..the secret life of daydreams..

a blog of the everyday beautiful

Monthly Archives: June 2013

fresh from the garden – cream of broccoli soup


It’s good to be home and back in the garden. We came home from our month in Europe with much excitement to discover that all our plants are thriving and healthy and full of delicious produce for us! I was especially happy to see that we hadn’t missed our broccoli and that in fact it was perfectly mature, which means one thing: my fresh cream of broccoli soup!


This soup is incredibly simple to make but so flavorful and it takes about 45 minutes to prepare.

Cream of Broccoli Soup (adapted from America’s Test Kitchen)

– 2 tbsp unsalted butter
– salt
– 1 onion, minced
– 2 tbsp all-purpose flour
– 4 cups vegetable broth
– 1 1/2 pounds fresh broccoli
– 1/2 cup heavy cream
– pepper

1. Melt the butter in a large Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and 1/2 teaspoon salt and cook until the onion is softened. Stir in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Slowly stir in the vegetable broth and simmer for five minutes.

2. Meanwhile, finely chop the broccoli in a food processor or by hand. Add the broccoli to the soup and simmer until tender, about ten minutes. Puree the soup in batches in a blender until it is smooth (takes about two or three batches, depending on how big your blender is).

3. Return the pureed soup to the pot and stir in the cream. Bring to a brief simmer and then remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper to taste before serving. Can be served with croutons or cheddar cheese, which is my favorite.

cream of broccoli soup

Bon Appétit!


moomin midsummer madness


It’s been a quiet few days here in Helsinki for us, meeting up with some family as well as sightseeing. We’re staying with my grandfather’s sister, Kirsti, who has been so kind to let us stay with her and has made us feel at home!

Helsinki is an interesting city because despite having a long history, it is actually quite modern compared to the rest of Europe. Originally founded in the 1500s by a Swedish king (Finland was not yet an independent country), Helsinki grew in the 18th century when the swedes built a large military fortress on an island right outside the town, increasing industry. However, Helsinki really came into it’s own only after Russia defeated Sweden in a war and annexed Finland as a grand duchy of Russia. Czar Alexander I moved the capital of Finland to Helsinki in 1812 and thus the city was increased and built as we would know it today. In 1917, during the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Finland saw it’s chance to become independent and has maintained this state into modern day. Quite remarkable considering Finland bordered the Soviet Union after WWII and didn’t get absorbed into it like the rest of Eastern Europe!

At any rate, while Finland doesn’t have much by way of really old architecture, it does have some considerably important and well recognized icons and design brands. For example, the phone company Nokia was founded here. Perhaps less known to non-Finns, but still recognizable, are Marimekko and Ittala. A glass company founded in 1881, Ittala has been producing high quality and iconic glassware for longer than Finland has been an independent country! I definitely made use of the access I had to it’s shops here and am excited to add a few pieces to our house. One thing that Nordic countries, Finland especially, have down pat is a minimalist and clean design look, exemplified here by one of the displays in the Ittala flagship store.

IttalaMarimekko is no exception and has employed the same designs since it became famous in the 1960s, and has remained an icon in national and international markets. The name Marimekko has in fact become synonymous with it’s most famous pattern, the Unikko floral print that comes in various hues, this pink being the original.

MarimekkoI’ve seen pictures of tablecloths and curtains in this pattern from my grandparents home when my dad was growing up! Typically, this wouldn’t be my style, but because it is Finnish and I feel like I have a history with it, I can’t help loving it. And having something like a cloth bag in this print is a great accent piece in my wardrobe!

You may have been wondering about my post title, Moomin midsummer madness. It’s the title of a children’s book penned by Swedish-Finnish author Tove Jansson, in which the characters of Moomin valley embark on an adventure over midsummer. It seemed applicable considering we just passed the summer equinox (more on that and the Finnish celebrations of midsummer later). The Moomin book series have become well loved in Finland since it’s creation in 1945, and I grew up with the stories as a child. Who wouldn’t love little Moomin characters that kind of look like plump little hippopotamuses?? I have to say that I still think they are terribly cute.

MoominMost recently, the Angry Birds phenomenon had it’s beginning here in Finland, with the Finnish computer game developer Rovio Entertainment. This was in fact news to me, and we had been wondering why there was so much Angry Birds merchandise available in stores here, but my dad’s cousin Eero, who took us around Helsinki one morning, informed us that it was in fact a Finnish creation.

Our days here have been slow and lazy for the most part. I mentioned that Eero took us sightseeing our first morning here, which was a great introduction to the city. We saw some of the main buildings, along with more personally interesting things like the apartment where my grandfather was born. We stopped at a park right along the sea and walked his two dogs Didi and Sagi, who were along for the ride. I have to mention that they are probably the most well-trained dogs I have ever seen in my life. Eero says the credit belongs to his wife Caroline but the dogs certainly respond well to his presence as well and he is continually reinforcing their training. Because they are actually used as hunting dogs, they have been strictly trained to follow commands. So for example, the dogs could be running full tilt towards a bird (only with permission) and with a certain whistle they will drop flat to the ground and wait. Eero can command them to go, and tell them what direction, come back, walk beside him, wait, or stop out in the field and lie down. It was remarkable to see!

