Border Run

IMG_8297Denmark/German Border

A Brit, Aussie, American, and Korean walk into a mall… haha! No, not a bad joke, just time for another Billund to border run for turkey, booze, and over the counter meds.

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We hit up Citti-Park in hopes of finding just the right snow boots, turkey for American Thanksgiving, cut-rate alcohol, possibly stocking stuffers, and more. We did well. Thankfully, the turkey we came for was purchased. Sadly we didn’t find the cute snowboots half of us were after.

I do recall several flats of Christmas Beer and an obscene amount of nutella.

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Here we are, headed down the escalator with our goods. Had to check the top floor and try out more boots.

Oh geeze! Look at the time! We have to leave Germany and get back to school to pick up the kids!

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I had a fun day with the gals. Racing and riding carts through the parking garage may or may not have happened with cheers and squeals. Looking forward to another girls day shopping no matter which country we’re in.

xo

 

Den Fynske Landsby

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There were a couple of spring holidays in May, so on one of them, we drove down to the IKEA in Odense. We forgot that, unlike in the US, when it’s a holiday, everything is closed. Including IKEA. No meatballs for you!

We weren’t about to turn around and drive the hour back to Billund though, so after a scan through TripAdvisor and a phone call, we headed over to Den Fynske Landsby, or Funen Village, a “living museum” that recreates a Danish village from the 18th century.

It was a singularly beautiful day – blue skies, vibrant green, flowering bursting in bloom. We spent the day just wandering around and poking in and out of each building until we’d seen the entire village. Although the entire site is a recreation, it’s still a very thorough and detailed one. We got a very good idea of what life was like thanks to the authentic staging and decor in each building, plus thorough plaques and documentation. We learned about how a typical home was run, what school was like for the children, and a variety of trades, jobs, and crafts like blacksmithing, weaving, thatching, farming, how the village preacher lived, how the mill was run, and even toured through a gigantic kiln where the bricks were shaped and fired.

The kids enjoyed the freedom of exploring what each next building and house contained, as well as some hands-on activities – feeding rabbits, practicing walking on handmade stilts. Lots of animals to watch as well – sheep, goats, chickens, ducks, geese, and a cow that was milked by one of the staff (in period garb of course).

On the way back home, we stopped and took some pictures by a canola field. Denmark looks like someone has painted half of the countryside yellow during that part of the year. Come December, when it’s pitch black out at 4pm and we’re tired of the cold and rain, we just need to look at these pics and remind ourselves of what we have to look forward to!

Copenhagen, Day 3: Helsingør

I guess we didn’t have enough of castles the day before, because on Saturday, we hopped in the car and drove an hour north of Copenhagen to see Kronborg Castle, in the quaint seaside town of Helsingør. That’s the Danish name – the English-speaking world knows the castle for its more famous moniker, Elsinore, as immortalized by William Shakespeare in Hamlet. Contrary to popular belief, Hamlet did not live here – he’s a fictional character, remember? – and we smelled nothing rotten in Denmark (aside from some stinky seaweed on the beach).

The castle sits out at the northeastern tip of the entire island of Sealand – important location, as it once prevented ships from crossing from the Baltic through the sound, back when Denmark controlled both sides of the water. Now the other side of the water is Sweden, and the two countries get along fine. They didn’t at one point, of course – but more on that later after we get into the castle.

Kronborg literally means Crown Castle, a name it didn’t receive until 1577, about 150 years after it was first constructed as a smaller fortress. Over the centuries, the castle grew larger and more fortified, until it was finally encircled by huge battlements, cannons, outbuildings, and walls – which means that in 2015, it’ll take you a good 20 minutes to walk from the parking lot to the main gate. Nice stroll though, and time for the boys to inspect the cannons and get chatty with some of the local swans. Once we got close enough to the castle and its massive stone gate, we could finally see how gigantic and impressive it really was.

Inside, it was even more impressive – a central square surrounded by imposing towers and Renaissance-style masonry. Some of the guides were wandering around the courtyard in medieval garb, though we opted for the self-guided tour. It took us awhile to figure out where to buy tickets and get started! (You have to go through the gift shop – don’t do what we did and start going up one of the staircases, or you’ll be doing the tour backwards).

Although the castle is massive, with huge rooms and an absolutely enormous main banquet hall, it’s much more sparsely decorated than either of the castles we saw the day before. No big surprise, as Kronborg has weathered a couple more centuries than Rosenborg Slot, plus some back-to-back catastrophes in the 1600s – a fire that destroyed most of the castle in 1629, and then a Swedish siege and occupation in 1658. Today, that means that most chambers are fresh with white paint, wooden floors, and a few hulking pieces of furniture (most of it not actually from the castle), making it difficult to picture what life was actually like in the castle. Given that it was more a strategic fortress and not a summerhouse like Rosenborg, or the royal family residence like Amalienborg, it probably was never all that hygge to begin with anyway.


There were, however, some incredible and very, very old tapestries hung on the walls. They were fascinating to inspect, not just for their size and detail, but also their imagery and context. My favorite was the one depicting a rhinoceros, then considered a very exotic and little-seen animal to the rest of the world. Not many people on Earth, and certainly not in frosty Denmark, ever got to see one in the pebbly flesh, but if you were the king or part of his court, at least there was Tapestrygram.

