Thursday, December 31, 2009

Dreaming of a white Christmas Market in Cologne

Our short trip to Germany two weeks ago to visit the country’s popular tourist attraction during the holiday season, the Christmas Markets (in Keulen), was probably the ultimate of all Christmas Markets I have ever seen and visited. It was dreamlike, the heavens snowed and everything was covered in immaculate white!
It was a bizarre yet enjoyable kind of experience really, starting with the mad snowfall the night before and waking up to ten centimeters of snow on the ground the next day. Thick snow was jacketing the highways, we saw cars and trucks slipping while some have stalled, others were stuck mercilessly on the shoulder. Ugh, the horrible traffic, the long hours spent inside the car driving at a slow sixty kilometers per hour on the no-speed limit autobahns of Germany. What else? Oh, we got lost too. We debated if K-Centrum stands for Koln Centrum or something else until it was too late to maneuver the vehicle to the K-Centrum exit lane which resulted to us missing the ‘right exit’, bummer, followed by a heated discussion and pouring over maps of South Germany, lol—enough of my Benelux navigator, I am getting a European-wide road navigator and a map of North Germany. Soon.

Booth stands in Heumarkt selling Christmas trinkets and food and drinks, one of the few fotos I took while there was still daylight.

Warm gluhwein (mulled wine) and chocomelk met slagroom (chocomilk with whipped cream). Foto on the right are huge bretzels.

There was a little carnival with a ferris wheel and skating rink in the Heumarkt. Middle foto, an outside bar with barrels as tables, and foto on the far right are gingerbread Christmas cookies decorated in coloured icing, a typical German thing... remember Hansel and Gretel of the Grimm Brothers tales?

Well we finally got to Cologne and we were starving. MadamE’s kids could have gobbled anything on sight when we stepped into the first Christmas Market stalls in Heumarkt. Quickly we treated ourselves with Deutsche fare and gluhwein while the kids had chocomelk. Dutchman regretted not taking chocomelk and swore next time he will stay away from gluhwein, or anything wine for that matter.

This is why I love bringing Dutchman to gatherings where alcohol is the main supply. He is and will always be my BOB. Bob is an acronym that means: Bewuste Onbeschonken Bestuurder, in other words, a driver without a trace of alcohol in his or her system. The police here in the Netherlands are very fond of taking spot controls on the roads (just before exiting to the highways) which usually happens during the whole month of December (hear: Christmas parties) and during Fridays all throughout the year when people go to bars for some borrel after work.

The imposing Dom Kolner in the background of the Christmas Markets by the cathedral's grounds. It was quite busy there as you can see.

We came upon this nativity stall made of bronze, on the foto are the three kings (or three magis, three wise men) - Did you know that you can find the relics of the three kings in the Dom cathedral? That's us taking a souvenir foto by the nativity stall. Mr. MadamE did not join us but Dutchman did.

One of the most famous cathedrals in the world, the gothic Dom Kolner (Cologne Cathedral), a UNESCO world heritage.

The front grounds of the Dom Cathedral, love the snow covered grounds, and then me and MadamE in the cafe restaurant having our tea and coffee. I look and feel a bit puffed up here--that's what winter does to me. I've since cut my hair, the other day, its now a bit shorter.

Here is a one-minute video that Dutchman took of the busy Christmas Market by the Dom Cathedral grounds. The lighted beautiful gezellig stalls, the snow covered grounds and the bells ringing in the background perfected the Christmas Market ambiance!

Anyway, we trolled the Christmas Markets a bit, checking out many stands and their interesting-exotic wares and goodies and buying some stuff here and there. Took a lot of pictures obviously and visited the Dom Kolner. There was a Eucharist service going on and two sacristans in white gowns with matching red sashes were strictly guarding the entrance where the pew starts. It looks like tourists are not invited for the Eucharistic celebration unless you can manage to convince them you are there to attend mass and not to take pictures.

Later, as expected the inevitable happened. Dutchman and MadamE’s daughters were having a snowball fight, lol. Ach children... unfortunately, this big kid of mine will stay as a kid forever. With the snowball fight and the hours spent strolling, we had enough of the bitter cold so we found a nice café restaurant and warmed ourselves with a nice cup of tea and coffee. Unlike in the Netherlands, in Germany and I noticed this also in most countries, they don’t serve cookies with your coffee and tea. Far be it to be served a warm drink in the Netherlands without a cookie! I am not joking.