Justin, Didi, Sagi, and EeroDidi and SagiWe also explored Helsinki on our own, making our way to the National Museum of Finland, which focuses on the cultural heritage of Finland, as well as it’s prehistory. We did some shopping along the famous esplanad (a beautiful long, narrow park hemmed in by two roads and lots of shops and cafes), and wandered through the open air market at the harbor entrance where there are food, produce, and craft vendors busy selling their product. We had an amazing salmon lunch there and it was probably some of the best salmon I’ve ever had!

HelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiHere are some photos of the Esplanad

HelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiAnother notable sight is Stockmanns department store (Helsinki’s equivalent of Herrods in London). My grandfather Seppo worked there in his youth! We wandered through a couple times, either in search of food, or just browsing.

HelsinkiHelsinkiAnother main sight is the large Lutheran Church that dominates the skyline. It is plain and simple and mostly unadorned, in the style of the reformation brought about by Martin Luther.

HelsinkiHelsinkiHelsinkiOn Friday we caught a ferry to Suomenlinna (fortress of Finland). We bought a picnic lunch at Stockmann and supplemented it with some amazing Finnish strawberries from the market at the harbor. From there it was a 20 minute boat ride to Suomenlinna itself. This is the fortress that Sweden had built in the 18th century to defend against Russia, and which eventually surrendered to the same power in the Finnish war. There is a lot of history and politics involved in this particular period, and I won’t bore you with the details here, but essentially the commander of the fortress was tricked by the Russians into surrendering the fortress (and thereby all of Finland). Another little tidbit of history: Kirsti told us that my great great great great grandfather was a soldier at Suomenlinna!

SuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaWe caught an English tour that took us around the island and then we enjoyed our lunch on the rocks overlooking Helsinki and the sea.

SuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaSuomenlinnaBefore leaving we took a look through the museum, which included a film on the history of the fortress, and some interesting artifacts, like the former submarine machine gun that Justin got to try on for size.

SuomenlinnaIt was a beautiful day and lots of Finns and tourists alike were enjoying Suomenlinna, either picnicking, enjoying the water, going for a walk, or perhaps for the more fortunate few, sailing.

SuomenlinnaWe wrapped up our day in the early evening and headed back to Kirsti’s to have a nap before we went out to celebrate ‘juhannus’, or midsummer. This really was a highlight experience in Finland for us. Juhannus is a big tradition in this country, and while it probably roots back to pagan celebrations surrounding agriculture, now it is a good reason for a holiday and a celebration of the beautiful northern summer. I said in my last post that it is more or less light all night long here, and conversely that means it is dark all day long in the winter (ugh). You can see why Finns want to celebrate their summer! During midsummer, most residents of Helsinki vacate the city in favor of their lakeside country cabins, but we joined some of those who remained at a little island near where we have been staying, called Seurasaari. Bonfires, music, folk dancing, and traditional food made up most of the program, and Justin and I had a great time.

SeurasaariJuhannusJuhannusJuhannusWe arrived around 9:30pm to see them light the main bonfire, which involves the tradition of a bridal couple lighting the ten meter tall stack of wood and fir branches. It was pretty impressive.

JuhannusUnfortunately, we weren’t in a good position on the shore to get photos during the lighting, but once the crowds thinned I got to a spot that gave me a good vantage point, just so you can imagine what it looked like.

JuhannusAfter that we joined in with the folk dancing and enjoyed the music for several hours, and of course, we had lettus (finnish pancakes)!! That is always a must on midsummer.

JuhannusJuhannusJuhannusJuhannusJuhannusOur weekend came to an end with a lazy day on Saturday (nothing was really open because of the holiday!), and this morning we went to church with Kirsti. Interesting anecdote: Justin and I both got translation headsets, but I found myself listening more to the Finnish and soon turned off my headset because it was distracting. Turns out I remember a lot more Finn than I thought I could! It’s been fun to walk around the city and be able to read signs and menus and all manner of things and have all these words come back to me. Who knew that the few early years when I spoke Finnish would be so formative?

We did some last minute shopping today for things to bring home and suddenly, with that, our time in Europe has come to a close. Tonight we fly to Heathrow and then tomorrow morning back home! What a month! I can’t believe it has come and gone already, but as I look back at my first posts, it seems like forever ago that we were traipsing around London. I guess it is time to go home and pick up the routine again, back to work, but also back to our garden!

Thank you for reading along and I hope you have enjoyed our stories! From Finland with love, Pia and Justin<3

from finland with love




So we successfully managed our incredibly cheap RyanAir flight from Frankfurt to Tampere, Finland, with no troubles or hangups, although we did have to carefully weigh our bags before checking in to make sure we were within our strict weight requirements. After some reshuffling and repacking, all was good and we made it Finland. We caught a bus to the city center from the airport, and it was great to finally be able to (mostly) understand the conversation around me again. Even Justin, though he doesn’t know words, recognizes the intonations and sounds of the language, and it felt homey.