The castle was also used as a prison from 1739 until the early 1900s, and the inmates certainly didn’t get to stay in the upstairs chambers. So down to the dungeons we went, to explore the dank, chilly, and dark labyrinth of tunnels below the castle. Somehow, B and I always wind up doing this kind of stuff wherever we travel. I’ve always been fascinated by caves and crypts and oubliettes and tunnels. (I once spent a happy hour alone in the Parisian catacombs, with only my headphones and 6 million Parisian skeletons for company.) Lucky for me, she likes it too. And it’s great fun and adventure for the boys, even if there really wasn’t a lot down there to see. But it was huge, and I think we saw almost all of it. Certainly not the kind of place you’d want to be stuck in at night, after the guards and crowds had gone home!

After we had seen most of the castle, we collected a few shells down on the beach, and then drove back into town to explore some more and find some dinner. Helsingør the town is much more charming than Helsingør the castle, all cottagey and colorful with narrow cobblestone streets and a central shopping and dining promenade.

We poked our heads into a few of the cafes, but decided we wanted something a little more out of the ordinary than your typical Danish fare – lucky for us, TripAdvisor showed a Thai restaurant in town! It was a tiny, unassuming place, but it was open, and tasty, and cheap compared to what you normally pay in any restaurant here. Plus we just sometimes have to remind ourselves how random life can be – a year ago, we might have been enjoying Thai takeout at our house in the East Bay/SF. Now we were having it in a tiny seaside town on the northeast corner of Denmark.

And that was it for our trip! Three jam-packed days, and a quick drive home the next day. Still tons to see in Copenhagen, I’m sure. Give us your tips and tell us what we missed for next time!

Here’s part 2 if you missed it: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/10/11/copenhagen-day-2-castles-coasters/
And part 1: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/04/14/copenhagen-canal-tour/

Copenhagen, Day 2: Castles & Coasters!

We spent Easter weekend in Copenhagen, and B did a post on our first day there back in the spring which you can read about here: https://witzaboutus.com/2015/04/14/copenhagen-canal-tour/

We packed a lot into that weekend, so here’s day 2!

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Friday was the best day of the entire weekend, and I think one of the most memorable days we’ve had all year. We did both the Rosenberg and Amalienborg castles in the morning, walked around the city a lot more, and spent all evening at Tivoli Gardens with some friends.

First, Rosenberg Slot, or Rosenberg Castle. It’s a short walk from the Norregade metro station to Gothersgade, and the castle is in the center of the Kongens Have (or The King’s Garden) park. It was built in 1606 by Christian IV, and used as a summer residence for the royal family, and then only for the next century. Quite a bit larger than most of the summerhus you see around Denmark!

We did the Crown Jewels and treasure vaults first, as B and I knew those would keep the boys’ interest for longer. Like all other kids their age, they are obsessed with Minecraft (I taught them well!), and so anything to do with gems and gold and all that glitters is sure to excite their imaginations.

The treasure vaults did not disappoint – room after room of lavishly gilded weaponry and armor, exquisitely carved ivory, and fabulous royal Danish bling. It took us about an hour to thread our way through the rooms, gawking at all of the detail and wealth. The lowest and most heavily guarded area of the vaults contained the Crown Jewels and collections of massive gems, so the boys liked those the best. M wanted to know if there were enough diamonds in the entire building to make at least one diamond pickaxe.

Afterwards, we toured through the rest of the castle and living quarters. Most of the furniture and tapestries in the rooms were still intact and on display. Big difference from the candlelit white walls and whitewashed wood ceilings that characterize modern Danish homes. Can rooms this cavernous and decor this opulent still be considered hygge?

It was difficult to really picture what life would have been like in the castle – were all of these rooms actually used as living spaces? They felt so huge and impersonal. Was the family constantly entertaining visitors and guests? Were they just hanging out and playing parlor games? And after all of the money spent on the lavish interiors, couldn’t the King have sprung for a better toilet cover than just a hole in a wooden plank?

After the castle tours, we wandered up through the Kongens Have and found a delightful playground on the north side of the gardens, with a variety of unique balance beams, pylons, and notched posts for the kids to clamber across. I’ve noticed that Danish playgrounds offer much richer and organic play options than the traditional ones we are used to back home – they feel part of their surrounding environment, and the structures and elements invite play in more than one way.

Although our next stop was Amalienborg Palace (the current royal family’s winter residence), there were very few lunch options open because of the holiday. (There just aren’t a lot of cafes in that area anyway.) So we doubled back down towards Nyhavn, which was absolutely slammed with fellow tourists. Lots of sidewalk cafes and restaurants there, but no empty tables. Luckily, we found a small homey cafe with a few open spots. We split a few dishes (sorry, can’t even remember what we had!) and enjoyed a quiet, sunny hour away from the cold and crowds. E fell asleep on the bench and missed out on lunch altogether, but woke up in time for ice cream afterwards. It’s never too cold for ice cream!

Then we circled back around towards Amalienborg, just in time to see the changing of the guards in the massive plaza. There are four palaces here, originally built for four different noble families, but the royal family have resided in them since the late 1700s. Today, Crown Princess Margrethe and Prince Henrik stay in one of the palaces during the winter months.

