Thursday, December 18, 2014

On our recent trip to Germany, we quickly discovered that the German Christmas markets are as wonderful as we thought they would be!
 
We were determined to see as many markets as we could. Well, at least one of us was.
 
Thanks to Germany's fantastic train ticket options such as Schönes-Wochenende and Quer-durch-Land, we were able to basically hop on and hop off the regional trains as much as we wanted. Daily tickets were only 44 euros for the two of us versus the 160 euro roundtrip it would've been at one point. In the end, I think we hit up 13 different Christmas markets in 5 cities in 5 days. What a whirlwind trip!

Here are some of the highlights from the Christmas markets we visited:
Düsseldorf
We used Düsseldorf as our base city since we were staying with our good friend here. JT took us around to six out of seven of the city's Christmas Markets. Amid the random construction in the city center, we found dozens of seasonally decorated, wooden huts and they were selling all kinds of typical market fare such as gluhwein, gingerbread, bratwurst and Christmas decorations.
Less than an hour after landing, we were sipping hot gluhwein at this market in the drizzling rain.

 
Düsseldorf's Old Town was a magical setting for the Christmas Market on Marktplatz, which stretched across the square at the feet of the statue of mounted Jan Wellem – Düsseldorf’s landmark. The wooden huts were even modelled in the same color and style as on the brick building of the renaissance city hall.

 The Engelchenmarkt (“Little Angel Market”), located on Heinrich-Heine-Platz, and decorated with darling cupids and white lights, was one of my favorite markets in Düsseldorf.
Christmas Market in front of the Town Hall in Old Town.
 
We even found Polish pottery for sale at the markets - all at ridiculous prices though!
Aachen
The small town of Aachen, about 90 minutes west of Düsseldorf, was recommended by both an Austrian and British friend and did not disappoint. We had less than two hours to explore this historic town before we had to catch our next train, so unfortunately, we simply ran out of time to see everything properly.

 
Aachen's two Christmas Markets are set up around the beautiful 1,200-year-old Aachen Cathedral, which was the very first site to be granted UNESCO World Heritage status in Germany. The church is the oldest cathedral in northern Europe, was known as the "Royal Church of St. Mary at Aachen" during the Middle Ages and also was where German kings and queens were crowned for 600 years.  
Look for the town's infamous printen - a gingerbread cookie that's often dipped in chocolate. Delicious!

Inside the Aachen Cathedral really reminded me of some of Byzantine-era churches we've seen on our travels. Absolutely breathtaking!

We bought one of the cute Christmas trees pictured in the upper right-hand corner.
Cologne
Next, we hopped on the train and headed to Cologne where we met JT in front of the Cologne Cathedral and popped inside for a visit. Don't miss the stained glass windows here. We visited two of Cologne's Christmas markets which were located near the Cathedral around a huge Christmas tree.
Some of the foodie highlights in Cologne.
 
Hubby and our friend, JT, in Cologne.
 
The Christmas Market at the "Heimat der Heinzel" (Home of the Heinzelmännchen) on Heumarkt was a bit more boisterous and offered a Ferris wheel.
Koblenz
After celebrating a belated Thanksgiving, we hopped on a Sunday train for the picturesque town of Koblenz along the Rhine River. This Christmas market is actually one of the largest in the Rhineland-Palatinate wine growing region. Though the smallest town we visited, Koblenz was super cute and offered all the typical flavors of Christmas including German stolen, gluhwein, bratwurst, etc. There was a second, smaller market with an ice skating rink located at a large shopping mall before you crossed the street into the Old Town.
Mainz
Please forgive the word play, but Mainz really was a-Mainz-ing! I had no idea what to expect here, but I did not anticipate a fairy-tale like setting. Against the imposing backdrop of the 1,000-year-old Cathedral of St. Martin, local craftsmen sold a variety of Christmas specialties such as Advent garlands, wooden toys, ceramic Christmas villages and ornaments. We arrived here about 5 p.m. on Sunday afternoon and the place was packed! We could hardly move! I'm so glad we decided to spend the night here.
The church is more than 100-meters long inside and includes an old monastery.
The highlights of Mainz include sipping another glass of gluhwein in a cool, wooden barrel, being taunted by a full spit-roasted pig, getting asked if we were American because we wanted mustard with our pretzel, laughing at the expensive Turkish lamps being sold, wandering around the dreamy Candy Land-colored houses and buying a beautiful Christmas village building.