Unfortunately it was raining when we arrived, so we had some lunch and then parked ourselves at a nearby shopping mall, where we commandeered a bench for a couple hours while we waited for our bus to Virrat. Justin has been teaching me to play chess to pass by the time we’ve been waiting for trains and planes, and while I haven’t won a game yet, I haven’t been a completely useless opponent either (one game ended in a stalemate), so hopefully soon I will finally win a game! Our bus arrived and whisked us off to Virrat, where we were picked up by my great-uncle Kalevi Helimäki and brought to his summer cabin. His wife, Marjatta (my grandfather’s sister) met us there and they welcomed us warmly and graciously hosted us for two nights.

They showed us around the town of Virrat, where Kalevi grew up, and we enjoyed the Finnish summer cabin life, including of course, sauna and dips in the lake. Here are some pictures of the lake:

VirratIMG_3676IMG_3699Beautiful birch trees that are everywhere.

IMG_3653Here is our cozy cabin room

IMG_3744Justin and Marjatta and Kalevi

IMG_3749I really love the classic Finnish summer cabin look, with it’s red walls and white trim. This is the cabin of Kosti Helimäki (Kalevi’s relative), which was next door to us. Unfortunately I didn’t get any good pictures of our actual cabins (which were smaller than this one) but it gives you an idea of what the area is like.

IMG_3720And because we are so far north, and nearly at the summer equinox, the sun never really sets fully so it stays light all night long. I took these pictures at midnight and you can see the moon and it’s reflection on the lake.

Virrat, FinlandVirrat, FinlandAmazing, but thank goodness for light blocking blinds in the cabin for sleeping at night! Now we are in Helsinki and looking forward to our last few days of our trip.

cuckoo clocks and roman baths


The last few days have been mostly peaceful and relaxing. We’ve pampered ourselves with an experience at the old Roman baths in Baden-Baden, spent a day driving the Black Forest and visiting a clock museum, which sounds boring but it actually wasn’t, and did a day trip to Strasbourg in France where Justin experienced beef tartare. On top of all that we did a lot of autobahn driving.

Driving here in Germany has had it’s quirks but overall has been manageable. I guess it’s a good sign that we didn’t have to stop and ask for directions anywhere! Between our Deutschland highways map, close reading of signs, and occasional help from the iPad, we’ve been doing pretty well. However, two things have caused some detours and retracing of steps: 1) construction has been in the way a few times and has forced detours, but more significantly, 2) highways are not labeled with the usual north/south east/west directions we would find in Canada or the US. Instead, you have to know what towns and cities lie in the direction you want to travel, which can be problematic if you don’t know where the town is in relation to where you are and can’t find it on the map quickly enough. I learned early on to scan ahead on my map to see what towns lay in the direction we wanted to travel so I knew what to look for! Thankfully here in the Black Forest there is a series of major towns running north and south by which we have been guided. When we were based in Staufen, we spent a lot of time navigating based on direction either away from Basel, Switzerland, or towards it, as it lay south of us right on the main autobahn.
One thing that’s great about driving in Germany: everyone actually obeys the “keep right unless passing” guideline. Whether this is because everyone is actually courteous to faster cars, or because if you don’t, you have a Porsche on your tail, I’m not sure, but it is refreshing considering how many people drive slow in the passing lane back home. Another amazing thing is that people obey altered speed limit signs. Everyone can be flying along at 130km/hour but once there is a construction sign posted with an 80 or 60 km/hour sign everyone slows right down. I guess that’s why the whole autobahn system works…

Our last day in Staufen we headed to Strasbourg for the day. It is a rather charming old city but I admit that I have enjoyed our time in smaller German towns more. For one, Strasbourg didn’t feel as safe. We saw what were possibly a few pickpockets at work in big crowds, which was interesting but also made us very cautious. Secondly, the crowds! I have gotten used to small villages and towns peopled by locals and German tourists on vacation from their busy lives. It was a bit of a shock to be in extremely crowded city squares with vendors pushing trinkets and sunglasses at tourists.
All that said and done though, I might have been a bit tainted in my experience by the fact that I wasn’t feeling very well that day. I mentioned in my last post I seemed to have a bit of a cold and it hit it’s peak that exact day. I couldn’t’ stop sneezing and my head felt extremely heavy and achy. We had to take it easy and  take rests on benches and grassy areas where I would rest my head on Justin’s lap for a time. Thankfully I’m feeling much better now and ready to keep traveling!

Strasbourg did have it’s sights and charms though! First stop was at the massive cathedral whose north tower (the planned south tower was never built) rises 466ft. above the square below. It was finished in 1439 and held the title of tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874, which is very long time! It is also one of the biggest churches in the world that was built entirely in the Middle Ages.

StrasbourgStrasbourgStrasbourgInside is a huge astronomical clock, which at 18 meters tall, is also one of the largest in the world. Apparently it is extraordinarily accurate when it comes to keeping track of astrological events, indicating leap years and equinoxes and movements on planets and moons. The clock also chimes the usual hours of the day and includes figures that move and chime bells to mark the time. A little angel chimes a bell at the bottom, along with a skeleton (representing the inevitable march of time) who tolls a bell for the figure who passes in front of him at each hour. At 12:30 though, everybody gets into the action, including Jesus and the twelve apostles, and a rooster that crows a couple times. It is simultaneously humorous and solemn, as the little carved figures make their way on their path, marching through time. Definitely worth going to see.Strasbourg
Back  out in the street, we went for lunch at a recommended shop called “La Cloche à Fromage.” It was pricey but well worth the experience. Basically a restaurant front for a cheese shop nearby, everything on their menu includes local French cheese and you can order things like fondue and raqulette in an all you can eat format. Right inside the front doors is a large table filled with all their cheeses under a giant glass bell, or cloche (hence the name of the restaurant). We shared a salad and a cheese tasting platter with fifteen different cheeses in seven different cheese families. The fantastic part about this experience was that the manager/owner came out to explain all the cheeses and their histories and how they are made. It was very fascinating. The first cheeses the plate (he gave us the order in which we were to eat and said it was important to follow it!), were the local goat cheeses that are in season right now. Some of them only mature for a few weeks and thus are available in the spring when the goats are milking. These were the best cheeses on the plate by far and I’ve rarely, if ever, had cheese that good. Here is the dome inside.

