Christmas Markets

by Karen

Christmas markets are very popular in Europe, traditionally run since the middle ages. They are essentially large pop-up flea markets with many vendors selling Christmas items (ornaments, stocking stuffers, handicrafts, etc.) and seasonal foods, ESPECIALLY holiday drinks.

One of the primary reasons for us wanting to visit Europe in the winter was because we wanted to experience these markets. In fact, we structured our entire itinerary to ensure that we’d be in Germany during the holiday season. (With dozens of revisions, doubts, panicked moments, and backup plans, I think we did ok!)

We visited some friends in Strasbourg (a small city on the French/German border) who showed us around town and gave us our first real glimpse of a Christmas market.

At these markets, many vendors will sell drinks, the most popular being a hot, mulled wine called glühwein (I preferred the taste of the non-alcoholic version, “kinderpunsch”). When you pay for the drink, you also pay a small deposit fee for the cup, usually a mug with decorations or the name of the specific market plastered on it. If you choose to keep the cup, you lose the deposit, but get a neat souvenir. Otherwise you can return the cup to the booth and get your money back.

In terms of food, you can find lots of pretzels, cookies, bratwursts, cured meats, cheeses, waffles, roasted chestnuts, nougats, and candies. In Strasbourg, we found a vendor selling excellent smoked duck meat.

Some photos of various Christmas markets in Strasbourg, Alsace region villages, Rothenburg, and Munich.

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An unexpected shrine in Munich

by Karen

While aimlessly walking around Munich’s deserted streets at 6pm (it’s Christmas Eve), we stumbled across a park and saw some statues. We noticed one of the statues had votives, photos, and letters strewn across it, so we assumed it must either be a memorial to someone who died here, or something for Jesus’s birthday.

Upon closer inspection…

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Yup, a shrine to the King of Pop himself. On top of a monument to a Bavarian musician from 500 years ago. Apparently this is a fan-made shrine not supported by city officials. To discourage fans from building on top of the statue and to sabotage the shrine, some city residents dump birdseed around the memorial to get pigeons to poop around it.

You can find this in Promenadeplatz in front of the Bayerischer Hof hotel. Apparently MJ stayed here a lot while in town.

More Info: http://www.thelocal.de/20100409/26447

Florence Photo Dump

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Florence Photo Dump

Lots of great art, and some of the best food in Italy

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Pisa & Lucca Daytrip

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Pisa & Lucca Daytrip (a.k.a. “How many silly/dumb photos can we take at the Leaning Tower?”)

Pisa & Lucca are neighboring towns about an hour away from Florence by train. Pisa is well-known for its tower (we didn’t climb up), but there are several buildings in the area with beautiful medieval & gothic architecture. Lucca is a cute little walled-in medieval town swarmed by local tourists doing their Christmas shopping.

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Gelato in Rome

by Karen
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So after eating gelato every single day for the past 14 days at various places across the city, here are our top 3 choices for best gelato in Rome.

Note that we only ordered small cones in all stores (“piccolo coni“), which is actually more than enough! Small cones always include 2 scoops (mix-&-match, or one flavor), and optional whipped cream, sometimes homemade (just ask for “con panna“).


GROM

Location: corner of Piazza Navona
Open til: 11pm
Number of times visited: 3 (in one day!)
Price: 2.50€
Flavors tried: Meringata al Pistachio, Ricotta e Fichi, Pere, Zabaione, Crema di Grom

Best pistachio ice cream I’ve ever had anywhere, period. If you combine it with the ricotta & fig flavor, EVEN BETTER.

Note that I’m only judging this place on the basis of that (perfect) flavor combo. The other flavors were ok, I didn’t like their Zabaione, which is wine-flavored (Mark loved it), but I did enjoy their Pear, which tasted and felt like pear puree in gelato form.

Also, how can you not like the name? GROM. Sounds like a gelato place that Conan the Barbarian would open after retiring from…doing barbarian things.

It is an Italian chain, though it seems to be pretty popular amongst the locals. (Fortunately for us, there is also a branch in Florence!)
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Come il Latte

Location: Via Spaventa 26 (near Repubblica Metro A stop)
Open: Til 11pm
Number of times visited: 3
Price: 2.20€
Flavors tried: too many to remember

This is Mark’s favorite, and I’m a big fan of it as well, and I think it’s the best value out of all the gelato places we’ve tried. It’s also the only one on this list that isn’t a chain.

