Category: Christmas in Europe

Phase 5. Snowflakes shaped like stars and a dream that became reality.

Latvia, you may think, was probably a bit of an off-the-cuff idea.
“Oh, those two just want to add another country to their list,” you scoff. “Who even goes to Latvia?”

It’s true. Not many people visit this tiny Balkan country, occupied throughout history alternately by the Russians and Germans. It’s a culture that’s known for its herring salad and… well…. not much else really… so I guess it was a bit of a random sounding choice.

But you’re wrong about our motivations.

You see, my husband Tyson can be quite the strategist, and there was a bit of back and forth when it came time to decide how we would spend our last four days in Europe. It seemed too far to drive to visit more relatives. Should we finally check out East Germany instead? How about Finland’s beautiful winter paradise, Lapland (I’d always had a dream to go on a dog sled through the forest)? Too expensive and probably booked out by now. Georgia? Nah – that was too far off the beaten track for aunty Christel, who was going to be accompanying us.

Tyson’s main objective was to go somewhere with a high probability of snow. Thanks to global warming (?), it always seems to snow in Germany in January these days, not in December like it used to. Thus, it’s incredibly rare and unlikely that we should have a white Christmas. Tyson, having grown up in tropical Queensland, still turns into a little boy every time he sees snow, and I get excited when I walk outside wrapped up in 10 layers and the cold air lovingly slaps me in the face. So, it had to be somewhere cold, and somewhere with snow.

Looking up a list of the top five European winter destinations likely to have snow in early January and swiftly eliminating Tallin (too many party-goers), Helsinki (for reasons stated above, plus the fact that we’d been there before), St Petersburg and Moscow (because you need a visa to get to Russia), Riga was left the last city standing – and hey, why not try a bit of that good old herring salad?

And so it was – we flew from Zurich to Frankfurt and then onto Riga, arriving in the wee hours of the morning (2am) due to ice-fuelled delays. To add to our sleepy joy (!), our luggage was last to be loaded off the plane, and so we were also the last ones left standing in the taxi queue outside Riga’s tiny international airport.

As if God was trying to cheer us up, snowflakes shaped like beautiful, intricate stars began to fall as we stood outside waiting. Little did we know that they would be just a little taste of what was to come…

When we finally did get in a taxi, our proud Latvian driver decided that 2:30am was an appropriate time as any to give us a guided tour of his capital, proudly declaring that “our shops are open until 11pm, not like you Germans, who close everything early!” Clearly shopping was a big thing here. He also pointed out restaurants and no doubt interesting landmarks, most of which I couldn’t see through my foggy, dark window.

We arrived safe and sound in our Air BnB apartment, where our host Elina (who had to work at 10am the next day) was waiting patiently. After quick chats and explanations, she left us to discover her beautiful home, which had on one windowsill a pile of beanies and socks hand-knitted by her boyfriend’s grandma. “Handmade by Latvian grandmother,” a note said. “In case you don’t have souvenir yet.”

Boy was I happy to buy one of those beanies!

The temperatures throughout our stay in Riga dropped dramatically, to a low of -21 on the day we left. To our delight, the snow levels did the opposite – on one day it even continued snowing for a whole day and at times was so heavy that you couldn’t look straight ahead when you walked.

Despite the statistical analysis of snow probability and our resulting decision to visit Riga, we hadn’t done much research (again!) beyond where we would stay, and so were happy to have Christel’s previous visit’s experience (she’d been there in summer a few years ago) and our Air BnB host’s recommendations.

As it turns out, Riga is a magical place! Europe’s capital of art deco architechture, about 60% of the city is said to be built in this decorative style. The old town, with its majestic churches and cathedrals, is made up of small, cobbled streets of shops, galleries and cafes, many of which served soup for lunch as this was clearly a hearty and delicious way to warm up in the winter. Elegant, proud-looking women in fur coats meandered through the little Christmas market stalls that were scattered throughout the town squares, drinking hot apple cider, talking to each other in Russian and admiring all the other Latvian grandmothers’ handmade mittens and socks. In the huge indoor central market, dried herrings were stuffed into buckets like pens in a cup and ladies with grumpy faces sold rye bread so brown you wondered if they’d get a heart attack if they saw the white bread we ate in Australia.