Strasbourg - la cloche à fromageLa Cloche à FromageAfter lunch we meandered down the canal and visited the Alsatian Museum, dedicated to what life was like in the Alsace region from the Middle Ages up until the First World War, which was fascinatingly full of old ceramic tile stoves, furniture, clothes, and tools. From there it was more wandering along the canal, watching boats go up and down the locks, and a dinner under big oak trees in a town platz (square). Justin was brave and ordered the beef tartare, which is basically seasoned raw beef that has been cured in lemon juice. It was actually quite good but the portion was a little large, so he says he doesn’t need to have it again anytime soon.

StrasbourgStrasbourgStrasbourgStrasbourgStrasbourgStrasbourgThe next day consisted of driving through the Black Forest with a stop at the German Clock Museum in a little university town called Furtwangen. It may seem unremarkable to some but it nicely finished off our education in time and clocks that began at the Royal Observatory in London. This one was more in depth about the transitions in how time was developed and measured, from sundials, to the development of the pendulum to increase accuracy, all the way to atomic technology (with of course a big section dedicated to cuckoo clocks).

clock museumclock museumclock museumclock museumFrom the clock museum it was to Baden-Baden, which is a relatively quiet resort town built on the history of the hot springs and the Roman baths situated there, and a long history it is. The original springs of Baden-Baden were known to the Romans as early as the first century AD, and simple soldiers bathes as well as more elaborate marble baths have been discovered under the modern city. After the falling into disuse, the town was rediscovered as a spa town in the 1790s and it’s popularity grew, reaching a peak in the 1850s and 60s. At this time it was nicknamed the European summer capital, attracting high profile guests like Queen Victoria, Napoleon III, and the Russian author Fyodor Dostoyevsky, among many many others. The rich and famous came to Baden to relax, enjoy the casinos and horse racing, and of course take part in the health-curing spas and thermal baths.

All that said, we of course had to try the thermal bath experience at the old Roman-Irish bath which first opened in 1877 to pamper the well-to-do of Europe. Now it’s a steamy world of marble columns and tropical tiles painted with lily pads and herons. It also sticks to it’s traditionally nude and sober 17 step bathing ritual. Yep. Nude. As in no clothing or bathing suits. I have a hard time imagining the Victorian English taking part in this but I suppose they did.

On alternating days you can either bathe in gender separated facilities (meeting briefly in the middle in two common pools), or you can go through the whole thing with everybody all together, which is what we did. Thankfully it was a rather quiet day with only a few people silently gliding through pools or contemplating life in the steam rooms and hot air rooms. All in all, I felt pretty comfortable. Everybody kept to themselves and eyes were averted when needed, not out of embarrassment or shame, but simply a gesture of privacy and respect.

I really can’t remember the last time I have felt so clean or relaxed. The rooms work by taking you through steps to slowly heat up your body temperature, and then cool it off, with a drastic cold plunge at the end. We started with a shower and then a rest in a hot air room, followed by an even hotter one. This went directly into a steam room that is one of the last of it’s kind in the world. It is still heated solely on thermal energy and the natural hot water found in the ground there. The water runs through old circular pipes coated in mineral build up and emerging from the wall. From there it drips out, causing steam, which heats the room. It really was amazing. This was followed by a very hot steam room and then through a succession of ever cooling pools, the main one being under this dome.

baden-badenOf course, no photography was allowed so I grabbed this off the internet. Finally came a cold plunge and then immediately into a warm towel to dry. To finish, another warm towel and a bed where you got cocooned in a blanket to rest and relax some more, followed by a sunroom and a cup of tea. Ahhhh. I could do that again.

Another couple highlights of Baden-Baden are the: Lichtentaller Allee, a long beautiful path running between the little river that goes through town and a large park (which includes a free public riding rink for horses. We saw it used many times); the publicly open rose gardens, beautiful little cafes and restaurants, and of course the shopping and markets scattered throughout town. All in all, a great place to spend a day relaxing.

Baden-BadenBaden-BadenBaden-BadenBaden-BadenHere’s Justin practicing some of his kung-fu moves

Baden-BadenSorry I don’t have more pictures this time, just a lot of writing, but it’s getting late so it’s time to get to bed! We dropped the car off today at the Frankfurt Hahn airport and the morning takes us to Finland! Can’t wait. We have loved Germany but are also ready for a new country so let the traveling continue. One more leg of the journey left!