We got to tour inside the palace that belonged to Christian IX and Queen Louise, and after the tour through Rosenborg in the morning, it was much easier to imagine life inside these rooms. Well, kind of. They are now overstuffed with photos and paintings and furniture and collections that show off he family’s various hobbies and interests, but you can still tell that people have spent time and enjoyed themselves and their guests here.

The kids were toured out after that, but they knew that they had a big treat planned for the evening – we were going to meet our friends from Billund at Tivoli Gardens to spend all night on rollercoasters and rides!

Tivoli is one of the most famous destinations in Copenhagen, and rightly so, as it’s also one of the most beautiful amusement parks we’ve ever seen. It’s the second-oldest amusement park in the world, and even though it’s regularly been updated since its opening in 1843, it still feels like it’s from another century. You know the nostalgia you feel when you walk through some of the older, original, and largely untouched areas of Disneyland? It’s like that, except with a wondrous Victorian feel throughout instead of Main Street, Frontierland, Adventureland, Tomorrowland, etc. No surprise that Walt Disney was so inspired by Tivoli that he wanted to ensure that his guests at Disneyland would enjoy the same wondrous atmosphere.

There are some exotic elements and sights throughout Tivoli – a pagoda and Japanese gardens, an Indian palace topped with domes and minarets – but the overall aesthetic is somewhere between turn-of-the-century World’s Fair and 1960s pop-art. Geometric patterns and splashes of color, both verdant and architectural, catch your eye and ignite your senses, and then when the sun sets, the park erupts in twinkling light.

One of the most amazing things about Tivoli is that it’s in the center of the city, so when you get a grand view of the entire park, like from atop a coaster or the ferris wheel, you’re also taking in all of Copenhagen as well. Truly special, and something you don’t get at many amusement parks anywhere in the world.

Two worlds

Two worlds

And best of all, the park wasn’t that busy – especially for a Friday night! We were able to run through the lines to get on the same rides over and over again. The large majority of the rides were also fine for the boys, so we had a blast doing coasters and the ferris wheel and bumper cars and underground minecart tours complete with singing moles. M wanted to keep doing the Odin Coaster so we must have done it 5 times. We ended the night with cotton candy (or candy floss) for the kids, and left when the park closed before midnight, tired and happy from a very full day.

One last thought before closing out this (epic) post: found this in a store window and I think it captures our year in Denmark quite well!

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London Visits and the LEGO Hub

LEGO opened a new hub office in central London last year, and I’ve been out twice this summer for meetings and to conduct some focus testing on one of our games. It’s an amazing space with incredible views, and it’s as clean, well-designed, and playful as you’d expect. I’ll let the pics speak for themselves…

LEGO is also experimenting with a new office culture out of the London hub. There are 4 floors, and each one has a different purpose. The main floor has the lobby, a cafe (w/ free coffee and full-time barista!), and general meeting areas and tables. One floor features more meeting rooms and private conference spaces. The other 2 floors are for work – one is for quiet work and one is more relaxed/social.

However, no one has their own desks as we do back in Billund. There are so many different people from across the organization coming and going that you just pick a desk in the morning and work from there. The folks who work out of the office full-time likely sit at the same places each day, but you don’t have the same departmental divisions as we do on the main campus. On the positive side, you potentially get to meet and chat with lots of different folks from across the org, but on the downside you don’t get to display your own models and builds on your desk and personalize your workspace. First world problems!

Here’s one last cool display in the office – a huge lenticular sign on one of the boardroom walls, which changes as you view it from one side or the other. One side features the LEGO company motto, which translates to “Only the best is good enough,” while the other features our company mission, to inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow. The entire display is built from colored 1×1 ‘cheese’ bricks. An incredible creation for an incredible workplace!

Okay, out of the office and out into the city. I’ve always loved visiting London. There’s a constant juxtaposition of history and modernity. Every building has possibly centuries of history and stories, and if not, it’s ultra-sleek and you have to wonder what once stood there 100, 200, or 1000 years ago. Even the oldest cities in the US are 400 years old or so – most are far more recent.

It’s also the little stuff – everything feels like it does back home, and it’s easy to get around because there’s no language barrier (aside from the superfluous u’s), but it still feels like you’ve stepped into a bizarro version of the US (and they would say the same about us). Different TV shows and music, different flavors of chips (sorry, I mean crisps), different beers, different candies and chocolates in the shops. Obvious stuff like needing to look right instead of left when you cross the street (the crosswalks handily point this out so you don’t get squashed). Also, you can always get killer Indian food in London – something we don’t have a lot of back in Denmark! Here are some of the random shots I snapped around the city in May and July.

Helsinki

I had a quick 2-day trip to Helsinki in the spring for work. Although most of the time was spent at the offices we were visiting, I did get a chance to walk around downtown one evening and had a meal that more than met my expectations of hearty Finnish cuisine.

Like other Scandinavian cities I’ve visited, Helsinki is very clean. Wide streets, not a lot of traffic. The architecture I saw downtown had the classical look I’ve come to expect from European cities, but there was a minimalism and simplicity to the buildings as well. No big surprise that the city used to double for the USSR in movies shot during the Cold War!

My co-workers are as food-adventurous as I am, so we found a restaurant called Lappi which serves traditional Lappish food. Lapland is the northernmost region of Finland, so we were expecting real stick-to-your-ribs-cause-its-way-below-freezing type food. And reindeer. And alcohol. And we got all three!

