind its citizens."
Where: Bahá'í Community Center, 2419 Fannin St.
Meeting of Styles murals
Nouveau Antique Art Bar, 2913 S. Main St.
Meeting of Styles is an international network of graffiti artists that meet together and host various public art events around the world. I love the “Dia de los Muertos” murals, which I think were designed by Mexican street artist Real Tres. Apparently, the group also hosts an annual street artist event in London, so I’ll have to watch out for that.

Other murals in Downtown Houston
Here is an approximate walking area of Downtown Houston where I took these photos in this post:



NOTE: It’s been a little over one year ago since Hurricane Harvey landed in Houston (August 27, 2017), causing major flooding lasting until September 3, and the Downtown neighborhood was one of the areas greatly affected. The flood damage amounted to $1.5 billion and forced thousands of people to be evacuated from their homes. I visited Houston in October 2016 so I’m not sure if you’ll still find many of these murals.

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