Extravagance, elegance and experience! From United Arab Emirates to France in March

This month, James travelled overseas alone to Abu Dhabi, where he had the perfect holiday. After months of daily _MG_4275 German courses, homework and study being fitted in around his other part time job, not to mention the short days and icy temperatures, he was well overdue for a break and what a place to spend it. James’ parents Michael and Jennene were in Abu Dhabi for a conference, and since it is only a 7 hour flight direct from Stuttgart (like flying Auckland to Perth), it was an opportunity not to be missed for James to catch up with his parents after nearly a year of being away from home._MG_4354

After the ancient cities of Europe, Abu Dhabi was like another world, one where the line between fantasy and reality is blurred and the level of opulence is realms beyond any other country we had ever visited. James was awestruck from the minute he landed, with the scale of the buildings, the brightness of the lights, the modernness of the interiors and the sheer luxury which was everywhere. The streets could have literally been lined with gold and noone would have blinked an eye.

All of this luxury comes at a price however – which James learnt on the first night after ordering a single glass of whiskey…and receiving a bill for 75 euros! The hotel where the Brosnahans were staying was directly over the famous Formula One track, and they breakfasted whilst watching Ferrari’s zoom around the track below them. James and his mum visited Ferrari world, riding the roller coaster and ogling the cars.

A highlight of the trip was a visit to the Sheikh Zayed mosque. The mosque itself covers an area of 12 square hectares, and was intended to be a symbol of unity, to represent_MG_4270 the cultural diversity in the UAE and the world. Materials and pieces of art from many different countries are included in the _MG_4197design, notabu dhabi james least the huge chandeliers made from Swarovski crystal, imported from Germany. The carpet in the main prayer hall is over 5,500 m squared and is one single piece woven from wool sourced partly from New Zealand.

Marble and precious stones abound inside the mosque, with inlays of pearl and gold everywhere. In order to enter the mosque tourists must respect the religious and cultural beliefs of the local community, therefore James was required to don a full length garment to hide his bare legs.

A day trip saw the family plus some friends from the conference, including a good friend Justin from New Zealand, visit nearby Dubai. Here the Mall of Dubai held hours worth of entertainment, with an aquarium (complete with sharks) in its midst. Other sights included the Gold markets, spice markets and a boat tour along the Dubai “creek”, as well as a view of the world’s tallest building towering above the other skyscrapers.

_MG_4210

At first distracted by the shining attractions, James later did notice that this sparkling oasis is still in the middle of a desert. We wonder what life would be like when the majority of daily life is conducted indoors, and main attractions include shopping (especially important since a lot of emphasis does seem to be placed on wealth and status in these cities). On the road between Abu Dhabi and Dubai, the unspoken seedier side of the UAE was evident, with poverty stricken immigrants lining the streets, on their way to 15 hour work days and certainly nowhere near the clean, beautiful streets of the main cities. _MG_4425_MG_4433

In general, 5 days in the sun and heat, relaxing by the pool and partaking in the extravagant lifestyle that is life in the UAE, were a complete delight for James. He returned home raving about Abu Dhabi and we can’t wait to go together one day! Seeing his parents after so long was also fantastic and he enjoyed every minute of his holiday.

_MG_4559

Although Abu Dhabi certainly counted as a country for our goal of visiting a different land each month…. I wasn’t there so we needed to get me across a border as well! In the last weekend of March we headed to Strassbourg in France. From Stuttgart, Strassbourg can be reached in just over an hour with the TGV however this convenience does not come cheap. We instead took advantage of the Baden Wurttemberg ticket which allows us both to travel on all commuter transport in the state for 24 hours, for just 28 euros. We set off from Tubingen at 7am and 3 hours later crossed the border into France (our ticket got us as far as Kehl, from where it is just 10 minutes to Strassbourg). It was a stunning sunny day, perfect for exploring the pretty Alsace town. Even the main train station was distinctly more French than German, however we were relieved to find that German and English are spoken widely. I have never met such friendly French people as I did in Strassbourg and was grateful for the hospitality of the cafe owners, shopkeepers and tourism operators .

_MG_4565_MG_4575

After strolling through the old town and stopping off at the numerous chocolate shops, we stopped at a cafe, where we enjoyed a coffee and a spot of people watching in the sunshine. Having stimulated our appetites we proceeded directly to lunch – at a creperie of course! Being able to enjoy both a savoury and a sweet crepe was as always a treat for me since the French make their ‘Galettes’ with gluten free buckwheat flour. Afterwards we made our way to the Cathedral… but not before picking up some macarons from a very sweet and elegant patisserie.