The food and coffee of this unexpectedly varied little city surprised and impressed us, and the people we met – from the taxi driver to our Air BnB host to the elderly lady who gave us a private, guided tour of the city’s pharmacy museum were warm, genuine and not at all the staunch, hard-faced type you sometimes imagine when you think of (former Russian) eastern Europe.

And as if lovely people, good food, beautiful surroundings and great coffee weren’t enough, Latvia was to totally blow my mind when I discovered that we could go dog sledding just half an hour outside the city.

WHAT!!!

This was a dream I had had for many years, but never taken that seriously because I thought I had to go to Canada, Alaska or somewhere in the north of Finland to make it happen. When I made an enquiry with the tour company online, I tried not to get my hopes up as we were booking with only a few days’ notice.

Yet it must have been meant to be because my dream came true the very next day as I found myself sitting on a bus driving out to a forest on the outskirts of Riga. When we arrived, the dogs were already waiting for us eagerly, barking and wagging their tails. I’d been worried about the ethics of dog sledding for tourism (a lot of animals used in tourism are mistreated) but had done my research and upon seeing the dogs was even more satisfied that these were animals that loved the snow, loved to run and were healthy and happy. We were allowed to play with them for a while and, well, what can I say – it was love at first sight.

Somehow I ended up being the one to be the ‘musher’ at the back of the sled, in charge of steering and putting the breaks on the dogs if I needed to (in case you’re wondering, this “simple” manoever is done by jumping from the two narrow wooden planks at the back of the sled that you balance on onto the steel bar in the middle which clamps into the ground … This all sounded very technical to a dog sledding novice!) with Christel sitting in the front as my passenger. We had eight dogs in front of us and Tyson, with a sled to himself, only had four. Before we knew it, we were off, and the dogs, excited to be allowed to run, took off at full speed. As we came around the first corner, my feet detached from the wooden planks, but not in order to put the breaks on – somehow I had slipped and was suddenly hanging on for dear life as my legs raced behind the sled and my hands held on.

“This is it,” I thought. “My dog sledding adventure ends here.”

Knowing that Christel was not going to achieve a James Bond-style backflip onto the back of the sled if I let go and was more likely to disappear into the distance with no control of the eight adrenaline-driven huskies – and knowing that this may be the only time I would ever live this lifetime dream of mine, I managed to somehow do a few enormous running steps and land back on the wooden planks on the back of the sled.

Pfew! That was lucky.

The rest of the ride went by relatively smoothly, though Christel at times had to endure less than relaxing angles as the dogs scraped around the corners and one side of us went up onto the thicker snow. As we got into the forest and I was finally able to relax a little and take in the beauty around me, I cried a few tears of silent gratitude and excitement.

How lucky am I, I thought, to experience something as magical as this?

At the end of the 5km ride, our toes and hands were frozen numb and sore, but our hearts were glad and our faces were plastered with elated grins. Tyson had caught the whole thing (minus my almost-stack) on camera and managed to capture some amazing moments with the dogs after we got back to the car.

That night, though we spent a bit longer in the hot shower to defrost, the cold having seemingly crept into the innermost parts of our bodies after a day spent almost entirely outside in the -14 degree temperatures, we could not shake the immense joy we felt. 

What an amazing, amazing, amazing day.

My Father in Heaven, how good you are to me.

Phase 4. The house with no wifi and an Italian border crossing

“This is like the Las Vegas of Switzerland!” said Maren from the back seat. It was easy to see where she was coming from. This Italian part of the country (there’s an Italian part, German part and French part, and many Swiss speak all three languages) had a totally different feel to it: Tuscan-style mansions with big columns out the front and palm trees in the garden, flashing signs, a bit more rubbish lying around.