The restaurant looked like a cozy wooden lodge inside – meget hyggeligt, as you’d say in Danish. Rustic wooden decor, exposed beams, and the whole place warmed up with woolen blankets and fires in the fireplaces. Sven and Kristof from Frozen would have been right at home.

There were 6 of us, so we started with a couple of sampler platters which featured: salmon tartar; salmon mousse topped with fish roe; reindeer carpaccio; reindeer heart jerky; a hunter’s salad of wild mushrooms; pickled fish; various cheeses; and something like cranberry sauce, expect made with cloudberries. We all drank cocktails called ‘Reindeer’s Tears,’ which were shots of Finnish koskenkorva (similar to vodka) with a few cranberries dropped in. Strong stuff. Everything was delicious, though I seemed to be the only one at the table who liked reindeer heart and fish roe, so I was half-full even before the meal showed up.

The other guys opted for the grilled fillet of reindeer – think venison steaks. I got the sautéed reindeer, which came out like shaved beef piled atop a mound of mashed potatoes. I don’t know how I finished the whole thing – I really shouldn’t have! Luckily there was time to walk it off afterwards, though we were all so full that we just headed back to the hotel instead of checking out the many bars downtown. Next time!

Will hopefully make it back to Finland one day – this time with the family, or at least to see a friend out there and check out the Tuska metal festival that’s held there every summer. Some of my favorite metal bands come from Finland, so here are some videos. \m/

Insomnium

Amorphis

Munich

Got to go to Munich last week for work. As I’d already heard before, it’s a wonderful city – storied history, classic Bavarian culture, a charming downtown with some incredible architecture, colorful pastel-colored buildings, and of course, plenty of biergartens, delicious beer, and rich Bavarian food. And pretzels!

Didn’t see much of the city Thursday since we were in meetings from 8am until around 6pm, but then a big group of us went out for dinner. I had no idea where we were, so when we got off the subway at Marienplatz, I was genuinely amazed to see the incredible New Town Hall (Neues Rathaus), with its ornate towers and Glockenspiel mechanical clock! The clockwork display, with its twirling and dancing figures, goes off every day at 11am and noon, but we missed it the next day too. When I return to Munich with B and the boys, that will definitely be on the list of sights to see.

From there it was a short walk to an excellent Bavarian restaurant called Spatenhaus an der Oper, just across from the Bayerische Staatsoper (famous opera house). Pretzels, great beer (my favorite was the Franziskaner Hefewissen Dunkel), and decadent Bavarian cuisine. Mmmm… head cheese made with vinegary, pickled meats; salami; a haunch of roast pork swimming in rich gravy; marinated cabbage; and giant potato dumpling cannonball things… And some celebratory schnapps after dinner.

Needed to walk that off afterwards, so some of our German hosts took me over to see the famous Hofbrauhaus beer hall and royal public brewery. This place is massive – it makes the giant German biergarten at EPCOT look like a Carl’s Jr. It’s everything you’d expect from a famous Bavarian beer hall too – rows and rows of packed tables (even at 11pm), waitresses with trays of sausages and pretzels, a big German brass band, old men in German vests and hats passing out with their steins. My hosts said it’s mostly a tourist place (which is why we went to the Spatenhaus), but it is still a fun atmosphere.


On the way in, there’s a wall of cubbies, each one locked and containing a big beer stein. These are for the private members, and the only way into the club is when a previous member dies. Then, Glückwünsche! You get your own stein, and when you come to the beer hall, you unlock your stein, wash it out in the big copper sink, and help yourself to your favorite local brew.

Upstairs, there’s an even bigger hall, with a second German band on stage, and even more happy feasters and drinkers. There’s also a balcony above with a small museum about the Hofbrauhaus. Cool facts: it was founded in 1589 by the Duke of Bavaria, whose 700 closest friends and courtiers were drinking his riches away. So he started the public brewery, which followed the Reinheitsgrebot, or Bavarian Beer Purity Law (passed in 1516).

This place is like an aircraft hangar! With beer.

This place is like an aircraft hangar! With beer.


The law decreed that only water, barley, and hops could be used in the production of beer. Apparently, brewers back then had been using all sorts of additives to help preserve their beers: soot, dangerous mushrooms, or “gruit” herbs like yarrow, ivy, and horehound. The main reason for the law was to ensure there would be enough wheat and rye for bakers to use in their bread, which meant no hefeweissen for a very long time! (Though obviously you can get it today, due to some loosening, or at least, re-interpretation, of the Reinheitsgebot.)

On Friday, our meetings only lasted till around noon, and since our flight back to Billund wasn’t until 8pm, we got to spend the afternoon exploring downtown Munich. It was a lovely day for it too – sunny, and not too chilly. We strolled down a wide shopping promenade called Neuhauserstrasse and ended up back at Marienplatz.

These promenades seem to be all over Europe – I’ve seen them now in Aarhus, Cartagena, and Malaga. No street traffic, and they’re more than just a big outdoor mall – they’re a vital part of the city’s culture. Many cities in the US have added outdoor shopping areas or long walking malls – Kierland Commons and Scottsdale Quarter in Scottsdale, 16th Street Mall in Denver, the Farmers’ Market in LA, or the Woodlands outside Houston, for example, but those are not purely pedestrian areas like these thoroughfares. I wonder why more American cities don’t have these.