The Strassbourg Cathedral is a magnificent site, and was the world’s tallest building until 1874. Its gothic architecture is so intricate, and thousands of carved figures adorn its sandstone outer walls. Inside the wonderment continues, with high curved ceilings, stained glass windows and an astronomical clock.

In complete contrast to this building from the middle ages is Strassbourg’s more modern claim to fame – the headquarters of the European Union and Parliament.

We took the quintessential covered boat tour, which cruised along Strassbourg’s canals and took us past these sights. The Parliament building holds an amphitheater with 750 seats, and is surrounded by gardens which create a wall of green. The court of human rights of the EU is also here, and is a symbol of conciliation and peace. We floated past the Rhine Palace, Fisherman’s Quay and half timbered houses – which used to be like furniture; non-permanent fixtures to be moved around at will. Many of the buildings along the canals have a rich history, having over the years housed hospitals, then convents, then schools, then prisons. The four canals along which we rode are on two levels, and we had to go through Locks where 360,000 litres of water flows in to raise the water level 1.8 metres, allowing boats to access the next level of canals. We passed under many covered bridges where gunners took their positions during battles throughout time – the bridges were covered not to protect the gunners from the elements however, rather the gunpowder!_MG_4591 _MG_4594 _MG_4597

The waterways have many stories associated with them and form part of Strassbourg’s identity. One such example is that the washing of the rich was done upstream of the poor, but if something from the rich escaped the washerwomen and floated downstream, they had to pay the poorer women to get it back! The old tanneries next to the water which are now closed in, used to have open roofs to dry the skins, and criminals were tortured in cages hung from the bridges around the city. The contrast of medieval history, centuries old buildings and churches (with tombs dating back to 1180) with the modern concept of the European Parliament mean that Strassbourg has an interesting and ecclectic collection of sites. Combined with its German influences and French culture, mixture of locals and tourists and of course the crepes and macarons, this gem in the Alsace is certainly a place we will visit again.

Making the most of our travel ticket, we crossed the border again and headed slightly south back into the Black Forest, to stay the night in Freiburg. We didn’t check out too many sights in this attractive student town, but I ran in my first European race which was a real experience! I have never run in an event with so many participants, where for the first few kilometers it was impossible to find elbow room and where I was never wanting for company.

_MG_4626_MG_4661This March update has been somewhat delayed… thanks to the adventure that has been moving house! That story deserves a blog post in itself, but suffice to say we have been kept extremely busy and are looking forward to our next mini-break overseas.

Advertisements

February Freeze

February for us is usually a blissful month of long days, hot sun, after work swims at the beach, weekends spent sipping iced beverages and paddle boarding, kayaking, sailing, swimming, sunbathing or various other activities involving the outdoors and the water.

IMG_4184

Watching the snow fall

This year, were introduced to snow shoveling, below freezing temperatures, darkness falling before 5:30pm and Netflix. Lots of Netflix.

We haven’t been completely deterred from being outside however, IMG_4409and feel very fortunate to be living in an area where we are within a couple hours drive of multiple ski fields. Making the most of winter, we’ve enjoyed taking up skiing as a new sport and have spent February working our way up to the real slopes. At the beginning of the month, we took a bus from nearby Reutlingen to a small ski field in the Schwaebisch Albs just 24km away. Having only skiied about twice before (the last time being a traumatic experience on far-from-beginner-slopes in Austria 4 years ago), this small field was the perfect re-introduction. We may have been some of the oldest people there, but at least we weren’t the only ones struggling to master the T-bar lift! The gentle slope allowed me to get the feel of skiing, although it was highly embarrassing when I thought I was doing quite well only to hear “beep beep”… I turned around and found a 3 year old trying to get past me. He proceeded to zoom off into the distance… no parents, no poles, no fear!

The next weekend we stepped it up a level and took a bus to the Feldberg ski area in the Black Forest. IMG_4415Although it is only about 1.5 hours by car, I was very impressed with the ease at which we managed the journey with public transport. The bus took us directly to Titisee, from where we got the ski bus up to the Grafenmatt ski field. IMG_4408 It is still a real novelty for us to ski amongst pine trees, since the only ski field we’ve ever known is on the bare face of a volcano. After an hour of practice, we decided we should each have a private lesson, in order to improve our skills since we knew that at the end of the month we would be braving the slopes in Austria again. James’ lesson proceeded as follows:

Ski down blue run. Too easy. Ski down red run. Too easy. Instructor: I don’t actually think I can teach you anything. Hmm. Ski down black world cup run! Lesson over.

