Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Munich, Germany: Oktoberfest Wisdom - September 2015

Most events centered around beer don't require a whole lot of thought or planning, but for the world-renowned drinking festival in Germany each year, a bit of wisdom can go a long way. For instance did you know that the majority of Oktoberfest actually takes place in September? Or that while Munich hosts the largest party each year, Oktoberfest is celebrated in nearly every German city and many places outside of the country?

Some other useful tips we thought we'd share:

Traditional Attire. While it certainly isn't mandatory, dressing up in traditional German outfits for the festivities can enhance your experience. For men that means lederhosen which are short or knee-length leather pants most often accompanied with knee-high socks, suspenders, checkered, button-up shirt, woolen sweater or overcoat, and most always a wool hat. For women, the apparel of choice is a dirndl which is comprised of a full skirt with bodice, a white blouse and an apron. You can easily find these accessories at department stores and shops throughout Germany, but be aware that authentic high-quality traditional German outfits can set you back a pretty penny - upwards of 400-600 Euro. A more sensible option is to seek out clothing at second-hand stores or from shops catering to tourists. Insider tip: it is also possible to rent your Oktoberfest apparel in many of the larger cities in Germany.

Admission Fees. In Munich as with many other cities in Germany, there are no entrance fees into the festival. Once within the arches of the festival, beer tents and vendor carts line the walkways. Munich's Oktoberfest is the world's largest fair attracting nearly 6 million visitors annually.

Beer. Surprisingly, you can't grab a brew and walk through Munich's festival. Beer is best drunk in tents and gardens. According to the Munich Oktoberfest website, at this year's festival 7.7 million liters of beer were consumed, and tent security confiscated beer mugs from 110,000 drunken patrons attempting to stumble home with a souvenir. Depending on the tent, you may also need to be seated at a table or have ordered food to imbibe. Insider tip: stealing glass beer mugs from the beer tents is a no-no. If caught, your fate is in the hands of security and you very well may end up in a German jail.

Food. The number of chickens, ducks and bratwurst consumed during Oktoberfest is astonishing. In addition to the vendor carts parked along the walkways hawking pretzels, sweets and hand-held snacks, most beer tents have a full menu. Some tents require a food order to be seated and fries or dessert won't suffice. 

Tent Reservations. If you know Oktoberfest will be on your party card for the year ahead, reservations are the best way to go. Some popular tents max out on reservations in December for the year following. Booking with a tour company may also get you a seat at the table in choice party tents. Insider tip: while it's permitted and highly encouraged to dance on the bench seats of most tents, dancing on the tables is a sure-fire way to get a formal escort out.

Restrooms. Several tents have their own restrooms and there are community restrooms in several locations. However, beware that the lines can be painfully long. Plan accordingly. Insider tip: check out the lost and found area of the police station; clean indoor restrooms are right around the corner.

That all being said, with its music, dancing, food, carnival rides ... and of course, the beer, Oktoberfest is one festival not to miss. Mark your calendars for Oktoberfest 2016 which will take place Saturday, September 17 through Sunday, October 2.

Munich, Germany: The Mysterious Life (and Death) of a Bavarian King - September 2015

King Ludwig II of Bavaria was a handsome man with dark brown hair and smoldering brown eyes. He stood at 6' 3'' and had a deep voice that would cause chill bumps to dance up your spine.

He took to the throne at the young age of 18 ruling over the Bavarian region of Germany. The King was not much for politics or social functions, and so let his ministers tend to government affairs in Munich while he stayed in the countryside.

Captivated with art, music and architecture, the King frequently visited France in search of inspiration. When he wasn't immersed in the French culture, he would socialize with the local Bavarian farmers and laborers and bring them gifts from his travels. He became known as the Fantasy King and was celebrated for his eccentricity.