We would have stayed longer in Cologne had the weather cooperated. The snow was lovely and magical but unfortunately it was the day when the heavens poured snow on Europe like a bag of flour into a bowl.

Time was running late and it was past 7PM so we decided to take our dinner. An enriching way of experiencing the Christmas Markets in Germany is eating out from the food stalls offering delicious German traditional fares and standing in the cold, with the snow falling down while huddled-knuckles freezing-together and munching on food like hundreds of Christmas Markets visitors do. Would have been nicer if there was a bonfire to complete the whole scene. We had those gigantic grilled meat on a stick for dinner. I am not a carnivore but I swear this one was yummy.

More fotos of the Christmas Markets in Cologne, on the left is a stage with table poles decorated with Christmas decors and its beer sponsor logo. Looks like there will be a play or music later that evening. On the right foto is a shop selling Christmas decors.

The grill house grilling meats on jumbo barbecue sticks. The beef was yummy. Next foto are bretzels again coated with chocoloate, cinnamon and almond nuts.

Dreamlike hazy images of Cologne's Christmas Markets.... I like these shots even though they are blurry.

More fotos here: Cologne Christmas Markets - Cologne, Germany

Then, we are huiswaarts...

The snow was picking up so we were glad we are back safe inside the car but after half an hour of driving we realized we were on a different highway moving towards a different town. Heated discussion ensued, of course, ugh what else and again pouring over not relevant maps my eyes glazed to no avail. We tanked halfway and a bright idea flashed before me—I sneaked over to the tank station shop and found the shelves and flipped through the maps on sale, hehe. So it looks like there is an exit farther down the highway going to Oberhausen. Wat een opluchting!

Indeed there was an exit. Seeing Oberhausen on the traffic board calm us all down, we can now sit tight with our seat belts on and enjoy the loooong ride back to the Netherlands on the snow clogged highways amidst the long-drawn-out traffic. Oberhausen is the biggest German city near the Dutch border nearby Arnhem (the fastest route to Utrecht).

Dutch father said we are crazy to have braved the drive to Germany and back that Sunday... but it was an adventure we will never forget and regret =)


Saturday, December 26, 2009

Prettige Kerstdagen

Research says, and a discussion during our Christmas dinner, that the average Dutch gain 5 kilos over the Christmas holidays. But I guess it doesn't really matter to them because they are tall and lean anyway, they lose the kilos easily when they are back on the saddle biking. I know, life is sometimes unfair.

We had our Christmas dinner at the Dutch sister’s during the first day of Christmas (25th of December), and due to the rush I forgot to take fotos of the starters I made.

On the second day of Christmas (26th of December), we went to the home boulevard in Utrecht. Lots of shops with 50% korting and there’s this new store that recently opened with really cool furniture and home accessories. I was so tempted to buy a couple of items I fancied—I am refurnishing my home with silver and black, but I’m trying to sleep over my material lust for a night or two to make sure I really, really want the items I spotted. They’re not cheap. OK, fair enough.

When working fulltime, and in Amsterdam which means I travel more than two hours everyday, I rarely have the opportunity to window shop because shops here, and I mean those boutique specialty shops I like, close early, like 5PM or latest 6PM when I am just finishing work. No chance really. On the other hand I just realized that the shop schedules have saved my bank account, lol. So I'm not complaining. Then on Saturdays when I have the time I am dead tired and shopping is the last thing on my mind, but thank god for the holidays. Maybe I come back to the home boulevard on Monday =)


Thursday, December 24, 2009

Utrecht during a winter evening

Finally on holiday but will be back at work next week Tuesday and Wednesday, then I am on my New Years holiday, after which I am flying to the Caribbean, a respite for me from this cold and gloomy weather. It’s been a winter wonderland here in the Netherlands and I have been meaning to bring my camera to work in the last few days to take fotos of the snow covered highways and streets but never got to it. Ach, I am getting old, I always forget things.

Dutchman and I went out for dinner in the center tonight and I made sure I brought my camera! Here’s some fotos below of Utrecht on a winter evening:

Left foto is under the Dom's arch. In the middle foto are pretty Dutch buildings and the Dom at the back. You can also see that the grounds (this is actually a stone bridge called Maartensbrug) are covered in snow. On the right is Zadelstraat.