I loved the German Christmas Markets and would return again next year in a New York minute! What are your favorite Christmas markets?
 
Most of the German Christmas markets seem to open in late November and close on December 23rd this year. Please check the websites below for more details:

Monday, December 15, 2014

Only in Warsaw would I find a cluster of food trucks at a Christmas Market.

And not that we mind, either.

In the 18+ months we’ve lived here, the food truck scene has become über popular. Burgers overdominate this scene, but thankfully new BBQ and Mexican-ish food trucks are making an appearance. Yesterday, we tried a delicious pulled pork BBQ sandwich and a bowl of curried chicken.

This weekend, the Soho Factory, a revitalized former 19th-century factory in Praga, hosted a Slow Market featuring local Polish artists, fashion and jewelry designers, food producers and other designers. According to the event’s website: “Slow Market is a place where you can find good fashion, local design, healthy eating and natural cosmetics.”
Since I recently taught two baking classes, I had some of my own spending money to spend as I please. I’m not usually a big shopper or spender, but it just felt nice to have my own money so I could buy something perhaps more frivolous. I ended up buying two dresses from Polish designers SheMore and Kowalski as well as a funky t-shirt from Hero.Esque.

Warsaw has been called an ‘undiscovered fashion hotspot,’ and I have to agree. I love that I can buy locally-made and designed clothes and shoes at a fraction of the price I would pay if I were back in NYC. Last month, I bought a pair of boots I designed myself at FunInDesign for only 450pln (about $140). If you want fashion, come to Warsaw!
 Besides apparel, the event featured several local artists selling ceramics, posters and home décor. I added two cute holiday moose to my collection from Cerama Art Studio, which also had several ceramic platters I liked.
While I love going to events like this in Warsaw, my husband is not as keen. He enjoyed the food part and I’ll admit was a good sport throughout this lil shopping adventure. We indulged in a bottle of red wine afterwards. 

Next time, we also need a beer truck to keep him occupied while I shop!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

It’s hard to believe that this is our second Christmas season here in Warsaw.

Time really does fly by!

This week, I finally put up some Christmas decorations, our tiny, plastic tree and the items we bought from our recent trip to Germany. At least, our apartment looks a little festive now.

Since the Poles celebrate Christmas, it’s very easy to find decorations, particularly handmade ones.

One of the most popular Polish decorations is made from gingerbread (pierniki). You’ll find gingerbread hearts, snowmen, angels, trees, trains, snowflakes and more at the slightly-hidden Tebe shop located along busy Aleja Jerozolimskie. You can even buy edible gingerbread spoons that you can dip into your morning cup of coffee or tea.
Whenever I’ve popped into Tebe, the couple who run the shop are quite friendly and help me find the ornament I want. They use only natural ingredients to make the pierniki dough, which is baked and then decorated with dozens of different types of seeds, dried flowers and fruits. For example, red lentils outline the stars and poppyseeds make up the snowmen’s hat.
While you’re at Tebe, it’s also worth taking the time to visit the famous Fotoplastikon, which is located in the same old courtyard.

Another popular item that most Americans will recognize are colorful, blown-glass ornaments, known as bombki. Following WWII, bombki appeared on the market again and became a major export for Poland. In the U.S., you’ll find these traditional ornaments at large department stores such as Dillards and Macy’s, but they will cost you about 5 times or more than what I’ve paid here in Poland.
I bought my bombki from Bombkarnia, across the street from the Palace of Culture, which is open year-round and also sells pretty Easter egg ornaments in the spring.