As a young man, one of the King's first projects was building his very own castle on a plot of land nearby his family home. Neuschwanstein Castle is a Romanesque Revival palace perched grandly on the hillside above the village of Hohenschwangau. The King began building this castle in 1869 as a tribute to the German composer Richard Wagner. Neuschwanstein would later be the inspiration for Disneyland's sleeping beauty castle.

In addition to Neuschwanstein, the King spent his royal funds on the creation of two other lavish palaces Linderhof and Herrenchiemsee. As the years passed, the King devoted more and more of his time to his projects. The reclusive King would seldom leave the castles and his peculiar behavior was beginning to trouble his ministers. Advisers encouraged him to marry, and while he entered into a long engagement with his cousin, Duchess Sophie Charlotte, the two never wed. He slept all day and listened to music all night. Rumors swirled of the King using state monies to fund his palaces. He failed to attend high-profile government events and cancelled important appointments.

Growing increasing intolerant of the King's unpredictable behavior, the ministers commissioned a group of doctors to assess His Majesty's mental state. Never having met the King, the collection of doctors including one Dr. Gudden, declared the King insane.

Soon after the formal declaration, a number of the King's privileges and responsibilities were redistributed. Fearing for his life, the King's friends urged him to flee Germany.

At 40 years old, the mysterious and intriguing life of King Ludwig II was cut short. On June 13, 1886 at 6:30 p.m., following a heated dinner with several government officials and doctors at his castle, the King sought out on a walk near Lake Starnberg with Dr. Gudden. Hours later when the two hadn't returned, a search ensued. At 10:30 p.m. the bodies of both men were found in shallow waters. The King's watch had stopped at precisely 6:54 p.m. The coroner's report officially declared the King's death a suicide but no water was found in his lungs.

To this day, King Ludwig II is remembered as one of the most popular kings in all of Germany and referred to by those in Bavaria as "Unser Kini" or "Our Cherished King." Ironically his three unfinished castles are some of the most popular tourist attractions in Germany yielding substantial profits for the Government of Bavaria.

Salzburg, Austria: Bread Crumbs from a Fairy Tale - September 2015

Tucked into the Northern Alps along the Salzach River is the picturesque city of Salzburg, Austria. Best known as the birthplace of 18th-century composer Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and the backdrop for the classic film and musical "The Sound of Music," Salzburg is a fairy tale setting come to life.

Just a stone's throw from Germany, there are several things to see and do in this vibrant medieval city:
  • The Birthplace & Residence of Mozart: The building where the composer was born and raised now serves as a museum documenting his life and accomplishments.
  • Hohensalzburg Castle: Dating back to 1077, this castle is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.
  • "The Sound of Music" Tour: Highlights include various filming locations from the 1965 classic, including Mirabell Gardens, Leopoldskron Castle, Hellbrunn Castle, Nonnberg Abbey, St. Gilgen and Lake Wolfgang, and Wedding Church Mondsee.
  • Mirabell Palace: UNESCO World Heritage Site dating back to 1730; historical building with geometrically-arranged flower gardens and mythology-themed statues.
  • Schloss Leopoldskron: Palace built in 1736 which served as the main exterior filming area for "The Sound of Music."
  • Hangar-7: Owned by the Red Bull company, a collection of historic airplanes, helicopters and Formula One racing cars.
Greater Salzburg Area
  • Salt Mines: Tour 450-year-old mines below Obersalzberg mountainside complex by descending into captivating grottos.
  • Salzburger Freilichtmuseum Großgmain: An open-air museum containing old farmhouses from all over the state assembled in an historic setting.
  • Schloss Klessheim: Palace and casino formerly frequented by Adolf Hitler which also served as the summer residence of the Archbishops of Salzburg.
  • Eagle's Nest or Kehlsteinhaus: Hitler's mountain retreat sitting at 1,834 m (6,017 ft), which was gifted to him on his 50th birthday by the Nazi Party.

Sunday, October 18, 2015

Imatra, Finland: Southern Boy Brings Spice to the Nordic - October 2015

Guest Blogger: James Strange
Southern Cuisine Chef, Connoisseur and Wild Game Hunter

You can take a boy out of the south, but you can't take the south out of the boy. 