After lunch, we burned off our calories by climbing the 250+ steps inside St Peter’s Church for a view across the city. Then we wandered through the streets, past the Viktualienmarket (booths selling everything from produce to flowers to Turkish food and fresh fish), and out towards the river for a leisurely stroll. Lots of people (and their dogs) out enjoying the sun as well. A light dinner and one last beer at an outdoor biergarten by one of the old city’s gates, and then it was time to say ‘Auf wiedersehen’ to München.


There’s still tons to see in Munich – chief among them the incredible Neuschwanstein Castle outside the city, and oh yeah, Oktoberfest – so I’m sure there will be another Munich post on the blog within the year. Now, if I can just find a case of Franziskaner Hefeweissen Dunkel next time we pass through Flensborg…

Hamburg

Last Friday night, we were sharing a delicious home-cooked Korean meal with some of our new friends from Seoul. B mentioned that we had the whole weekend open, so we thought we might pop down to Flensburg, the German border town where people go to get their beer, candy, and other goodies. Our friends suggested though – why not drive an extra hour and see Hamburg?

So that’s what we did. Packed some clothes for us and the kids, and left the house around 9 on Saturday morning. Scanned through Trip Advisor and Yelp on the way down, booked a hotel from the road, and by noon we were pulling into Hamburg.

We stayed at the Scandi Emporio, a beautiful and modern hotel in downtown Hamburg. The boys enjoyed the deep-sea theme on the hotel carpets and in the elevators – the lighting was a dark and moody blue on the ground floor, but then brightened as you rose higher, as if ascending to the surface. Added a fun and unique dimension to the stay. The room was big and bright, bed was extremely comfortable, and the boys even got their own goodie bags of colored pencils and blocks from the woman at the front desk. About 170 euros for the night, which was just fine for a weekend getaway. Would stay again, though perhaps next time we’ll look for something in another part of town.

Our first stop – based on recommendations from friends, as well as the ranked Attractions list on TripAdvisor (super helpful for spontaneous road trips) – was the Miniatur Wunderland museum. It took us about 30 minutes to walk down to the harbor area from the hotel. It was cold out, but at least a little clearer than up in Denmark. We must have been in the business district of town, because it was pretty quiet. Found a bakery on the way down that was open and got some sandwiches and coffee, plus some cakey chocolate-chip muffin type things, and some big fat soft pretzels to take away. The boys did pretty well on the walk, too! They were especially curious about the canals that criss-cross Hamburg. “How deep do you think they are, Dad?”

The museum is down in the warehouse district, which is one of the most famous in the world. Row after row of gothic brick towers, more like fortress walls than commercial storage. The boys were instantly drawn to the Hamburg Dungeon, a combination wax museum/historical house of horrors located just below Miniatur Wunderland, but they need to be a bit older to brave its depths. E said “Next year!” (Try at least 5 more years for you, buddy).

For some reason, they also got it in their heads that Miniatur Wunderland was going to be some kind of indoor theme park, so they were at first dismayed to find that it is essentially a gigantic train set museum. It’s so much more than that though – take the most elaborate train set you’ve ever seen, and multiply it x100. Most of the exhibits recreate massive European vistas criss-crossed by all forms of modern transportation: cable cars suspended high above the Alps while passenger trains speed through the hillsides below; cars and trucks wending their way up into the mountains, past thick forests and fairytale Bavarian castles; or an entire airport, complete with taxiing jetliners and an adjacent section where a 747 takes off into the clouds.

The vehicles would be incredible enough on their own, but it’s the thousands of tiny people that populate these scenes that really makes these Miniatures a Wonderland. Each diorama doesn’t just have its own population – it has dozens of little individual stories, everywhere you look. Domestic scenes playing out on apartment balconies, in backyard barbecues, or out in the street. A massive rock concert sprawls across a farm field, with thousands of cheering fans holding their lighters aloft as the sun sets in the room and the lights come up across the stage. There are also dozens of tiny secrets hidden through the displays – a crystal cave in the mountains with a tiny princess and unicorn inside, a ghostly bonfire party in the ruins of a flooded town, or a bank robbery about to go horribly wrong, with crooks digging a tunnel into a vault filled with guards.

My favorite section of the museum shows the progression of one town across 8 different dioramas, from 2200 BC up through 1945. It starts as a tiny settlement hacked out of the forest, then grows to a small village, and then a medieval town with castle and stone bridge, and then on through the Renaissance as knights and peasants give way to aristocrats and soldiers. At the turn of the 20th century, the town has been replaced by a smoke-spewing factory, and then decades later, the entire scene has been taken over by the Third Reich. And then finally, in the last diorama, it’s all been reduced to ashes and rubble by an Allied bombing run.

I liked pointing out the technological changes to the boys from one diorama to the next, and they enjoyed locating each of the little dramas playing out. A group of men pulling a she-bear out of her cave in 2200 eventually gives way to another group of men mining silver out of that same cave a thousand years later. A crowd and rabble rouser on the castle steps is preceded, a few hundred years earlier, by a woman being burned at the stake. Morbid, yes, but that’s history.