Fotos above of Utrecht Oudegracht along the Lijnmarkt taken from Maartensbrug, this is near the Dom and Vismarkt. Oudegracht is the most popular canal in Utrecht stretching to about two kilometers long. On the left is another street decorated with Christmas lights. We saw trucks sprinkling the roads with salt tonight (to keep the roads snow and slippery free).

I also did my much needed 1-hour run today. It wasn’t really easy running on snow covered ground, not only it is slippery I have to share my path with bikers and scooters. The afternoon was quite manic too. We spent rushing to and fro shops as most of them are closing early at 5PM. Anyway, this shop where I usually buy my gourmet rolls and buns literally closed before my nose, the shop worker barricaded the doors and smiled sarcastically—‘Wij zijn gesloten mevrouw’ (we are closed ma’am). I didn’t smile back, instead I loosely said—SHIT, lol. Upon hearing this, the shop worker smiled even more sarcastically. Seriously, I hate it when this happens, especially during the holidays. I want my gourmet bread! ARGHHHHH

Tomorrow will be our Christmas dinner with the Dutch family at the sister-in-laws’. I’m doing the voorgerecht (starters), shrimps with rucola and courgette, egg potato tart for the vegans and I’m making Caprese salad too, which means it is going to be another busy day.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Braving the snow clogged highways to Germany and back

Against all the ANWB and KNMI weather advice (including the Dutch father who frantically called the Dutchman) NOT to travel by car, we hit the highways to Germany last Sunday! The whole journey back and forth was an experience in itself, perhaps much more impressive than the Christmas Markets in Cologne, lol.

Still in the Netherlands, driving on the A2 highway in Utrecht, the snow has caught up on us but there is no stopping, there is no turning back... we are on our way to the Kerstmarkt =)

Due to the snow, traffic has built up on the A12 highway to the direction of Arnhem and Oberhausen (Germany).

Arriving in Germany, this is nearby Dusseldorf area, packs of snow on the highway. The no-speed limit 3-lane autobahn of Germany have become a 60 KM/per hour drive. Check out the heavy counter traffic too.

Here is our driving timeframe: We left just before 11AM in Utrecht and arrived in Cologne past 3PM. The drive could have been an easy 2.5 hours. Going back was worse. We were a bit worried about the bad weather as it started snowing again so we left Cologne just before 8PM. We finally arrived in Utrecht past 1AM!

The snow was amazing, the car felt like it was on skis and skiing sideways. I was not really sure if I was enjoying it or if I was scared. Maybe both haha.

This video is taken between Dusseldorf and Oberhausen on the E35 highway enroute to the Netherlands. See the thick layers of snow, taken at a later stage of the traffic, and previous to this was bumper to bumper with cars stalling on the shoulder stuck deep in the snow and trucks slowing down because they are gliding sideways. A bit scary but real adventure =)

Anyway, I will post fotos of the festive Christmas Markets in Cologne later.

Travel Period: December 2009
Destination: Cologne (North Rhine Westphalia), Germany

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009


In English meaning feasts, parties or just plain get-togethers with booze. Ah, we are indeed back to that time of the year when the holiday season calls us to party! That means non-stop attendance of gatherings since Friday last week, at least for me. Before I realized, the weekend flew out the window so quick. Monday came and I found myself sitting, and brooding a bit in the conference room during our early Monday meeting at work wondering why I was there when I thought yesterday was still Friday, lol. These days, I am coming home late and sleeping in the next day only to wake up for the next party. UGHHHH. I am not a party beast so this is really taking a toll on my selfish ‘me’ times.

I have here a few fotos of the boat ride during our Christmas party at work, after that we had a comedian, and a magician who took me as his greenhorn subject, entertain us at a restaurant near Leidseplein. Below are also some fotos of my dinner last night with a very good friend Herr Philippe whom I haven’t seen for a while. He brought me to this really nice place in Amsterdam, in Haarlemmerstraat, home to quite a number of gourmet shops and alternative restaurants.