The first rule of adaption into a new country or culture is to figure out what to eat. Needless to say, there is not a whole lot of spicy food on the 61st parallel. Living in a hotel for two months waiting for my new apartment to become available, I had the pleasure of ordering every menu item from every restaurant in the small town of Imatra, Finland. I must say I did find a few new favorite dishes like borsht soup and grilled reindeer, but I was unable to contain my excitement when I received word that I could move into my furnished apartment.

The first day, I had two objectives: to unpack and to cook my own food. Unpacking actually went quickly. With an air shipment allowance of only 500 pounds, there wasn’t much to unpack, especially since I prioritized my turkey fryer and crawfish boiling pot along with the iron burner as a quarter of my allotted weight.

My next chore would be to get groceries. I had been traveling back and forth to Finland now for four months and the extent of my grocery store trips were to occasionally stop in to pick up some chips and soda. Armed with my empty shopping cart that I procured in exchange for a one Euro coin deposit, I began to transverse the aisles. I realized that this was not going to be an easy task. Nothing was in English! Yeah, I knew I was buying milk because it had a picture of a cow on the carton, but what I didn’t know was if I was buying whole milk, skim milk, butter milk or cream. Fortunately I pulled out my phone and began typing eighteen-character words into Google translate.

- Rasvaton Maito: Fat-free milk
- Valkosipulijauhe: Garlic powder
- Vehnajauho Vetemjol: Wheat flour
- Kananpojan: Chicken breast
Leppasavu Kenkki: Smoked sausage
- Puuroriisi: Rice

Two hours and 150 Euros later, I had only amassed a handful of supplies. Regardless, I came back to my new digs and made my first home cooked meal ... gumbo.

I realized that there were "southern" necessities that I was not going to be able to buy in Finland. With a trip back to the States already planned, I began to make my home leave shopping list. Number one on the list: Tony Chacheres Creole Seasoning. It was soon apparent that the list I was putting together would require its own suitcase and some creative packing to get through customs. 

My trip back to the U.S. was a quick one: five days in Memphis, Tennessee and the weekend at my parents' home in Texas before flying back to Finland. Saturday morning I tasked my mom with copying her recipe book while I went on my much-anticipated shopping spree. First stop was to purchase a suitable container for my precious cargo and then it was off to the local supermarket to load up on supplies. My shopping buggy was full of Tony’s, Italian bread crumbs, Prego tomato sauce, dried kidney beans, fish fry meal, crawfish boil and every spice seasoning I could get my hands on. 

With Delta Airline’s fifty-pound checked bag weight limit, I packed, weighed, repacked, and weighed again until I got the optimum mix of supplies destined for Imatra. I anxiously waited at the Helsinki airport baggage carousal. Did it all make it? Had customs removed some of my precious cargo? Would I open the suitcase to find my tomato sauce, beans and seasonings damaged and all combined into a messy stew? To my relief, all of my goods made the transatlantic flight safe and sound.

Armed with the “goods” from home and my mom’s favorite recipes, we have been able to bring some southern U.S. cuisine to the frigid southern part of Finland. Pictured here are a few of my favorites: red beans and rice, shrimp creole, gumbo, jambalaya and jalapeno duck wraps. It has been a pleasure to cook for our Finnish and American friends and enjoy some tastes from home. We are still sampling Finnish food and trying new things, but it's nice to look forward to hot cornbread and a big pot of red beans and rice on a cold winter's night.

They say “home is where your stuff is," and it’s nice to finally have all my “stuff” here.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Helsinki, Finland: Traveling Visa-Free to Russia - September 2015

Infiltrating the borders of Mother Russia is no easy task. For travelers from most any outside country, a visit to Russia requires a visa. In order to obtain a tourist tourist visa one must undergo the arduous process of applying for the necessary papers and more often than not, all details of your visit must be planned, documented and verified well in advance.