Thirdly, I couldn’t resist buying several handmade, crocheted snowflakes at Cepelia’s Centrum location. My grandmother often used to knit and crochet so these Old World items remind me of her and would make lovely Christmas presents too.
Cepelia is a national foundation under the Minister of Culture and Art that promotes Polish folk and artistic handicrafts. Most ornaments are reasonably priced between 10-20 pln (about $3-$6.)

Lastly, you’ll find the ever popular Polish pottery being used in all kinds of Christmas décor from serving plates to cake stands as well as Christmas ornaments and candle holders. I love visiting Anna at Anka Pottery in Mokotow, and I must remember to stop by there soon to buy some presents. However, I can also recommend buying pottery from the Cepelia stores and Bolesławiec Pottery, which is near the Rondo Onz tram stop.
Now is the perfect time to stock up on some festive goodies like the Polish Christmas ornaments I mentioned here.

And years from now, I’ll take out my pierniki and bombki to decorate my Christmas tree and remember that time I lived in Poland.
Our tiny decorated tree - 2014 in Warsaw.
Locations in Warsaw:
Bombkarnia
Emilii Plater 47

Cepelia
ul. Marszałkowska 99/101, ul. Chmielna 8 and Old Town

Tebe
Al. Jerozolimskie 51
Website: http://www.tebe.waw.pl or http://piernikidekoracyjne.pl

Bolesławiec Pottery
ul. Prosta 2/14

Anko Pottery
ul. Modzelewskiego 79

Monday, December 8, 2014

Yes, it’s been 9 days since we celebrated Thanksgiving with our friends in Germany.

However, we spent three extra days visiting the infamous German Christmas markets, so I still have hundreds of photos to edit. Then, I taught a baking class and have basically been trying to catch up on our “normal” life here in Warsaw.

I am happy to report that both the Polish and German airport authorities seemed to have no problem with me transporting my Pumpkin Pie with Gluten-Free Coconut & Almond Crust across the borders. The pie arrived safely!

Our dear friend, JT, whom we stayed with in Düsseldorf, had prepared the majority of our Thanksgiving meal in advance. This, his friend, Tobias, whom we met during our beer weekend in Prague, kindly picked us and ALL our Thanksgiving meal fixings up in his large SUV. We drove to T’s suburbian home because it had more room to host our Thanksgiving meal. T and his wife, Dee, also have a lovely and practically professionally-outfitted kitchen so I had every gadget at hand to help prepare our dinner.
Dee set up a lovely dining table for us.
JT and me in the midst of cooking green bean and sweet potato casseroles.
JT and hubby checking on the turkey, which was closely guarded by the family dog later.
JT was in charge of his bacon-wrapped turkey, cranberry sauce, pumpkin soup, grandfather’s recipe of sweet potato casserole, mashed potatoes and stuffing/dressing (made with gluten-free cornbread). I helped here and there and made my classic green bean casserole with a cheesy béchamel sauce, roasted Brussels sprouts and helped finish the pies.
By the time we sat down to dinner, we had already been drinking a bit of bubbly and wine, as one should when they are cooking. The best part was sharing this delicious meal with friends from the U.S., Germany, Turkey, U.K. and Poland, making it a true expat Thanksgiving!
Celebrating Thanksgiving together always makes me reflective on what I’m thankful for in life. This year has been a bit of an emotional one for me personally as I keep hoping and trying (unsuccessfully) for a baby. I’m thankful to have such a wonderful and supportive husband as we’ve gone through these low periods this past year. Secondly, I’m thankful to live abroad and travel as much as we do. I’m also thankful to have a fantastic group of friends from all over the world, and it’s even more special to celebrate these holidays together.

As long as you have good food and friends, you can celebrate an American Thanksgiving anywhere!
A Thanksgiving collage of food photos.