In fact, one of the most entertaining activities of the entire visit was the scavenger hunt printed in the museum brochure – we managed to find most of the details listed, though the Water Corpse eluded us almost until the end (we finally found the sad little scene, close to where a UFO was descending over a small town at night). The kids were so excited! “Dad! Dad! Come here! We found the dead guy in the water!”

We found the water corpse!

We found the water corpse!

After a good 3+ hours in the museum, we took a quick stroll around the harbor, heading nowhere in particular. The weather was kind of blah, and it was too late for a ferry ride, so we headed back to the hotel to rest, regroup, and cruise through Yelp for a dinner recommendation.

We really wanted German food for dinner, and I found a hofbraü not too far from the hotel. It was a cavernous place, with the wait staff all decked out in lederhosen and blue-and-white checked blouses. The Frankfurt vs Hamburg football match was up on the big screens, but we had to focus on translating the menu. Google Translate to the rescue!

We were able to order kids’ portions of wienerschnitzel for the boys, which came right away (they were perfectly done and very tasty), and two big beers for ourselves – a hefeweizen for B and a dunkel for me, both excellent. Then after figuring out the differences between wursts and roasts and head cheese and liverbraten, we were able to order a pork roast with potato dumplings and red cabbage for B, and currywurst with fries for myself. Also excellent. We ate very well, laughed a lot (the boys were in a very good mood – helps to get them fed first!) and thoroughly enjoyed ourselves. Exactly what we wanted from the evening, and the full bellies helped everyone crash out hard once we got back to the hotel.

The next day it was cold and gloomy out, threatening to rain, so we knew right away that a ferry trip was still a no-go. We’d also considered driving around some of the residential neighborhoods to see the homes – or the famous St Pauli neighborhood – but we decided we’d be better off coming back some other time in the spring. Instead, after a breakfast buffet at the hotel restaurant (10 euros apiece; kids ate free), we walked back down to the harbor again to a spice museum called Spicy’s. I had randomly picked up a brochure for the place at dinner the night before, and it was a good find and a fun way to spend the morning.

It’s a small museum on the third floor of one of those huge Gothic warehouses, and is packed with spices from all over the world, as well as the old equipment used to transport, grind, and sift them. Very interesting if you’re into food, history, and cuisine (which we are), but the kids were less enthused. At least at first – then they realized that they could sample the spices in each of the huge burlap sacks lining the walls, as if it were a big interactive scratch n’ sniff storybook. And not just a pinch of this, a sprinkle of that – it was “MUST INHALE ALL OF THE THINGS.” M hit his limit when he plunged both hands into a bag of cumin and tried to hork it all up his nose. Didn’t feel so hot after that! Maybe I should lay off the cumin in my next batch of chili.

There’s a shop adjoining the museum that’s almost as big as the exhibit itself. I picked up a few things to experiment/cook with: some garam masala (an Indian spice mix), harissa (North African spice mix), and Arabian coffee spice. Pretty sure that’s what made the coffee so delicious at the tea house in Granada back in December. So far I’ve used the harissa on eggs (good w/ some toasted bread and fresh tomatoes), and am trying to find the right balance of coffee spice to coffee with the one-cup French press we’re borrowing from a friend. (We need a real coffee maker again!)

We couldn’t leave Hamburg without having a hamburger, duh, so on the way back to museum we stopped in at a place called Jim Block (I found it on Yelp). It was like a fast-casual place, similar to Smashburger. Nice inside, and the burgers were good (so big they required knife & fork), though I still prefer In & Out/Five Guys/Nation’s (an East Bay chain).

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Can’t go to Hamburg without having a hamburger!

And then that was it for our quick Hamburg getaway! A fun spontaneous little trip. Next time we’re down there we’ll do the gardens, as I hear Hamburg is really pretty in the spring and summer. Any suggestions for other sights to see, let us know! Auf wiedersehn for now.

Spain, parte tres: Granada

Here’s part 3 of our trip to Spain over Christmas vacation. You can read the first 2 parts here:
https://witzaboutus.com/2014/12/30/spain-parte-dos-bienvenidos-a-malaga/
https://witzaboutus.com/2014/12/30/spain-parte-uno-a-donde-vamos/

Although we’d had a very busy and exciting evening in Malaga, we’d only been in Spain for less than a day – and then bright and early, we got packed up again to get back on the road. Andale!

I went out to a local bodega to grab some fruit and pastries for a light breakfast, we said goodbye to our host and handed over the keys, and walked back down to the bus station (the right way this time!). Note to fellow travelers: the Alsa bus station (next to the Maria Zambrano train station) is not terribly efficient. We almost didn’t make our bus. Only one window open for our bus company, and a very long line. Some guy kept trying to cut in on everyone, and then security would take him away. And then he’d come back and do it again. Kept the wait entertaining I guess. Anyway, will book tickets on the website next time.

Price from Malaga to Granada is about 10 euros a piece, one way. The 2.5 hour ride was pretty, with sweeping views of green valleys, orchards and vineyards, and farmlands dotted with crumbling stone ruins and foundations.

