Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wishing everyone a Happy New Year and best wishes in 2017!

Since we are staying less than an hour away from Italy, we decided to drive to the nearest town of Courmayeur, Italy, for the day. Courmayeur is an Alpine resort in northwest Italy, at the foot of Mont Blanc and seems to host quite a few posh tourists. Hubby went skiing (better snow here than on the France side at Chamonix) while I enjoyed some local sightseeing and taking photos. 

It also was a delicious daytrip eating some hearty Italian Alps food. And of course, the Italian pistachio gelato was to die for! I highly recommend having lunch at Le Vieux Pommier where our hearty 3-course lunch was less than 20 euros.

Here are a few photos from today's adventure. Ciao!

Monday, December 26, 2016

Hope everyone had a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah or whatever you might celebrate!

This year, hubby and I are hanging together in Europe since we only have 10 days off from work. It's simply not enough time to run all over the US to see family again. Sorry guys!

Instead, we've been exploring Brussels and its fabulously festive Christmas markets. Coming here was a great choice and recommended by one of our fellow expat friends. Brussels is only two hours away from London by train; plus it's filled with charm and easy to get around.

Through January 1, 2017, you’ll find Christmas stalls and events taking place at the Grand-Place in Brussels and around the Bourse, the Place de la Monnaie, Place Sainte-Catherine and the Marché aux Poissons. Every hour, a spectacular light and music show lights up the Grand Place, the city’s central square which features elegant historic buildings dating back to the 14th century. I almost felt like I was in a fairy tale! The area does get quite crowded, but we tried to arrive early and still had lots of fun.

Hope you enjoy this lil taste of the Brussels Christmas markets!
One night we had fish soup with glasses of Prosecco and the next day a rich dish of tartliflette (?) - potatoes cooked with bacon and cheese. Yum!

My Traveling Joys

Saturday, December 24, 2016

Well, it’s our first Christmas season in London, and despite the crowds, the city sure knows how to deck the halls.

On my days off, I’ve sought out some of the popular places to see for pretty Christmas decorations. By 4 p.m., the city is blanketed in darkness and the Christmas lights are turned on. Such a beautiful sight! 
 Christmas ice skating at the Natural History Museum.
The only problem is that everyone – including your mother and her best friends and hordes of children and tourists – goes to see the Christmas lights as well. Be prepared to elbow your way through the crowds if you want to see the décor like I did. I even went on weekdays to see most of the sites below.

Anyway, London is all dressed up for the holidays. Christmas only comes once a year, so I guess I can bear the crowds to take some pretty photos. Enjoy!

Winter Wonderland
We almost avoided London’s biggest attraction of Winter Wonderland at Hyde Park because of the maddening crowds and security checks – way different from my weekday visit in 2013??? After work, we met up with a fellow American to walk around Wonderland, which is more carnival-like than Christmas market-like. We ended up spending a few hours in the Bavarian section drinking mulled wine and eating German bratwurst around an outdoor fire – an activity more adult-friendly than the rest of the park.
London Bridge to Waterloo
Recently, I had a Saturday off from work so we spent the gray day exploring the numerous Christmas markets that are set up between London Bridge and Waterloo train stations. Along the Thames River, we found dozens of wooden huts selling all kinds of food, drinks and Christmas gifts. We concluded our Christmas market crawl at a market by Waterloo and took refuge from the pouring rain at a craft beer stand where we shared a Korean rice bowl. Nearby was a Polish food stand making bigos and serving Zywiec beer.  

Regent Street to Picadilly Circus
Besides Winter Wonderland, this area of grand shopping from Regent Street to Picadilly Circus is the most touristy of all. However, this shopping stretch gets a Christmas makeover with garlands of lights down the length of the road. On Oxford Street alone, you’ll see 1,778 snowball-like decorations and 750,000 LED lightbulbs lit up for what is the fifty-seventh year the road has been decorated for the holidays.

Covent Garden
Beware of the crowds, but Covent Garden’s cobbled piazza and old market buildings are irresistible when they are covered in Christmas lights. This year’s decorations include a mistletoe theme, with over 40 mistletoe chandeliers hanging over the area’s streets and in the pretty market buildings. I retreated into the Lauduree store to stock up on a box of pastel Parisian macarons.
Carnaby Street
I found this Christmasy street thanks to Instagram. Carnaby Street, a small laneway off Regent Street, is decked out in a theme to match the V&A Museum’s new exhibition ‘You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970’. Carnaby Christmas decorations – usually among the most distinctive in town – will remain on display until January 6th.
Possibly the most famous London Christmas lights on a single store are at Harrods, a well-to-do Knightsbridge department store that was established in 1849 selling mainly tea and groceries. To me, Harrods, decked out in its Art Nouveau windows, terracotta tiles and hundreds of lights, is like visiting 5th Avenue in my beloved NYC during Christmas. The store is filled with many high-end brands, but you’ll also find a few things that normal people can afford.
Our Expat Home
Even though we still have leftover moving boxes in our much-smaller apartment, I convinced hubby to get a Christmas tree. We haven’t had a real tree since we lived in Poland and I missed having one. And now our tree is splashed out with decorations from places we’ve lived or traveled to – Istanbul, Warsaw, London, U.S., a tablecloth from Riga, a German village house and more.
As we remain on this expat journey, I guess we’ll just continue to explore our new surroundings and make a home wherever we hang our coats.