Guten nacht.

das auto


Upon leaving Munich we picked up a rental car to get around the rest of Bavaria and the Black Forest, which has been wonderful. We had reserved a car in the rental class that included Volkswagen golfs, and Justin was pretty excited about the idea of driving a good German car on the autobahn. Turns out the rental company didn’t have any golfs left, or any other VWs for that matter. Instead, we got a Korean Hyundai. Ha. Justin, somewhat pleadingly, asked the lady at the desk if there was any way of getting a VW, and she said ‘no, their lot was rather empty’ (which was true). Justin laughingly said, “do you know where we are, this is Germany!”

Poor guy. He was definitely a little disappointed at first, but it turns out our car has some good guts to it and it’s a diesel, which is great. It took a little while but he warmed up to the Hyundai in the end. It’s been quite nice to have a car to get around in, especially between these smaller towns which have limited transportation options.

hyundaiAfter Munich we based ourselves in Reutte, Austria for a couple days. From there we explored the Neuschwanstein castle region and it’s accompanying town, Füssen, which was quite adorable. We stopped for dinner there and met two lovely German ladies who were sitting next to us. They said their English wasn’t very good but in fact they did just fine, and we had a good chat about the area, about Canada, and traveling in general. I really do wish we spoke some German though. It didn’t really matter when we were in Munich because most everybody spoke some level of English, but it has been a little bit more difficult in the smaller towns, albeit not impossible. For example, we were puzzling over a menu last night, with some success. We surmised that schwein equals pork, like our English word swine. So I was able to figure out that I wanted pork tenderloin medallions with spätzle (which is like a form of pasta). I couldn’t quite figure out what the fettuccine pasta dish was that I saw on a couple tables around me as nothing in the menu resembled pasta or anything like it. Turns out the restaurant did indeed have an English menu, so after some comparison we realized that the word ‘nudeln’ meant noodles. Too funny!

I’m getting ahead of myself though. Here are some pictures of Füssen

FüssenFüssenFüssenFüssenAnother highlight of this region was the Biberwier summer luge track (“sommerrodelbahn”) in the mountains that we barreled down. At 4,250 feet it’s Austria’s longest luge and a lot of fun. The carts had good braking systems and I went down pretty slow the first time, but the second time just went for it and it was a lot of fun. Side note: keep your mouth shut or you might get some bugs in your teeth! I don’t have any pictures of the way down because we didn’t feel like having the camera along, but I took a video of Justin on his last run and grabbed this frame from it.

Biberwier lugeWe didn’t really have a chance to explore Reutte itself, as the afternoon we had free was dominated by a thunderstorm and heavy rain (which in it’s own way was pretty cool!). The thunder sounded like it was rolling down the mountains like a giant bowling alley. However, we did have a chance to hike up the Ehrenberg Castle ruins which overlook the city. Our pension (another word for a small family run hotel here in Austria/Germany) sits right underneath it and our balcony had a great view of the ruins.

Reutte, Pension WaldrastEhrenberg ruinsThe hike was not long from where we were, and we made it up in under an hour (with me lagging a little because I seem to have come down with a bit of a cold). The view from up top was spectacular, even if the wind was a little cold. The castle itself has a long history, from Roman to medieval times and Swedish invasions to modern day squatters being the reason for the roof being removed, causing the decay of time to quicken on the wall. There’s not much left but crumbling walls and room for the imagination to expand on what once was.

Ehrenberg ruinsEhrenberg ruinsEhrenberg ruinsEhrenberg ruinsEhrenberg ruinsEhrenberg ruinsBelow is our little pension from the path that goes to the ruins.

ReutteReutteI have to also mention a little place called Hotel Maximillian where we had dinner two of our three nights in Reutte. It came recommended and it sure met and exceeded our expectations (hence the double visit). Best schnitzel I’ve ever had, and Justin had some great pasta both nights. The pork in a mushroom cream sauce and spatzle was delightful if a little rich. To be honest we were both a little surprised to find such thoughtfully prepared and seasoned meals in such a little out-of-the-way town! Funny side note: The whole Austrian/German region is in love with white asparagus, and as it is in season right now, it is offered on every menu, sometimes in many different forms. We do laugh a little bit now when we see a whole page of “spargel” dishes listed in a menu.

That said, good food seems to be the norm as our current town of Staufen in the Black Forest has also offered up some tasty dinners! Yesterday, Justin did something unheard of in his world and he actually doused his spatzle in the gravy from his pork dish because it was so good. Normally he is not to big on the gravy thing but he said if all gravy tasted this good he wouldn’t be able to stop himself.

As for Staufen (Shtow-fen, rhymes with now then), it is a quaint and charming little town in the heart of wine country. Surrounded by hillsides covered in vineyards, it’s watched over by a big solitary hill with it’s own little castle ruins. We spent the last day and a half exploring, walking quiet streets, wine tasting, and just sitting in the town square and enjoying the small town life. It has been an idyllic pause in a busy month.


StaufenStaufenThe town center itself, with it’s pedestrian zone, has two channels of  crisp mountain water running down the main street, one on each side. Apparently they were originally there for fire protection but are now just enjoyed for their own sake, which can be verified by all the children who would insist on walking in it. The water is a big hit with local dogs too, who, when on walks with their owners, would always drop in to cool their paws and drink a little water.