Once we arrived in Granada, we took a taxi (another 7 euros) down to the city centre, where we were staying in our AirBnB apartment across from Plaza Nueva. We met our hosts’ friend at the door, and although he spoke no English, we were able to understand most of his instructions for the place (and if not, there was always Google Translate). We were welcomed into the apartment by the scent of sweet incense, and it was delightful inside! Bright, open, sunny, and sparsely but tastefully decorated with a mix of Mediterranean and Moorish/Arabic art and accessories.

Our host set up a hammock in the living room for the boys (they traded off w/ a small daybed), and pointed out a hookah pipe and fruit shisha in case B and I wanted to try it one night, though we never got around to it. Although we never met the young family who owned the apartment, we communicated with them via AirBnB’s messaging service, plus they had left a map and handwritten notes and suggestions on the wall – a very thoughtful gesture for all of their guests and something that every AirBnB host should do!

One of the main reasons we wanted to visit Granada is its rich history and blend of Spanish and Islamic culture. We are both fascinated by the art and architecture, and B loves the textiles and design as well. (We had briefly considered a day trip to Morocco, but it seemed to be too much travel for too little time in the city – plus all of our research said to skip Tangier in favor of more authentic cities like Fez or Marrakesh, which were just too far).

Granada was established and expanded by the Moors in the late 11th century, who retained control until 1492, when the city was surrendered to Ferdinand II and Isabella I after the last battle of the Granada War. That surrender and reclamation is now known as La Reconquista, and although many of the city’s mosques (and synagogues, in the former Jewish quarter) were converted to churches or completely demolished, parts of the city still retain that Moorish character.

One area in particular, an old neighborhood called the Albaicin, was very close to our apartment, and so that’s what we decided to explore first. There are many areas of Granada that feel like a normal modern city, but this area was a step back in time. We walked along an old waterway bordered by graceful stone houses and a low stone wall. The lane was very narrow, with no sidewalk, so everytime a car or bus came thundering by on the cobblestones, we grabbed the kids and flattened ourselves against the wall like cartoon characters. At a break in the trees, we could look up at The Alhambra, the 14th century Moorish palace which we’d be visiting in the morning. A crumbling bridge support is all that is left down at this level. The boys really wanted to know where the doorway led to!

If we’d have continued following the lane for awhile, we’d have arrived at a neighborhood called Sacromonte, up in the hills. It’s famous for its native gypsy population, who’ve built an entire community in the caves that dot the landscape. It’s a very popular destination for flamenco dancing and music, but we never made the time (or had the energy) to go back up there. Maybe another day when the kids are older.

Instead, we ducked into an alley and started climbing up into the Albaicin, wending our way through quiet courtyards and narrow lanes. I love this kind of exploring, and it’s the little details and surprises that made it special: quirky graffiti, a dog watching us from a balcony, ancient gateways to peer through, and open views that might be waiting around the next corner.

We found a little Moroccan cafe called La Mancha Chica just off a pretty tiled plaza with a view of the snow-capped mountains, and went in for a light lunch. Got a plate of hummus and puffy fresh-baked pita, some marinated tomatoes and cucumbers, a dish of white beans and sautéed spinach in olive oil and lemon, wine for B, fresh squeezed orange juice for the boys, and a really delicious Spanish imperial pilsner called Alhambra Especial 1925. Best beer of the week, and I continued looking for it wherever we went.

Afterwards, we worked our way back down through the Albaicin until we found Calle Elvira, one of the oldest streets in the city and now lined with shops selling all sorts of Moroccan and Moorish goods: colorful fabrics and lanterns, polished hookahs and teapots, ornately-patterned charm boxes, and lots of carpets, handbags, and coats. We poked in and out, picked up a few goodies (some decorated pillowcases for the boys, a patterned throw for our new sofa at home), and then popped into an Arabic tea house for another snack. B and the boys shared a pot of mint tea and I got a pot of rich Arabic coffee spiced with cinnamon. Plus a few pieces of baklava and kadaif (the birds’ nest pastry) to share, all of them dripping with honey and nuts.

By that point, it was late afternoon, and Calle Elvira conveniently ran down into Plaza Nueva, near our apartment. Time to rest and regroup. We didn’t have any plans for the evening, but once we headed out again, it was dark and getting quite cold; December in Spain is still warmer than Denmark, but Granada is up in the mountains, so it was a lot colder than Malaga. I honestly can’t even remember where we finally ate dinner than night – some unremarkable tapas place not far from Plaza Nueva. Not as good as the previous night in Malaga, but we had enjoyed such a fun and busy day in Granada that it didn’t matter. Tomorrow: wake up early and head back up the hill to the Alhambra!

Spain, parte dos: Bienvenidos a Malaga!

Here’s part 2 of our trip to Spain during Christmas vacation – you can read part 1 here!
https://witzaboutus.com/2014/12/30/spain-parte-uno-a-donde-vamos/

Our afternoon flight from Billund to Málaga was around 3 hours, and it was a balmy 62 degrees when we stepped out of the airport. Everyone else was bundled up in winter coats and scarves, but to us, it felt like a typical summer day back in San Francisco. Meanwhile, it was gray and gloomy back in Billund, so we already knew that a week on the Mediterranean – even a cool, off-season week – was a smart pick.