IMG_4416

I’m the one in pink pants

Mine was a little more constructive. My instructor immediately realised that my biggest problem is confidence, so we did some exercises involving skiing without poles, and switching them from hand to hand. I managed to comfortably ski down a short red run a few times. After lunch unfortunately the snow had become icy in some parts and very uneven with hills and holes in others which increased the technical difficulty. We decided to try out a new red run, however I learnt that not all red runs are the same level! This was bumpy, icy and steep and many people were struggling to ski down with control. I managed the first 2/3rds but ended up taking off my skis and walking down the last part. We learned afterwards that it was exactly the same terrain and gradient as the neighbouring black run, and only classified as red because it was wide. I didn’t feel quite so bad after hearing that!

Due to the worsening weather and snow conditions we headed back to Titisee a little early. This town is beautiful in summer and almost more so in winter. It was like a scene from a postcard, IMG_4420with shoulder deep snow drifts piled up on the side of the road, trees glistening with white and perfectly formed icicles hanging from the roofs. Since we had some extra time, we embarked on our first European sauna experience. Read: no clothes allowed. It was definitely a strange feeling for the first 5 minutes to be so exposed, but since the other patrons were also naked and nobody was paying attention to anyone else it felt normal in no time. The heat of the saunas and the spa was just perfect after our freezing hours on the ski field.

Our month finished off with the penultimate ski trip to Austria. This was a trip organised by the local sports shop, and it’s hard to believe how easy it all was! We paid 50 euros in advance for the bus and the lift pass, and left Tubingen at 5:30am, drove across the border and arrived directly at the ski field at 9am.

Heading up in the gondola, ready to hit the snow!

Heading up in the gondola, ready to hit the snow!

We had already received our lift passes on the bus and having hired our gear in Tubingen, all we had to do was put on our ski boots and get on the Gondola. The bus departed exactly on time in the afternoon, had beers and water waiting on board and we were home by 7pm. Just taking a day trip to another country is still mind boggling for us.

The Montafon Golm ski field is great for intermediate skiiers, with its wide open pistes, good range of runs and it was not crowded at all. A group of 6 of us were on the trip together, and we had the best day out. It snowed lightly all morning, and was overcast in the afternoon but the snow condition was great and it was a very mild temperature. Within the first 5 minutes James attempted a stop at high speed and managed to bowl our friend Alex over, and I didn’t have the skill to turn quickly to get out of the way of another skiier so careened straight down the slope, promptly tumbling over of course. With our first falls out of the way, we took the chair lift to the highest point and it was straight onto a red run. The previous two ski excursions had served me well, as my confidence and skill were at a level where I could at least do most of the runs the others did, albeit a lot slower! The others sped ahead, I took my time, the boys ventured slightly off piste (complete with tree-collisions and faceplants) and we all met up to ride the lift to the top together. At the top of the lift we would use the map to plot our way down and we must have done at least 10 or 12 runs during the day. It was fun to be able to pick and choose routes, James enjoyed having another guy to zoom around with and with my confidence slowly on the rise I certainly challenged myself.IMG_4393

After nearly 3 hours of skiing we took a lunch break, after which we were all somewhat tired, and the snow was becoming bumpy so the afternoon session was at a somewhat more sedate pace. With the snow being so uneven I was inadvertently forced to do a few jumps, and I have to admit I eyed up the ski jump with keen interest… maybe next time!

A neat feature of Montafon Golm is that from the top of the lift to the carpark, you can ski for 9.2km nonstop. We had planned this as our last run of the day, but unfortunately my shaking muscles and weary body meant I only made it the first 7. Still, it was overall a successful, laughter filled day out with friends and we ticked off another country for February.

IMG_4400

The weather is becoming more mild, flowers are starting to bud and Spring is on its way. The ski fields are likely to be open for another couple of months however, and since James in particular has the skiing bug I don’t think we’ve seen the last of snow this season!

The Black Forest (not just a cake)

IMG_3518Feeling a little cooped up, James and I decided to take a mini break last week, to the Schwarzwald (Black Forest).