Fotos are blurred... because I really need to buy a new camera. The boat was also moving faster here so it wasn't very easy to take fotos on the dock. The second foto is the 'Romantic (Draw)Bridge' near Carre Theater and Amstel Hotel. Amsterdam is always lovely on a boat cruise... by day and by night. I've done both, a couple of times already.

Here is a very tired me during the Christmas Party at work - didn't really have many fotos of myself though and in this one I look like I had too much wine (looking sleepy as usual). The middle foto is the popular cuisine street, Harlemmerstraat in Amsterdam... and me obviously, taken last night Monday by Herr Philippe. Below is a pretty row of typical Dutch 'trapgevel' houses or buildings in Renaissance style in the Haarlemmerbuurt area (north west of Amsterdam Centrum). To the left of these buildings is Haarlemmerstraat already.

Here is a very cool way of viewing the real street in moving pictures (click here): Haarlemmerstraat - drag the cursor (sleep mij) below the foto slowly, and to view the rest of the shops on the street click on the building numbers just right below the cursor, i.e. 2-32, 46-96, etcetera and drag again the moving cursor or let it move on its own.

Dutchman and I also went to a party in Friesland and we came home the next day at past two in the morning. Obviously we overslept and we had to rush our running very late brunch and drive straight to IJsselstein for another party, a birthday gathering of the family for my niece.

This coming weekend will be lots of work, general cleaning at home and tidying my walk-in closet, which is one of our spare bedrooms and home to my burgeoning collection of clothes, shoes, bags and accessories. Loads of clean clothes piled on top of each other on the carpet floor and like my neglected little orphans, they have been desperately crying and reaching out to me to be hanged and folded in the closet, for weeks! So lots of chores to be done before Christmas and I am so not looking forward to it. Plus, the Dutchman wants to hang the TV on the living room wall which will involve drilling and of course me assisting him.

After all these, off we go to Germany for the Christmas Markets!

I must say that I am more excited about the latter. The former, I badly need help, I really don't mind forking out you know.


Tuesday, December 08, 2009

Rotterdam: you are not my cup of tea

Many not so nice things have been said and done about Rotterdam—‘lelijke stad’, industrial city, ‘just’ modern boring buildings, ‘ongezellig’, there is no real center, no character, so un-Dutch and the Nazis bombed the city mercilessly during World War II which culminated into the Dutch surrendering to the Third Reich. Much of Rotterdam did not escape the war; it was destroyed and the city had to be rebuilt. Gone are the pretty gabled old Dutch houses, the real Rotterdam is gone. Because of this, the image of the city have always struggled. It was so bad that local tourism launched several campaigns to promote it years ago hoping to change its representation to an inviting, hip and trendy place to be.

Rotterdam's modern shopping center in the underpass on a rainy Saturday afternoon.

If there is abstract art, there is abstract architecture. Piet Blom's (Dutch architect) Cubic Houses (Kubus Woning) - these are real apartments with real people and families living here, and one of the apartments is a museum. Very 1980's, very Rubiks Cube isn't it? I was told that if you are inside the museum you will get disoriented for a minute. Didn't have enough time to check out the museum so when I am back, this is high up in my agenda.

The 'Pencil Building' and a bit of camwhoring with MadamE inside a shop. Girls and mirrors =)

Personally, I’ve been to Rotterdam a few times and one of those few times I’ve been there, this was with the Dutchman back in the early days, we did this touristy 'Harbour Tour' along the massive Rotterdam haven, alleged to be the biggest in the world. Unfortunately, we were only shown a tiny fraction of the whole trading marvel as it was explained in the audio that it would take days to survey the entire port area. Well, we don’t want to be staring at forklifts, cranes and containers for days so that's a good idea. It was pretty impressive though, business wise. Rotterdam harbour is one of the top moneymakers in the country (and those speeding cameras too!). For those who know a bit of the past, the Dutch have always been the (rogue) traders in man's history.

Anyway, I went down to Rotterdam the other week meeting an old friend, MadamE who reluctantly moved from Amsterdam to the terrain of the Feyenoords. Her husband filled me in about their Ajax buff daughters making friends with a few Ajax neighbors down the building. That is chilling. To be an Ajax aficionada in Feyenoord infested ground. Info: Ajax is Amsterdam's football club and Feyenoord is Rotterdams'; they are sworn enemies.

I don’t know but Rottedam is just not my cup of tea?