We were driving toward Lavertezzo, a tiny village in the district of Locarno famous for its granite rocks and the ice blue Verzasca River which flows through the valley. In summer, the region is bright green and stunningly Instagram-worthy, and in winter, it’s usually covered in snow. We’d been looking for a hut in the mountains to spend New Year’s Eve, wanting to escape the hustle and bustle of the city and spend a bit of time in nature.

We had sunny, mild weather when we arrived, and when we drove through Lavertezzo and started ascending along the single-car width road with hairpin turns every 100 meters, we were glad that there was no snow and ice on the road. Any slip there and we would have been rolling down the mountain. Thankfully, our two drivers (dad and Tyson) did an exceptional job and we all arrived safe and sound halfway up the mountain, in a little speckling of century-old houses, some of them which looked like holiday homes and others that looked abandoned.

Being so close to the Italian border, the first day meant a day trip over to the land of spaghetti and Chianti, if for no other reason than to eat pizza and pasta. We drove around beautiful Lago Maggiore, quiet and peaceful during the off-season, and all the way to tourist favourite, Como, which apparently has all sorts of beautiful sites to see and things to do during the daylight, but by the time we arrived it was already dark. There were light shows and Christmas markets happening, and we found a lovely little restaurant down a back street, away from the tourists, to enjoy one more Italian meal. On the way back, our lovely GPS Janet decided she’d let us experience some of Italy’s best new (paid) motorways, and it seemed as if we were driving through a toll point every 30 minutes.

For the next few days, we did little but play games, enjoy the fireplace, cook, eat and sit outside in the sun for the few hours that it reached us. We set off fireworks on New Year’s eve, being wary to run quickly in the other direction if a faulty one among them whooshed our way. We went for a walk down the mountain to the blue river, taking some photos among the white contrasted stones, and on another day went for a hike further into the stunning valley, discovering even smaller villages between the mountains with no visible inhabitants except sheep and a family who’d moved back to the countryside for a change of scenery.

There was no wifi in the house and the change in everyone’s attention levels and priorities was refreshing – perhaps this is something we should try to implement regularly…

Phase 3: Oma writes poetry and Germans sniff lettuce

You may think I’m joking about the lettuce part. Sounds a bit strange, doesn’t it? Well. Germans aren’t known for being normal. But I’ll come back to that later.

The last time we spoke, I think I disappeared into a memory food coma. Those pancakes were SO GOOD.

Anyway. We were in Munich. So – once we dropped Sheridan off at the airport on that last afternoon so that she could catch her flight back to the quaint British countryside city of Oxford, Tyson, Maren and I hit the road for Oehningen, a very small village about 30 minutes past Oma and Opa’s house in Gottmadingen, Southern Germany (don’t feel bad – no one else has ever heard of these places either). When we got there, mum – who hadn’t seen Tyson and I in a year since her and dad left to go traipsing around the world last December – nearly jumped through the car window in excitement at having us back.

Small talk, informalities and mum trying to feed us everything in the house aside, we – that is dad, mum, Tyson, Maren, Fynn (who’d arrived a few days earlier) and I soon found ourselves sitting squished together on the amazing Air BnB couch, drinking red wine and talking about life. How blessed I am to have family who loves each other so much!

It wasn’t until the next day that the rest of the relatives trudged on in – aunt Christel, Oma and Opa, and eventually aunt Angela and cousin Niko as well. It was to be a special Christmas this year, a rare occasion to have all of us together that happened the last time back in 2009. Pleasantly, despite increasing age (80+) and their usual loving bickering, Oma and Opa still appeared healthy and happy, pleased to have us all together but definitely glad as well that us “kids” were staying in a separate house and weren’t creating more work for them.