While it is well-known that Russia may be one of the most difficult countries to visit, especially for Americans, it is possible to step foot on Russian soil without a visa. Since May 2009 cruise ship passengers have been permitted to stay in Russia visa-free for up to 72 hours. Visitors may arrive into Russia through the ports of Anadyr, Kaliningrad, Korsakov, Novorossiysk, Sevastopol, Sochi, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Vyborg without obtaining a visa.

St. Peter Line offers affordable ferry cruises to St. Petersburg from Helsinki, Finland, Stockholm, Sweden and Tallinn, Estonia. While a valid passport is required, St. Peter Line offers two options on the Princess Maria for exploring Russia from Finland:
  • Option 1: 24 Hour Pass. Depart Helsinki at 6 p.m., sleep aboard the ferry and arrive into the port of St. Petersburg at 9:30 a.m. For an additional 25 Euro, take advantage of the ferry's shuttle service to be transported to three center stops in the city and explore on your own. The ferry departs at 7 p.m. After a second overnight on the ferry, you arrive back at the port of Helsinki at 8 a.m.
  • Option 2: 72 Hour Pass. If you would like to enjoy more time in Russia, there is an alternate option that has you arriving and departing at the same times to the port of St. Petersburg but grants you the flexibility to stay up to two nights at a hotel in St. Petersburg.
St. Peter Line also runs the Princess Anastasia for a multi-country journey to Stockholm, Tallinn and St. Petersburg from the port of Helsinki. The cruise liners used by St. Peter Line have a range of ensuite cabins for any budget as well as a variety of restaurants and bars, an on-board casino, cinema, sauna and duty-free store.

Imatra, Finland: Northern Lights - October 2015

Every once in a while, you may just look out your window and up at the sky and see something truly awe-inspiring.

Last week in Imatra, Finland, the sky was illuminated as the Northern Lights danced above us. The Northern Lights, also referred to as Aurora Borealis, is a natural light display found commonly in high latitude areas near the Arctic region. A similar phenomenon can be seen around the Antarctic regions and is referred to as the Southern Lights or Aurora Australis.

While it is extremely rare to see the Northern Lights from where we live, it is more common farther north. The phenomenon is a result of a solar wind disruption in the magnetosphere causing particle ionization to emit light. While the lights we observed last week were predominantly green with traces of purple, light bands and clouds can also illuminate the skies with yellows, blues and pinks.

Interesting Facts About Auroras:
  • The most active periods to see the Northern Lights in Finland are in the months of October and March.
  • Most auroras form in the auroral zone in a latitude between 10° and 20° from the geomagnetic poles.
  • Auroras can be seen outside of the zone when geomagnetic storms cause the light bands to widen.
  • Galileo named the lights in 1619 after the Roman goddess of the dawn, "Aurora," and the Greek term for the north wind, "Boreas."
  • Active auroras change shape frequently and appear to dance in the night's sky.
  • Periodically, close to the poles, when intense solar activity occurs, auroras can glow a crimson red and may be mistaken for the setting sun.
  • The Northern Lights are regularly visible in Iceland from September through April depending on weather conditions.
  • The aurora phenomenon occurs on other planets and has been observed on Jupiter, Neptune, Uranus and Saturn.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

Port-au-Prince, Haiti: Flashback - January 2010

Guest Blogger: Jennifer Verprauskus
Global Citizen, Volunteer Relief Worker & Entrepreneur

In 2010 a catastrophic 7.0 magnitude earthquake rocked the island-nation of Haiti. With its epicenter about 16 miles west of the capital of Port-au-Prince, the earthquake which occurred at 4:53 p.m. local time on Tuesday, January 12th, was to this day one of the most devastating natural disasters on Earth. By January 24th at least 52 aftershocks measuring 4.5 or greater had been recorded and most of the country was displaced from their housing. Eventual death toll estimates are over 230,000.