Armed with our Baden Wurttemberg pass – a rail pass which allows us to use any of the regional (read: slow) trains in the state, we set off on Thursday evening and within three hours our train was pulling into Triberg station. Triberg, well known for the invention of the cuckoo clock, is a small town surrounded by forest, where Josef Keller first created the Black Forest Gateau, where some of the first tourist hiking trails were set up and home to the highest waterfalls in Germany. IMG_3517Our guest house provided not only breakfast, but a “Schwarzwald Card” which gave us free transport on all networks within the Black Forest as well as admission to a few top spots. This turned out to be fantastic value, as we used about 100 euros worth of trains in the area in two days.

 

On Friday morning we visited the Triberg falls, a series of waterfalls over 163m high. We could hear the chatter of the water as it cascaded playfully over rocks, into deep pools and through crevices, making its way down the hillside. The falls themselves are surrounded by a nature park with various marked trails. We hiked up the steep hill, able to cross the falls twice over purpose built foot bridges. After coming back down we could continue along a trail which brought us out at the edge of Triberg, and had a number of points of interest along the way back in such as ancient churches and of course, Cuckoo Clock shops!

_MG_3041_MG_3053

After browsing the shops we hopped aboard a train which travelled along the Schwarzwald Bahn route – a network of rail with about 35 tunnels and picturesque views of dense forest, towering pines, open meadows and small villages with wooden houses. Our destination was Titisee – a slightly bigger town on a beautiful lake. Nestled in the forest, with quaint shops selling traditional clothing and foods, cafes upon the water just made for whiling away the afternoon and boats for hire to enjoy the lake, Titisee is another gem where we felt miles away from the busy “real world” of central Europe. We took a walk around the edge of the lake, enjoying the view and the fresh air as well as our luck at not getting rained on!

Our afternoon was spent at an amazing pool complex on the outskirts of town. In this indoor complex we found a wave pool and 10 different water slides! The slides were amazing, and we spent hours running up the stairs and flinging ourselves down the various chutes on tubes. One was a speed slide, with a nearly vertical drop (James got up to 37km/h), another where we started off easy, dropped suddenly and were shot up the side of a massive halfpipe, swinging down the other side and out.
Many a time we got ourselves stuck going backwards through twisting chutes and we alternated between doubling and going it alone. When we’d had enough of the slides, we went through to the adjoining wellness area where we floated around in a quiet warm water pool, lay on massage jets and swam through to an outdoor area. The roof and walls here were glass, so I can just imagine how serene it would be when its snowing outside. With loungers, a pool bar, a cafe and an R16 entry criteria it was bliss. Another area had saunas, steam rooms and jacuzzis.. maybe we’ll have to come back in winter!

_MG_3058 _MG_3046

 

We enjoyed a meal of schnitzel and locally caught trout on the water front before taking a train back to Triberg. Here it was too late to catch a bus – luckily a local woman informed us that at this time of night, you have to call the bus an hour ahead so that it will stop at the station. Otherwise we would have waited for its scheduled arrival in 45 minutes time! It wasn’t raining and only a 15 minute walk up the road to our hotel, so we weren’t too put out.

IMG_3559

 

IMG_3512

The main street in Triberg

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

An old fashioned steam train in the Black Forest

The next morning stiff and sore from hiking, sliding and swimming we gingerly crept into the breakfast room. Abandoning ideas for another days hiking, we instead boarded a train bound for Baden-Baden, near the edge of the Black Forest and on our way home. This spa town is a complete contrast to the rustic feel of the Southern forest, and used to be popular amongst wealthy Russians for its casinos and its healing waters. There are ruins of ancient Roman baths here and two modern baths still offer the traditional experience.

IMG_3544This includes salt scrubbing, saunas and rejuvenating mineral pools. The town itself is quite large, and has a very pretty pedestrian area with boutique and high end shops, fountains and many cafes. The tree lined streets and impressive houses exude affluence, as do the clientele of the famous casino.

We walked through the suburbs to reach the station of the Merkurberg Bahn in the hills – a cable car to the top of the local mount. This is also a base for a hiking trail network through the forest and hills in the area – a day of hiking followed by an evening of hot pool soaking sounds like a good excuse to come back! The steep ride up in the cable car was fun, and I’m always amazed by the feats of engineering and the original thought which lead to their invention with things like this. At the top we stepped out to a magnificent view of the valley, over which were soaring a multitude of paragliders. We sat and watched them launch themselves off the hill for a while, before meandering along the pathways and checking out the view from the other side.

The cable car brought us back down the hillside, and we trained back to Ludwigsburg where exhausted and satisfied we indulged in some takeaways from a new Asian fusion restaurant. A taste of home after months of meat and potatoes was a welcome change and we felt thoroughly refreshed after our little excursion.

 

_MG_3076