StaufenStaufenStaufenStaufenAlong with good food, Staufen has some amazing chocolatiers and patisseries. We went to the recommended Cafe Decker that sits right next to the little river running beside the town center for an afternoon coffee and dessert, and it was out of this world. I had a meringue and raspberry concoction that was topped with lime zested, whipped mascarpone cheese and a hidden layer of chocolate. Probably one of the most perfect little things I have ever tasted. Justin had some kind of cake version of a boston cream doughnut, which he quite liked.

Cafe DeckerCafe Decker, StaufenI do have to mention our B&B here in Staufen. With a cozy room and a relaxed atmosphere, it’s a ten minute walk out of town on a little farm where they have about a dozen horses and one beautiful and playful Bernese Mountain dog. Justin was throwing his rather tattered soccer ball for him this morning and it seems we have a new friend now.

StaufenStaufenStaufenStaufenStaufenLastly, I keep leaving these pictures because they haven’t really fit into a post, but I really have to show these pictures of us trying on lederhosen. Back in Munich we went to a market that had a whole downstairs dedicated to Milka (like Cadbury, but better chocolate), and you could buy authentic lederhosen outfits. The price tag meant there was no way we would consider buying them but it was worth trying on! I just wish we could have taken these photos in some alpine meadow… 🙂

lederhosenlederhosenlederhosenI think the hat looked really good on Justin. It’s too bad a) we have no room to bring something like that back, and b) he wouldn’t have many places to wear it because it’s hard to find a hat that looks good on him! Oh well. We had a lot of giggles while doing this so it was worth the memory at least. As for Justin’s funny pose, he’s mimicking what the dancers on stage at the Hofbrahaus were doing. The boy would slap his knees and feet while the girl spun around and around him. Very funny.

With that, we are off to the French side of the Black Forest border to visit Strasbourg. Thanks for reading!

mad kings and gilded walls


Turns out Bavarian kings were a little castle happy, especially King Ludwig II, who built the world famous Neuschwanstein Castle. But I’ll back up a little bit and start in Munich where we saw the Nymphenburg Palace and the royal Residenz. I have to admit I was a little disappointed with Nymphenburg. It seems they are doing some restoration work, so much of the furniture and art had been removed, and the gardens were not really being maintained. Once upon a time though, the gardens were considered some of the greatest in Bavaria. The palace itself was a gift from the prince-elect Ferdinand Maria to his wife Henriette Adelaide in thanks for bearing him their first son, Ludwig I. Quite the gift! It served as a favorite summer retreat for the Bavarian royalty for a couple hundred years.

Nymphenburg PalaceNymphenburg palaceThe Residenz in the heart of Munich was the official royal palace of the Bavarian monarchs. It is a huge complex consisting of 130 rooms and ten courtyards, and takes over a little more than a large city block! The first buildings were put in place in 1385 and reached more or less it’s full size in 1619. It now is open for viewing by the public and also houses the treasury of the Bavarian monarchy (think crown jewels). I might have been a little gold-leaf overdosed by the time we finished.Munich ResidenzMunich ResidenzMunich ResidenzMunich ResidenzMunich ResidenzBelow is an elaborate piece of art in the treasury depicting St. George killing the dragon. Decorated with countless precious and semi-precious stones, it was originally built to hold a relic of some kind. I can’t even imagine how long this would take to make.

Munich ResidenzMunich ResidenzMunich ResidenzI have to say it all really made me think of Versaille, which in some way comes as no surprise because King Ludwig II was borderline obsessed with French culture and the splendor of the likes of King Louis XIV. In fact, he built a small palace in the countryside that just oozes with French court extravagance. Called Linderhof, it was Ludwig’s personal retreat away from all the people and duties he so disliked. Nobody is really sure if he was just extremely shy and introverted, or had some sort of mental disorder (hence the popular name “mad King Ludwig”), but it got to the point that he actually had his dining room table built on hydraulics so that the servants could set and plate his dinner. Once finished, they could raise the table up one floor to where Ludwig could eat his dinner without even the bother of having a servant around. He never had dinner guests, but once in a while would request more table settings, and servants would report that they could hear him speaking with imaginary guests such as Louis XIV and his favorite mistresses, like Mme de Pompadour.

Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed any pictures but I found this one online because you really need to see this.

Linderhof-chambreDid I say I had gold leaf nausea after the Residenz?

The outside is quite charming though, with Italian terraced gardens and a gravity fountain that went every twenty minutes or so.


Ludwig was a huge supporter and patron of the composer Richard Wagner. He loved to see Wagner’s operas, but of course disliked the crowds that came with it. Thus, he built an underground grotto complete with a lake and stalactites and stalagmites where he had operas performed for his singular viewing pleasure. It is meant to represent the Venus grotto from the first act of Wagner’s “Tannhäuser.”