Like many people throughout the world, I remember time standing still that day. I had been living in the Dominican Republic a month prior to the disaster and had spent time doing aid work in Haiti as well. Frightening thoughts of the pain and suffering of people who I had worked with ran through my mind. I knew I needed to be of help to these people somehow or in some way. I contacted the organization I worked with in the Dominican Republic and they were organizing volunteers to help with the crisis. A few weeks later I was with them crossing the Dominican Republic border to the grief-stricken country that lacked sufficient infrastructure and amenities even before the quake.

Our mission took place in Fond Parisien located in the southeastern region of Haiti. While not in the worst hit area, where at the time the U.S. government and large NGO's were working, the people in the southeastern region were cut off from food and other supplies. Many were severely injured people fleeing the epicenter or locals who had damaged homes, little food or safe drinking water. When we approached the town, several temporary housing units, large tents, had been set up and make-shift hospitals were everywhere. These refugee camps were housing sick, homeless and grieving people from all over Haiti and offered no permanent solution.

Of all of the emotion I had felt in my life, nothing could compare to what I was feeling at that time. It was a mix of hopelessness, sadness and frustration, but more importantly a great sense of amazement. I had never seen so many people, from all over the world, come together for such a humble cause. In the main hospital, an old school building that was quickly converted, there were teams from Spain, France, Chile and the United States. Despite the language barrier, everyone was communicating and things were running like a well-oiled machine. Surgeons were operating in small rooms, pharmacies popped up out of communal areas, and recovery rooms converted from classrooms were filled. I'm not sure how I ended up as part of the transportation team but it happened quickly. Myself and about 5 other volunteers jumped in loading the injured on stretcher boards and into the beds of pickup trucks to take people back and forth to the operating rooms. We moved people to and from the recovery area from morning until night. Doctors were everywhere treating people, and volunteers helped in any way that was needed. Leaving the hospital one evening I encountered about a dozen teenage boys playing soccer on a dirt road. I asked if I could play, and assuming I was no threat, they let me in the game. They couldn't believe a girl could play soccer like I did. My biggest opponent was a one-armed boy about my height. He kept slide tackling me, and I let him do it every time.

When I first arrived my frustration and helplessness seemed to be coming from feelings of inadequacy. I wished that I had studied medicine, was proficient in Creole or understood more about emergency relief work. As the days passed and I connected with the Haitians who I had met along the way, I realized that the camp had many doctors and nurses, many translators and people who knew how to manage disaster relief. I realized that although my strengths were different, they were valued and needed. I've never felt as part of a whole as I did during that time. The people who devote their lives to causes like these are truly amazing and I will forever be inspired.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Helsinki, Finland: Giant Peeing Man Terrorizes City - September 2015

Well, "terrorizes" is a bit extreme, but there is in fact a giant peeing man statue which is making the conservative residents of Helsinki quite uncomfortable. And by the looks of it, the man is a bit embarrassed, too.

The capital city of Finland is home to a host of charming attractions. From centuries-old churches to a port lined with open-air markets, Helsinki is a picturesque city that should top your list when visiting Northern Europe, but this particular attraction just may cause you to raise a questioning eyebrow. Currently situated near the west harbor where ferry boats and cruise ships dock, is a 8.5 meter (nearly 30 foot) statue of a man openly urinating onto the street.

Firmly planted alongside the roadway near restaurants and shops, the statue is a fully-functioning fountain spouting unknown quantities of water each day onto the ground and unknowing passersby. Formerly residing in other parts of the city and even briefly visiting neighboring Sweden, it's debatable whether the statue is a large baby or an elderly man attracting all of the attention.

Finnish artist Tommi Toija is to thank for this unique sculpture formally named "Bad Bad Boy." Toija has explained, "For me, it's just a guy peeing in the river, no more, no less. Some might see it as a funny thing, others might be provoked." Whatever your reaction, it is certainly worth a look.