At Christmas, Oma recited self-written poetry of family and love and what it means to be together, and Angela sang a song about God looking out for us no matter where we are. Christel read funny Christmas stories of snow and the meaning of giving, and I tried my best to translate but gave up when Tyson didn’t laugh at my English version of the German jokes.

We didn’t do presents this year, instead playing a game of White Elephant, where everyone had to bring something wrapped up that they didn’t want anymore. Based on how the dice rolled, we were able to open and exchange opened “presents” with those around the table whether they wanted to swap or not. Amazing how attractive a little old Christmas ornament becomes when you compare it to a broken viking hat, a little Greek language dictionary or a notebook and pen someone pinched from a hotel!

The rest of our time in Oehningen was spent relaxing, talking, walking around the area and going on excursions (Tyson, the twins and I took a day out to go to dad’s university city, Freiburg and France’s beautiful city, Strasbourg). We were even brave enough to sweat it out in the private sauna on our last evening, though the amount of times we opened the door to let the crisp outside air in probably reduced the positive health effects this exercise was supposed to achieve.

Finally, it was time to head off to our next destination…. But wait, wasn’t there something about lettuce sniffing?

I kind of hoped you’d forgotten.

You see we Germans, most of the time, give off a pretty clean-cut impression. Good engineering, strong political presence, neat gardens. Sometimes we’re seen as a bit conservative, you could say. We’re strange, but we don’t often show it.

Well – that all goes out the window in the small villages.

All we wanted was a bag of lettuce for dinner. If we’d been the only ones in the corner store, we probably wouldn’t have even noticed it. But as it turned out, it was rush hour in the otherwise shop-less hamlet when Tyson and I arrived, and we found ourselves in a queue to pay behind a tall, blonde German woman who – without warning – started sniffing at her bag of lettuce. Wrinkling her nose every time she came up for breath, she didn’t wait long – nor ask permission – before sticking her blonde head in our bag too.

“Smells a bit funky, doesn’t it?” she said.

“Umm…” we replied, not sure whether to be more concerned about her head in our plastic bag or the fact that our lettuce might be off.

What made the situation even more bizarre was the man standing in the back corner of the shop, near the lettuce, who had a white, circular-shaped hat on his head that looked like it had been hand made out of cardboard for a game of train conducters with his grandchild.

Neither he, nor anyone else in the queue, seemed to find it strange that blondie was sniffing all the lettuce bags.

To cut a fascinating story short, we ended up buying the lettuce and washing it while the blonde lady did not, instead opting for the popular brussels sprouts also displayed in the greenery corner beside the strange train conductor, no doubt to the overwhelming joy of her children waiting at home.

And that was it. A little insight into the strangeness of Germans.

Welcome to my culture. 🙂

 

 

Phase 2: A road trip adventure and the king of all pancakes

We got distracted.

I blame it on a combination of Tyson’s love for our new hire car and its ability to drive whatever speed we wanted it to on the Autobahn, and our fascination with how close everything is in Europe. We could have taken the more direct route and been in Munich in the afternoon as promised. …But why do that when you can go via Liechtenstein and Austria??

Poor Sheridan.

By the time we’d navigated our way through the roundabouts of Liechtenstein’s capital, Vaduz, to take a selfie in front of the cathedral, got stuck in small-town after-school traffic jams in the back streets of some random Austrian villages and found our way back to the main road, it was late afternoon, and Sheridan had been waiting in Munich for hours.

Quickly dropping off our luggage in the Air BnB with mismatched furniture and the broken door that was not to be opened, we picked Sheridan up and drove straight on to Munich central station to pick up Maren and find some traditional, hearty German food for dinner.

The next morning, it was time to explore Munich, ‘the city that loves you’. In between trudging after Maren down random back streets to find the city’s best coffee according to Bean Hunter (favourite app of all self-declared hipster coffee connoisseurs) and looking for waffles for Sheridan, who seemed to have developed a sudden craving, we did actually see a fair bit of the city pedestrian shopping mall. (I may have gotten distracted again, this time with shoe shops.)