After getting some Euros and finding the right airport bus, we rode the 15 minutes to the Alsa bus depot, close to the city’s main train station and our AirBnB rental. Unfortunately, we took a bit of a scenic route, as I assumed that we could use a pedestrian overpass above the train tracks as a shortcut to the apartment. Turned out to be twice as long (and passed through a dumpy looking part of town), but the boys enjoyed the clackety-clack of their suitcase wheels along the sidewalk, and we also happened upon some bright green native parrots nesting in an abandoned warehouse.

Our apartment for the night was on the 13th floor! I guess triskaidekaphobia isn’t a problem in Spain (well, not quite – nothing bad will happen to you on Friday the 13th, but apparently a Tuesday the 13th is muy malo). Our host was about our age, and although some of the AirBnB reviews had said he spoke little English, we communicated just fine. B and I both took Spanish in high school, though we’ve had little occasion to use it (even after living in the Southwest and California for the last 14 years). In any case, his English was better than our Spanish!

The apartment was big and roomy, with a room for each of the boys and one for us, a kitchen with a washing machine (clothes get hung out the window on a line – a dizzying experience for B when she washed a few items), a bright orange-red bathroom (with a bidet! the boys were confused), a nice TV, and most importantly, a good wifi connection! Our host showed us around the place, pointed out the pedestrian and dining area of town on Google Maps, and then left us to settle in.

It was only a 15 minute walk to the downtown area, and although our apartment was located in an average, not-terribly-pretty part of town (typical when you’re close to the major transit hubs, I guess), the city center was much nicer. Palm tree lined streets, sunset on the horizon, a big park running down the main boulevard, and throngs of people all heading towards Calle Marino Lario, which runs north into the pedestrian and shopping district.

We’d arrived in town during siesta time – and yes, stores do close in the middle of the day – but by now, people were starting to come out again for the evening, and with these downtown shopping districts, it’s not hard to see why. Aarhus, in Denmark, has a similar area, and I wonder why there aren’t more in American cities. Once you get into the shopping district, there are no cars – just endless promenades and streets and plazas where you can find cafes and tapas bars and restaurants, tons of shopping – and tons of people. Very easy to explore – or get lost, if you don’t mind that. (And with Google Maps in our pockets, not really hard to do that anymore).

We stopped at a few restaurants where I could ask, in my limited Spanish, if their kitchens were open – they all said no. What I didn’t understand is that this just meant that they weren’t preparing meals at the moment (not until around 8pm), but you could still get some tapas from the bar.

The boys were getting hangry by this point, so we just picked a place called Tapa’s Bar (lame pun or unnecessary apostrophe?) in a nice wide plaza dotted with orange trees. They seemed to be really understaffed though – the two waitresses were surly and unhelpful, and many of the items on the menu were sold out. After a long wait to place our order, we finally got some bread and cured ham, a dish of olives, a Spanish tortilla (a delicious cake/omelette made with eggs and potatoes) and beer and wine for B and me. It was just enough to whet our appetites, but we didn’t want to stick around. The boys had fun climbing a nearby orange tree though, and we also chatted with a little Spanish boy at the next table, who was eager to show off his tiny toy gun collection (stored in a belt pouch that read USA, of course).

We got a nice surprise when we left the plaza – beautiful, ornate light displays all the way down the promenade, and leading out towards an even bigger main plaza. I guess we arrived in Málaga on the right evening, because there was a big party kicking off, with a band, singers, and parades of musicians tromping and tooting through the narrow lanes and cobblestone alleyways for the next hour. Great people watching too – the Spanish have style, even when they’re bundled up against the cold. Lots of belted waistcoats and jackets and scarves. The women all had their makeup and hair done (tasteful, not too much), and I noticed a lot of young men with brightly colored sneakers and piled-up pompadour hair. Also, not a single logo or branded clothing item in sight. Quite different than what you’d typically see at a mall in the US.

After wandering around through the streets and shops for awhile, we found a tiny tapas place in a narrow alley and grabbed a table. Within minutes, another marching band paraded past, as if to say “Welcome to Spain! Now have some more tapas!” So we did. E must have worked up an appetite too, because not only was he hungrier than usual, he also wanted to try the most unusual items on the menu. Seriously, this is the kid that won’t even eat some of the basic meals we’ve been making in Denmark, and here he’s asking for fried octopus, and snails, and small red snappers with the heads still on. We got almost all of it – plus some neon-yellow, saffron-rich paella – and had a merry seafood feast.

After dinner, we walked off our meal and got the boys some little explosive snappers so that they could join in the merrymaking. Then there was only one thing left to do before we turned in for the night. Yes, more food! Chocolate and churros, to be exact. B and I had had this when we were in Cartagena (Spain, not Colombia), and we knew the boys would love it. The churros are not the kind we are used to from ballparks and zoos (or Costco) – they’re not sugared, and barely even sweet. Which is fine, since the hot chocolate is plenty sweet enough. I’d hardly even call it hot chocolate – hot pudding is more like it. Needless to say, the boys devoured theirs.

We trooped back to the apartment, happy to have found some pleasant surprises during just a few short hours in town. Here is E, crashed out on the couch – the boys were so zonked from their big night out that they slept through the night without a peep. Come to think of it, we were out hard too, thanks to what was possibly the most comfortable bed in all of Spain.

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Tomorrow: adios to Málaga, and a trip to Granada!

And oh yeah, one more important thing to point out: Taco Bell in Spain sells beer?!

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