LinderhofAlong with Linderhof, Ludwig had the great Neuschwanstein Castle commissioned. It was every ideal medieval castle dream come to life for Ludwig, for along with the French court, he also admired medieval romanticism and desired a castle to reflect that. Neuschwanstein embodies that romanticism as well as Ludwig’s immoderate enthusiasm for Wagner’s operas. Each room inside is themed after a different legend and corresponding opera. For example, the bedroom is covered in paintings and tapestries reflecting the tragedy of Tristan and Isolde. Again, no pictures allowed inside but it was no less impressive than any of the other castles and palaces we saw. Unfortunately, Neuschwanstein was not finished before Ludwig’s deposition as king and his mysterious death. Work stopped and as a result, many of the rooms are still not completed and therefore not open to the public.

neuschwansteinneuschwansteinThe view from the castle is incredible.

neuschwansteinneuschwansteinFrom there we walked up to Mary’s bridge, a very small and slightly frightening span across a huge gorge overlooking the castle (let’s just say the wooden boards making up the walkway were a little flexible…).

neuschwansteinneuschwansteinneuschwansteinneuschwansteinFrom there we hiked down into the gorge and along the river, which was incredible scenic.

neuschwansteinneuschwansteinAs for poor Ludwig, he never got to see his dream castle completed, and while he was never actually declared clinically insane, his younger brother was, and it was by these means that his opponents found reason to depose him as king. He was mysteriously found dead the next day with his doctor…

It is a sad end to an eccentric life, but despite being called mad king Ludwig he was much beloved by his people during his life, and even in his legacy, Bavaria was improved by means of the tourism dollars that started soon after his death to see his many castles. Not only that, but because of it’s remote location and the unlikely chance of bombing, Nazis used the unfinished rooms in the castle to store many treasures and works of art; thus, much that would have been lost in Munich was safely stored away until the end of the war.

Last but not least, Disneyland found it’s icon in sleeping beauty’s castle based on Neuschwanstein, and where would we all be without the magic of Disney;) I’m kidding, but it really is amazing what a worldwide cultural icon this eccentric king’s dream has become.



From Glockenspiels to bratwurst, and lederhosen to the local bierhaus (beer hall), Munich, and the surrounding Bavarian region, are the quintessential images we conjure when we think of Germany. I really didn’t know what to expect at all from this city, but it has been an exceptionally pleasant experience. The old center is quaint and clean, and the locals are friendly and helpful, and the food is traditional. Justin just piped up behind me and said, “Munich is our favorite German city!”. Ironic, because this is our first stop in Deutschland… but he just added that “you wouldn’t say that about a city you didn’t like…”. Fair enough.

The amazing thing about Munich is that most of it was leveled by Allied bombs in World War II. Like many of the other cities in Germany, Munich had a choice: either they could bulldoze what remained and start new (as Frankfurt did), or they could faithfully rebuild the city as it had been. The citizens of the city voted by a small margin to rebuild, and thank goodness for that because it really is one of the most charming cities I have been to. But it hasn’t been easy. Reconstruction and restoration is still underway, albiet being wrapped up, 65 years after the last bombs fell. For example, the grand chapel at the Residenz (the royal palace complex) was only finished in 2003 and is still only the brick structure, with none of the details or artwork yet finished, as shown by these before, after, and current photos.

IMG_2521IMG_2522IMG_2520In some ways it is hard to believe the buildings we now see are not the originals, but are rather reconstructions faithfully based on the originals, all possible thanks to detailed pictures taken by the Nazis before the bombs fell.

IMG_2551MunichI have to say, it doesn’t really get more Bavarian than that picture above. Ok. Lots to talk about so here we go. Our first day we arrived in the morning by train and headed straight for the BMW Welt and Museum. We had booked a tour of the museum and factory which was pretty outstanding, and I have to say, those robots they use to weld together and build the cars are unbelievable. We were strictly prohibited from taking any video or photos, but I found this video on youtube here that you can check out if you want to see more. This video is from a different German BMW plant but it’s more or less the same sort of production.

The Museum was rather informative as well. For example (and I suppose this is common knowledge amongst BMW fans), I learned that BMW actually began as a aircraft engine manufacturer! This engine broke altitude records in it’s day, going to 10,000 meters in 1919. This is particularly astounding considering the Wright brothers first history flight had only taken place 16 years prior.

BMWHowever, the Treaty of Versaille, signed weeks after that flight, prohibited Germany from making aircraft and aircraft engines, and all BMW’s aero-engine development assets were confiscated by order of the Allied Control Commission. Thus, the company turned to motorcycles as a place to develop engines, and the rest is, as they say, history. Here are some pictures from the museum.

BMWBMWBMWBMWBMWBMWBMWThis is cool. All the model types ever made by BMW

BMWAlso included in the museum were rooms themed to the ideas of design and pushing the limits of design.

BMWBMWBMWWe also had some fun at the BMW Welt, which is a showroom and distribution center for BMW all housed in a architecturally acclaimed building. Visitors are allowed to sit in the cars, browse the expansive gift shop, and watch brand new BMW owners see their ordered vehicle for the first time. It’s quite the exclusive process. Customers are brought down a set of stairs that overlook the cars that are to be picked up, and as they stand there, a car on the floor is lit up with a spot light and it starts to rotate on a turning platform. That vehicle is their shiny new beamer. A photographer is present to catch the moment and then the owners take a victory lap around the track before heading out onto the street to drive away.

We simply had some fun sitting in some of the cars, picking out the ones we would want to own in some distant dream world.