For 2.20€, you get:
– a small cone with 3 scoops (can be all different flavors, and they are definitely not small!)
– white or dark chocolate fondue
– a wafer
– your choice of regular or vanilla homemade whipped cream
– more chocolate drizzle

Come il Latte is a few blocks from the Santa Maria della Vittoria church, which houses the famous Ecstacy of Saint Teresa sculpture by Bernini. It’s a bit off the tourist path (at least in the winter), hidden amongst small side streets in a quiet corner. They are open late, which is great if you’re traveling from across town just to get there.

They have a wide variety of flavors, and we can only assume that they are all good. My go-to flavor was the Mascarpone e Gentili, and their Chestnut is pretty damn good. Once you choose your flavor, you get a choice of having your cone showered in white or dark chocolate. This is awesome, because the chocolate will sit inside your cone as you eat your gelato. Once you start eating your cone, chocolate just starts spilling out–the best part is that it’s still warm!
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Gelarmony

Location: Via Marcantonio Colonna, 34 (near Lepanto Metro A stop)
Open: Til 11pm
Number of times visited: 4
Price: 1.80€
Flavors tried: Ricotta & eclair, strawberry, pistachio, lemon cake, etc.

If you are near the Vatican or visiting the VIGAMUS Video Game Museum, this gelato place is worth visiting. I fell in love with their strawberry and the ricotta & eclair (which somehow tastes like a cinnamon gingerbread cookie, but I can overlook this misnomer). Also, this is one of the cheaper gelato places we’ve seen. I was actually surprised to find out that this was a global chain, with branches in Hawaii, Vancouver, Beijing, and San Diego(!!).
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For the record, here is a list of other places we’ve tried. They were good, but not as memorable as the ones we’ve mentioned earlier.

– Frigidarium (Trastevere)
– Dei Gracchi (Vatican-area, near Lepanto Metro A stop)
– Cremi (Trastevere)
– Salaria (a bit out of the way, take a tram from Villa Borghese or Policlinico Metro B stop)
– San Crispino (near Pantheon)
– Il Gelatone (near Vittorio Emmanuel II Monument)
– Fatamorgana (Trastevere)

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Rome Photo Dump

via our Facebook page:

Photo dump!

Rome is an awesome city, there is just so much history packed into one place. We’ve felt like our entire trip (the history of all the places we’ve been to) has been based around the rise and fall of the Roman empire. It’s surreal and feels like a completely separate dimension, but nope, it actually happened here!

This past week we’ve been to ruins, catacombs, more churches (I don’t think I can get sick of those), museums, and walked through medieval streets. Bernini is everywhere! We watched an opera rehearsal and a Baroque concert. And we found our favorite gelato place.

We’ll try and write more blog posts when we can!

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The RomaPass – Cost-Savings Analysis

by Karen

In Paris, we purchased the Paris Museum Pass to visit an unlimited number of museums within 6 days, and thought it was our best purchase there. We heard that Rome had something similar, called the RomaPass, and decided to get one. Unfortunately, its rules and usage is not as clear as the Paris pass.

Whereas the Paris Museum Pass allows you to visit any (listed) museum for an unlimited number for times during a set period, the Roma Pass has these rules:

– costs 34€ per person
– activated on your first visit to any site or first use of public transportation, expires at midnight on the third consecutive day
– unlimited use of public transportation (a 16.50€ value)
– allows you to visit your first two museums/attractions for free
– any museum you visit AFTER your first two freebies are subject to a discounted entrance fee
– allows you to skip lines at some museums (not necessary in early December, but I’d imagine crucial in peak season)
– all major attractions & museums are covered, EXCEPT anything inside Vatican City (it’s not a part of Rome!)

Now, this sounds like a really great deal! That is, until you look at the admission fees for these attractions & museums, as well at the cost of public transportation: this stuff’s already pretty cheap! And the discounted prices to museums aren’t really significant. So did we end up saving money buying a Roma Pass?

Here are the general costs of public transportation (as of Dec 2013):
– Single ride ticket: 1.50€
– 1-day Metro pass: 6.00€ (4 rides)
– 3-day Metro pass: 16.50€ (11 rides)
– 7-day Metro pass: 24.00€ (16 rides)

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