Of note: public urination is NOT an arrestable offense in the country of Finland.

Albufeira/Lisbon, Portugal: Flashback - September 2011

Guest Blogger: Lindsey Kaltenbacher
Beach Enthusiast, Cocktail Connoisseur & All-Around Awesome Chick 

Did you know that 50% of the world's cork supply comes from Portugal? Yup, it's the country's number one export.

With free-flowing wine beckoning us, four years ago, my bestie and I embarked on a week-long exploration of new territory (to us, at least!) … Portugal. After quizzing my European colleagues, I found that Portugal beaches were a hot spot for many Northern European travelers. Convening on our layover in Philadelphia, Ms. Leupo and I boarded our direct flight to Lisbon.

Despite a rough flight with inclement weather - I’ll spare you the gory details - we powered through the Lisbon airport to the bus station to catch a ride to the beach town of Albufeira in the Algarve region. The Algarve is the southernmost region of mainland Portugal and covers an area of about 5,000 kilometers. 

After a long, hot and rather smelly bus ride, we checked into our beachside resort and enjoyed its beautiful pool. With typical September weather around 80°F, sunshine and a breeze, we set out to trek the coast. Beautiful (and packed) beaches with bronze bodies rolled in the distance. The hills made it look like you could see for miles. After walking a few minutes, we found the “Old Town” Albufiera. Lined with bars, restaurants and vendors, we knew we were in the right place as we observed many groups of tourists from the U.K. Old Town Albufeira is a happening spot, due to its coastal location and several miles of pedestrian walkways. While in the south, we also spent a day in the picturesque beach town of Lagos.

After some much-needed rest and relaxation by the ocean, we traveled by bus back to the capital, and largest city, of Lisbon. Our new home base, we set out to see what Lisbon had in store. A day bus trip took us over the hilly, cobblestone streets of downtown and to the sites of the:
  • Monument of the Discoveries (Padrão dos Descobrimentos) – A 1939 testimonial to the Discovery Ages, built by Portuguese architect José Ângelo Cottinelli Telmo.
  • Belem Tower (a.k.a. Tower of St. Vincent) – Built in the early 16th century, this tower, located on the Tagus River, played a significant role during the Portuguese discovery period.
  • Jerónimos Monastery – Just down the road from the Belem Tower, the monks of the monastery provided assistance to the seafarers during the Discovery Ages.
We also day-tripped to the coast again to see the beautiful cliffs and towering cross of Cabo da Roca - the western most point on mainland Europe after visiting the town of Sinta. Guarded by the Castle of the Moors on an overlooking hilltop, Sinta is a UNESCO World Heritage Site containing several unique attractions including a grand palace often used as a summer home for Portuguese royalty.

Our week in Portugal was the perfect blend of beach, cocktails and exploration. It's hard to believe the trip was four years ago, I'd say it's about time to start planning our next adventure!

Valencia, Spain: Our Search for the Holy Chalice - August 2015

Our search for the holy chalice ... is over. We found it. While I didn't actually know we were looking, we found the cup from which Jesus allegedly drank during the last supper in a magnificent cathedral in Valencia, Spain.

According to the Bible, during the Last Supper, "He took a cup and when He had given thanks He gave it to them saying 'drink this, all of you; for this is My blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. I tell you, I shall not drink again of the fruit of the vine until I drink it new with you in My Father's Kingdom.'"

Legend has it the Christian relic was passed from Saint Peter to a succession of Popes until 258 A.D. At that time, to avoid confiscation by the Romans, the holy chalice was given to a Spanish solider who helped it find a home in the Cathedral of Valencia.

The dark red agate cup with curved handles is housed in its own chapel within the cathedral and is paid homage to daily by those on pilgrimage.

While the holy chalice isn't said to have the supernatural powers like those of the holy grail, the holy lance and the true cross, it is revered my many. Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI have both held mass at the Cathedral of Valencia celebrating the holy chalice and its rich place in Christian history.