Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Our Alsatian Adventure - Christmas Markets (part 1)

On Saturday we took off on yet another European adventure. This time heading to France, Germany and Switzerland, all in just 4 1/2 days. Thankfully where we were heading we're all within an hour to 2 hrs drive of each other so while three countries may seem daunting, it's really not. The only thing I wasn't looking forward to was the cold, after more than 30 years in New England, you would think it wouldn't bother me, but after two nice and mild winters I didn't know if I could go back and with the way I packed you would think we were expecting sub freezing temps for days rather than "mild" temps in the 30s. However the forecast called at least for some snow and so we packed accordingly. The boys were especially excited for this part!

We landed in Basel, Switzerland mid afternoon on Saturday and Aidan was bummed to see no snow on the ground.
Our fab rental car...

It looks tiny from the outside but on the inside it was actually quite spacious!

We headed straight out to visit some friends. To us, this was a major highlight of the trip. These are people we've been friends with for almost 2 1/2 years and yet had never met in person. How did that happen you ask? Well when we found out we were moving to Barcelona, our friend Dave suggested we contact his brother Paul who at the time was living in Basel (now in France) about life abroad. And a friendship was born. Paul and his wife Aimee have been a bountiful resource of information and reading their blog was also inspiring. I'd see what they had going on and feel like, well ok, they have xyz happening so if they can do all of that then I can handle abc which by comparison is easy.
Anyways when we decided to do the Christmas market tour we decided we absolutely had to visit with Paul, Aimee and their kids who are a year older a a year younger than Aidan. They were gracious to let us Tay with them for part of our trip and were the ultimate hosts. The moment we walked in the door it was like old friends seeing each other for the first time in years. We all just clicked.
The kids immediately got together and I loved that there seemed to be no tension between any of them. Aidan and Fiona were like bff's in minutes and he told me later that he reminded him of his friend Sophie who moved to the UK this year. I didn't realize how much he missed her. the kids did a little gift exchange which was sweet. The boys brought Seth and Fiona each a caga too from Barcelona, our Christmas tradition. And they gave Aidan and Liam a new game that they can't stop playing (great choice!). And of course the adults all had local alcohol to exchange :).
Aimee is an amazing cook and had prepared five outstanding courses, all accompanied by the appropriate wines. As with most meals in this part of europe, meals can last hours and this was no different and just enhanced the dining experience. We started off with a cheese fondue that was served in what looked like a shed outside but was actually an outdoor enclosed dining space complete with fireplace. And damn it was cold out compared to bcn!! After relaxing for a bit we moved on soup, a butternut squash, that was equisite. By the time the meal came, I had perhaps had a few too many glasses of wine which could explain the headache I had by then and by now I should know better and how to pace myself, especially after traveling. Regardless the beef stew with mashed potatoes was fabulous and just melted in your mouth. But we aren't done yet. We still have the cheese course (and I love French cheeses!) and dessert!
So yes, a fantastic way to start off our trip. Great conversation, delectable food, kids getting along...really can't ask for more. And so a huge thank you to Paul and Aimee for hosting us!  Of course, I took no pictures the first night... shame on me!!

Sunday morning I woke up early and was actually excited that there was some snow on the ground. Ok I was so excited to tell the kids that I basically was stalking their room til I saw Aidan stirring and I immediately pounced. I told him it was snowing (mind you it was barely a coating at that point) and he bounced out of bed to the window. He was grinning from ear to ear and looked like a kid on Christmas. Who knew he missed snow too? Guess sometimes you have to lose something to appreciate it.

So of course he wanted to wake Liam as well. I made him wait a few minutes but finally gave in. Liam, too, was excited and couldn't wait to get outside. Good thing I packed their snow pants! We walked over to the main house and they had their tongues out catching snowflakes and Liam announced he would be eating ALL of the snow with the exception of yellow and brown snow (whew!).
Snow across the street from Paul and Aimee's house

Aidan super excited looking out the window!

Must eat ALL of the snow!!

Running over to the main house to have breakfast

The 4 kids barely made it thru breakfast before begging to go outside. So off they went. Eating, throwing and running thru what was now maybe an inch or two. Regardless, it was snow and they were happy. And for me it was nice since this was the first time I didn't need to be out there with them. Ahhh the joys of them getting older.