Happy Holidays!

My Traveling Joys

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

S is for San Sebastian

If you ever want to party in San Sebastian, Spain, the 21st of December is a good day to choose.

By now, most people over the age of, oh say, 16 are probably intoxicated in this Basque city. Why? St. Thomas Feast Day takes place on 21st of December. On this day, San Sebastian is transformed into a lively rural market and city-wide party. The celebration is centered on Constitución Square, where the stalls are set up to serve traditional local products such as Basque cider, txistorra (a local sausage), cheeses and pastries.
Locals gathered in Constitución Square in San Sebastian.
Trying some local Basque cheese at the market!
But as the sun sets, the party spreads far and wide across the city. In fact, by dinner time, most families have retreated and the city is ruled by youth under the age of 30. We were not prepared for how crazy the city got and our plan to go tapa bar hopping was quickly adjusted so we avoided the main city center and headed to the neighborhood of Gros instead.
St. Thomas Day dates back to the 19th century when farmers used to come into San Sebastian to pay rent to their landlords, but would take advantage of this opportunity to sell their own products to neighboring villages. The day may be like a GIANT one-day Christmas market, but in reality, this day certainly is, is a great excuse to party, party, party!

Besides the food what I loved most about the celebration was how many people dressed up in traditional Basque clothing – from little dogs, young children to teenagers and adults old enough to be my grandparents.
Even though I learned to speak Latin American English, this wasn’t always handy in San Sebastian. But a few friendly nods and asking for dos glasses of the local cider or red wine seemed to be all the Spanish we really needed to know. Everyone was so jovial that we felt like part of the party. It’s been exactly two years since we were here and I still remember our time here almost like it was yesterday. Sigh!

This month, I’m cheating and using more than one photo for the last A-Z Guidebook post of 2016. (Sorry Fiona!) I’m linking this post to the monthly travel guide link up organized by Fiona, a fellow Australian blogger, at Tiffin Bite Sized Food Adventures. Each month features a new letter of the alphabet. This month is the letter “S.” Please pop on over to Fiona’s blog to read more travel stories or feel free to link up your own!

TIFFIN - bite sized food adventures -
My Traveling Joys

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

As I woke up to one of the coldest days in London so far (0C/32F), I immediately wished I could either stay in bed under our warm down comforter or transport myself to a beach.

Unfortunately, neither option was a reality since I had to get up for work.

Still, my day trip to Rottnest Island, off the coast of Perth in Western Australia, tops my list as one of the most interesting trips this year. I spent the entire day looking for quoakkas, relaxing on nearly empty beaches and then sweating my butt off while I cycled around this 19km² island.

After I stepped off the ferry with my pre-booked bike rental, I headed to the information center to grab a map and fill up my water bottle. I decided I wanted to get out of the main touristy area as soon as possible so I would have more time to explore the island by myself.

If you plan to cycle around the island, Geordie Bay, about 1.5km west of the port, is the last place to fill up on supplies and fresh water. There is absolutely nothing available on the non-developed western side of the island except for cuddly quoakkas, deadly snakes and gorgeous beaches. I would recommend having at least two water bottles, especially during summer, because it’s a hot ride – about 24km. around the island.

At Geordie Bay, I found a pleasant outdoor café where I ordered breakfast and then decided to take advantage of the tempting nearby beach. Granted I visited on a weekday, but this beautiful beach was nearly empty on a hot summer day. I imagine the weekends are packed. More than 500,000 people visit this small island every year.
I soaked up some sun for an hour or so and then decided I’d better keep trekking if I wanted to explore as much of the island as possible. This daytrip was my first time cycling in a foreign place without my husband. I had to push myself to ride up the hills and even walk the bike a few times when I felt worn out.

But the impressive views were worth it!

If I were to visit Rottnest again or if I had more time, I think I would do a boat snorkeling tour. Being on a boat seemed like the next best way to explore the tranquil Caribbean-blue waters surrounding the island.

On the far western side of the island, a colony of New Zealand fur seals call the Cathedral Rocks home. Here they hunt for small fish or squid. I watched the seals frolic in the calm waters from the safety of the viewing deck while two stupid tourists went down into the water and tried to swim closer to the seals. Barriers are built for a reason, people!
A little blurry but you can still see the New Zealand fur seals 

Down the road, I found another secluded spot where I took a dip in the water to cool off for a bit. It was such a unique experience to be myself and make all these new adventures while also having to remain aware of my surroundings. Definitely don’t want to run into a killer Australian snake while you’re by yourself! A leisurely non-stop ride around the island should take at least 2.5 hours, but basically I took nearly seven hours to stop here and there and enjoy the Aussie sunshine.

The beauty of Rottnest Island is clearly evident in every little swimming nook. I only wish I had more time to explore it more!

My Traveling Joys