Sigh—I think I have loooong been jaded about charming, time-honoured and elegant European cities artistically inspired by its own extravagant flagship of period artists that when I see Rotterdam—with its modern tall buildings, cemented roads, the lack of a main 'gezellig' square and just the random ‘werkzaamheden’ (construction works) around the city make me lose my appetite to further explore its environs. This I find sad because I know there is so much to see and learn of Rotterdam.

I will definitely come back another time and will try to look for more interesting things to see and do, and positive things to say thereafter.

Some important facts: Rotterdam belongs to the South Holland (Zuid Holland) province. 46% of the city's population of 600,000+ are foreigners or are of non-Dutch origin. It takes less than an hour to travel by train and car from Rotterdam to Utrecht or Amsterdam.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009

Ruins of Castelo dos Mouros in Sintra, Portugal

Or in English--Castle of the Moors, built around the 9th century by the moors or Muslims of Northern Africa from Berber and Arab origin as they were once called. Portugal and the south of Spain was the notable Al Andalus (from the Arabic word, Atlantis), part of the Iberian Peninsula occupied by the moors some 800 years ago, and the cradle of Islamic learning, and leading cultural and economic centers of the Mediterranean basin during those times.

Castelo dos Mouros

This is a 'zoom' foto of the castle ruins from my hotel room balcony. My camera is old tech now, I need to buy a new one soon.

This visit is never perfect without a souvenir foto of me! I managed to find a spare hair band to tie my hair from the crazy wind.

The castle is my beautiful view from my hotel room balcony. I was lucky enough to have a room that looks up to the romantic castle ruins. When the hotel manager asked me, per email, if I wanted an upgrade to the valley room, I hesitated. I didn’t want to spend extra money on my room so I replied back that I will check the room first upon check-in. Well, looking back I am glad I took the upgrade because the valley room had the best and breathtaking views. I woke up to beautiful and relaxing nature surroundings with panoramas to the historical center and looking up from my bed to the dreamy mountain and the castle ruins on top. It is worth every penny.

There is a bus stop in the town center of Sintra right across the Tourism Office and I took this bus going up to the Moors Castle. Tickets can be bought from the chaffeur which includes the bus ride to and fro Palacio Pena and Moors Castle ruins. There is also a walking trail from Sintra to the castle ruins but looking that I will be walking a lot anyway plus the hike time is one-hour, I didn’t further want to waste my time. The tourist bus is therefore convenient.

Lovely views!

From the castle ruins you get this spectacular view (camera zoom view) of the historical UNESCO world heritage town center of Sintra. That is the National Palace of Sintra with the big grounds. 

Didn't I say that Sintra is home to many stately mansions?. From the top of the castle ruins one can spot all of them easily! 

Super windy up here

Moi with my hair all over the place. I was freezing until I found a spare scarf to save my neck from hypothermia and a hair band to tie my untamed hair. Check out the tourists climbing the walls just to get the best foto souvenirs. Hilarious.

More beautiful fotos of Castelo dos Mouros ruins. Going back to the main road I came across a lovely couple having their wedding pictorials done. Of course I could not pass this chance not taking a snapshot of them too =).

It takes about a five to ten-minute walk from the ticket/entrance to get to the ruins of Castelo dos Mouros. Along the road I saw cisterns that were used to store grains and water. There is also a church ruin lying within its walls and its said to be the Church of St. Peter in Romanesque inspiration. I had a short break here sitting on the bench on my way back.

The castle ruins have two main walls that remain standing, decorated with a series of colorful flags from the different stages of Portugal’s history. I heroically climbed both ancient walls... woohoo, lol! It was awfully windy and chilly up there and the flags were making terrible noises, they fly proudly fighting the wind by pulling the fastened ropes and smashing it back against the pole every time there are strong wind currents. The sound is really defeaning and irritating. Plus, my long hair was all over the place and my bare neck freezing. Yikes. Thank god for two things I found in my bag: a spare hair band and a scarf.

From the Moors Castle ruins one can have gorgeous views to Sintra’s historical center and the Pena Palace. This obviously is the main reason why visitors come to the castle ruins and climb up its once glorious walls. The panorama is simply marvelous.

Travel Period: November 2009
Destination: Sintra (Lisboa), Portugal

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