Breakfast time!

A croissant ... I mean a telescope...

Out in the snow!

Going sledding...

Not much of a hill but they didn't care


Eating as much snow as possible

One happy kid :)

After playing in the snow everyone retreated back inside for some hot chocolate with not just whipped cream but sprinkles too, very nice touch Aimee! We chilled by the fire til it was time to go to lunch at a local eatery. Lunch was fabulous as we expected and we were just thrilled to have some form of meat two days in a row. Red meat isn't all that great in bcn so whenever we go to France we jump right on that bandwagon! The kids did some coloring and were all really well behaved thru the entire meal. I'm not sure where my kids must have been at that time because these children were clearly imposters!!
Yum, hot chocolate!!  Aidan with his new BFF, Fiona...
Sadly the time came to say goodbye to our friends, for now. The plan was to meet them on Wednesday for lunch before our flight headed back to Barcelona. Aidan was very bummed to be leaving his new friends which for me was actually a nice turn of events. If you recall this summer, he was very unfriendly to Zach and Haley when we did our France/Italy trip. Even though we had told him we were only staying with them one night, the memory of a 7 year old can certainly be selective.

On to the next part of our adventure in the Alsace. Strasbourg! This is where the apartment we rented was located and I absolutely could not have asked for a better location. Literally steps away from their famed cathedral, we are at the heart of Christmas right here. The street was a pedestrian one so we had to park the car away from the apartment but as we walked towards it we were just in awe of the old Alsatian structures and of course of this massive cathedral. It is the 6th largest church in the world standing at 466 feet tall. While other cathedrals have stood on this site, the current structure, known as Cathedral of our Lady of Strasbourg, began to be erected in 1176. Yes that is about 900 years ago. Aidan said that it reminded him a bit of Sagrada Familia in Barcelona and while that church is stunning in its own right, this one is about 800 years older!

Walking up to the Cathedral.  Our apartment was less than a block on the left from here... great location!

After getting the tour of the apartment from the owner, Josh set forth to find a store for necessary provisions. I went off with the kids to start to explore the insanely crowded market right down the block. Now the markets in Barcelona are nice but they just pale in comparison to these, and the market by the Cathedral has been in operation since 1570. We waited a half hour to get two pretzels and a hot cider. It was just that crowded. But while the booths in bcn focus on nativity scenes, caga nets and caga tis, the ones here had crepes, hot cider, mulled wine and lots more yummy snacks. There were booths with handmade toys and beautiful ornaments. They had Christmas village pieces. I don't own a Christmas village but being here made me want to own one! The kids were amazingly really into wandering the booths and the town. They loved exploring!

The people in Strasbourg go all out with the decorating of buildings!

Our building is the one with the vines on the right - and a great view of the "teddy bear" house
next to us!

There were lots of these little trains around the markets selling roasted chestnuts

Liam likes twirling...this was a cool picture since it looks like the wind twirled with him!

Eating a fresh pretzel

The chestnut guy let me take his picture

The building on the left was probably one of my favorites. You can't tell from this picture (but I have some daytime ones) but the windows all look like the panes are made from the bottoms of glass bottles.  I can't even  imagine how old this building is... stunning!

Some of the market in Strasbourg

Checking out some of the booths

Cathedral in the background

A very smiley Aidan

I'm pretty sure they aren't supposed to be up there, after all there were no stairs and they had to climb over the railing... oh you Americans!

Very cool chandelier lights along one street

A close up of the light

Huge Christmas tree in the center of town

Sneaking around to the back of the tree
We made it down to the center where there was a 20 meter tree standing over yet another market. By now we were in search of Josh who had been gone well over an hour. Eventually we found him and we headed off to dinner. We tried to get out of the touristy areas but apparently this time of year it's all touristy. We ended up in a pub figuring its hard to go wrong with comfort food. But it was just ok and Liam actually fell asleep at the table, a sure sign of a fun but long day. So after dinner we headed back to get a good nights rest in order to be ready for our next big day - markets in GERMANY!
After dinner fun 

Liam loved the teddy bears in the windows!

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