After plenty of caffeine (not great – Bean Hunter does get it wrong from time to time), a waffle experience (craving satisfied!) and some Gluehwein at the Christmas markets, it was time to find some dinner again. Tyson’s dream came true when we got a table at the renowned Augustiner Brewery, at which Dirndl-clad women with varying bust sizes served up beer in 1L Steins and plates of sausages and pork knuckle to your heart’s content. This evening would be, as it turned out, Tyson’s favourite dining experience of our whole trip.

The next day, wanting to make use of the nice blue sky and flexibility offered by our hire car, we decided we’d take a day trip to Neuschwanstein Casle (Tyson had never been to this famous German landmark that inspired the Disney castle) and Austrian alpine city, Innsbruck. It was a beautiful day, if long, and we were all happy to be out of the city and exploring the region. We were even lucky enough to experience some snow along the way!

The next day, our last day in Munich, we had the privilege of experiencing Mr Pancake – a tiny café in a trendy suburb close to the centre of town. Run by two ­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­Romanian immigrants and serving up plates of the most incredible pancakes we’d ever eaten, we felt refreshed being inside, not only because of the delicious aromas coming from the fying pans in the miniature kitchen, but also because of the Hillsong album playing in the background. God, it seems, really is everywhere.

 

Phase 1: Cloudy mountain peaks and deer sausage.

When the weather is bad in Switzerland, people head to the mountains.

I mean, they do that anyway, but as it turns out, the bad weather makes such a trek even more worth it, because the higher you go, the better your chance of getting above the weather.

This was definitely the case during our visit to Lucerne – stop no. 1 on this year’s European Christmas adventure. Knowing that ahead of us were two weeks of intense family time, Tyson and I had booked an Air BnB for a couple of nights in this Swiss city, just over an hour away from Zurich airport. I’d come here 5 years earlier to attend the World Tourism Forum, and having celebrated a major academic success here, I was keen to show Tyson all the places I’d been.

After picking up our hire car (a Mercedes! What else would you drive on an autobahn?!) and having a rather overpriced plate of service-station Spaetzle (oh, Switzerland), we were welcomed by our Air BnB host Brigitte with a bottle of wine and by her husband, Bruno about 15 minutes later with two half-litre cans of beer (“I’m sorry, my wife forgot the most important thing – you need these after such a long trip.”)

Having not thought ahead a great deal (we were flat out for weeks before we left home), we hadn’t made any plans for our first day in Europe, nor had we remembered that European cities do not follow Sunday trading. As fate would have it, we thus ended up at the top of a 1,798m high mountain with a view over the incredible Swiss Alps, Lake Lucerne, Lake Zug and Lake Lauerz – Mount Rigi had been recommended to us by our host Brigitte not only because it was a great Sunday activity, but because we woke up that first Sunday morning to miserable, cloudy, grey winter weather.

“You will have blue sky up there,” she’d said, pointing up at the grey, hazy sky as if we could look through it to some magical sunny place above. Though I wasn’t sure I believed her, heading up the mountain and getting some fresh air seemed like a good idea after 24+ hours of travel.

And so, there we were, taking pictures of snow patches and the top side of the clouds, eating deer sausage (a local specialty, apparently) and drinking terrible coffee. Luckily, the negativity of the coffee and lack of alternative lunch options was far outweighed by the truthfulness of Brigitte’s weather predictions, and we were able to sit outside in the sun, breathe in the crisp winter air and enjoy the fact that we were on holidays – at last.

Twenty-four hours, a small Christmas market, a quick whisk around Lucerne and some Swiss cheese later, we were on our way to Munich to meet my sister Maren and our friend Sheridan for a few days in Germany’s pretty, proud, Bavarian capital.

Autobahn driving… wheeee!