BMWBMW WeltBMW WeltBMW WeltLast fun tidbit about BMW. Many people think that the blue and white checked circle in the center of the logo represents the company’s historical background in airplane engines…

BMWIt does kind of look like the blur of a propeller. However, it is not true! The blue and white check are in fact the colors of Bavaria, and being a Bavarian company, this was simply symbolic of it’s local heritage.

Talk about Bavarian. The food here is quintessentially traditional. Who knew I would like bratwurst and pretzels so much! But really, we did actually have a good experience, although I have to say, the potato dumplings are a little strange. Rather gelatinous, if I do say so myself. Munich

MunichMunichOf course, Munich and the Bavarian region is also famous for it’s beer. Munich (or München, as it is called here), actually roots back to a meaning “by the monk’s place,” and Benedictine and Augustinian monks have been brewing beer here for centuries! The oldest brewery, Augustiner, has been around since 1328, and is one of six traditionally brewed beers in the city. All of them are very small, and have little to no exports outside of Munich, and a few of them only serve the beer in the hall attached to the brewery itself. Talk about a microbrewery! But Münchners are very proud of their traditions and of their reinheitsgebot, a purity law set in place in 1516 regulating the ingredients used in the making of beer. Any table you sit down at in the city will have cardboard coasters with the logo of the reinheitsgebot on it. How do I know all this you ask? We took a beer and brewery tour around town led by a Munich walking tour group, which was informative and fun. It culminated at a stop at the Hofbräuhaus am Platzl. It is the world’s most famous beer hall, founded in 1589 by the duke of Bavaria. It was a royal brewery at the time and is now state owned. The restaurant and building now associated with the brew were built much more recently, with a big festival hall on the top floor. Here is where we finished our tour  and enjoyed oompah music complete with a dancing couple in lederhosen and tradition dress, along with a whip demonstration to music. Essentially he cracked the whip in time to the music, which is impressive, but also pretty hilarious.

HofbräuhausHofbräuhausHofbräuhausHofbräuhausI don’t have a good way of loading the video that I took, but I found one here if you are interested. The fact that this is a form of entertainment is so funny to me…

And no, those are not actually our beers in the picture below, but I felt so much like Pippin when he finds out that the beer comes in pints at the Prancing Pony in the Lord of the Rings that we had to have a picture. Those mugs hold a full liter of beer and just made me feel very small. Instead we split a half liter between the two of us, which was much better.

HofbräuhausHofbräuhausI will say though that the beer is rather good, very light and not very bitter or hoppy. Justin bought two bottles of Augustiner to take home with him and enjoy some hot day in the garden this summer.

Here are just a few other pictures of the city and sights we saw.

MunichMunichMunichMunichMunichMunichHere’s an interesting picture I would like to show you. The new town hall with a Nazi banner being flown during the 1930s. Below you will see it today.

munichMunichMunich really was the cradle of the Hitler’s Nazi Party. They were concentrated here before their rise to power and at one time, Hitler was imprisoned here for attempting to overthrow the republic. Years later the Nazi party would call it the Capitol of the Movement, in reference back to the early days. Hitler held many rallies and marches in the city, this one being in the Konigsplatz, seen below.

muenchen_koenigsplatz_naziaufmarsch100~_v-image512_-6a0b0d9618fb94fd9ee05a84a1099a13ec9d3321MunichIt is hard to imagine that such a quiet and peaceful city once housed such destruction and withstood such attacks. I stood in this platz in particular trying to imagine what it would have been like to see storm troopers marching in high step and saluting their leader as they passed. It seemed terrifying and I was glad for the warm evening sun and for Justin’s hand holding mine. I might have given it a bit of a squeeze of reassurance.

I’ll leave the palaces we saw for another post, but I will mention our visit to Dachau. It was tough to see and read all the information about the completely abhorrent things that were done in that place of terror, and I can’t say I want to mention most of them. We were both very quiet for a time after we left, which, I suppose, is what a horror like the Nazi concentration camp system should instill in us all. Reflection on how could this have happened, and may it never be again. Dachau was the first concentration camp set up by the Nazis in 1933, originally to house political prisoners and opponents to the Nationalist Party. It was the longest run camp (12 years) and was the training ground and example for all the other camps through occupied territories. By the end of the war this tiny place meant to hold only 5,000 prisoners was crammed with some 30,000 people, many of whom were sick and weak, and the American army who liberated it were aghast at what they saw. We saw many pictures and read much information on what led to the rise of Hitler and the Third Reich, and what life in the camp was like. I don’t even want to think of most of it but simply put it was hard labor with little food and rest and warmth, with beatings and extreme punishment for arbitrary accusations of resisting the SS, and constant fear of what might come next. The ‘games’ and tricks the SS guards came up with to instill fear in those who were encamped there were hideous, and I can’t imagine anyone even treating an animal with such brutality. Even worse were the medical experiments carried out on prisoners to test levels of extremes, such as what would happen in the case of low pressure for air force pilots, and how far is too far to survive in crashes into cold Atlantic waters. I don’t think I can say much more, but here are a couple pictures of the main camp site. There is not much left. The main barracks have been torn down and now only the rows of foundation footprints mark the places where the buildings stood, like long lines of graves. It is mostly a large gravel field with a row on trees like sentries marking the path to a memorial at the far end of the complex. Even in the bright summer sun it is a ghostly place.

DachauDachauDachauMay it always be remembered.