Take the Grilled Cheese and Run: How a Desperate Family Committed a Christmas Crime

It was on my fifth Christmas abroad that my father decided to make us accessories to a crime.

Since moving to Spain, my family had made the effort to follow me around the globe. We’ve spent Christmas with the monkeys on the Rock of Gibraltar, making gingerbread in Germany and visiting the cliffside Monserrat Monastery near Barcelona. In seven years in Europe, I’ve spent just one Christmas in my native Chicago.

But in Killarney, desperation meant my father had to pillage a hotel cafeteria for the sake of his hungry daughters.

How a Family Stole in Ireland

I come from an Irish family (red-headed, freckled and deathly pale are my hallmarks). A family that marches in local Saint Parick’s Day parades. Still has ties to the homeland in Country Mayo. One whose prized heirloom fiddle cries with “When Irish Eyes are Smiling” at every wedding. In fact, my surname is synonymous with Irish sport. The Emerald Isle has always been my father’s greatest travel dream, so he booked round-trip tickets to Ireland for Christmas without asking anyone’s permission.

But this vacation was doomed from the beginning – satellite photos showed the entire UK covered in snow. This meant a seven-hour ground delay for me in which my mom texted me, “R U hungry? I bought u a bagel” followed 20 minutes later with “Srry ate ur bagel.” I arrived famished and grumpy, and having not seen my family for a year, they were less than thrilled at my reception.

Dingle Peninsula

And there was more: the frost meant the pipes were frozen solid, leaving us without running water to shower or brush our teeth. Roads were shut down on the Ring of Kerry and thus rerouted us more than once, and sites that claimed to be open during the holidays didn’t bother to post that the snow had them shut down. My sister even came down with the flu and missed seeing Cork and exploring Amsterdam on my family’s layover.

But our lowest moment came on Christmas Day, where we had to stoop as far as breaking the law to save the holidays.

cliffs of moher

Christmas Eve dawned bright but cold in Galway on a bustling shopping day. We awed at the Cliffs of Moher before heading to Limerick for the night. After we shared a hearty Christmas meal, my dad and I went to the bar for a drink. My vision suddenly became cloudy and my head began to pound.

Apart from inheriting a love of beer from my Irish father, I also got his tendency to get sinus infections while traveling. I called it an early night and hoped to be over it the next morning (I also, luckily, got my mother’s iron immune system).

Having plowed through Angela’s Ashes on the long flight delay, I was eager to walk around Limerick that morning before setting off for the Dingle Peninsula. It was just as desolate and depressing as Frank McCourt describes – the morning still was interrupted by an occasional car passing by, or the honk of a goose. Squat, dilapidated houses lined the “historic” quarter.

Limerick Ireland

My dad chucked his map in a nearby bin, and we chucked the city.

Climbing into the car, I warned my family that we’d have trouble finding a place to eat on Christmas Day. Dad came to the rescue with a gas station English breakfast – soggy hash browns, pale grey sausages and a pack of cookies for good measure.

The ride around the damp Dingle Peninsula that morning was torture: every pothole sent a jolt of pain through my head and any time we stopped, I’d have to be coaxed out of the car. I grew hungry and restless to just stop somewhere and have something warm to drink, but storefronts were dark and the nearest gas station was back in Limerick. 

Galway Ireland

If I was grumpy and starving, my sister was far beyond that point. We passed the majority of the day in absolute silence.

Driving into Killarney, Mom spotted a sign for McDonald’s. “Don!” she squealed, “TURN AROUND! McDonalds will surely be open!”

After another strike, my dad pulled into a hotel nearby. We kept the car running to stay warm, but it took him 20 minutes to return.

He handed us each a Styrofoam plate with a steaming grilled cheese and french fries. “I told them we were guests at the hotel and that I’d check in once we ate, and they allowed me into the kitchen to make sandwiches,” he snickered as he put the car into first and sped off.

Guinness in Ireland

As I ate a tasteless grilled cheese and some cold french fries once we had safely escaped the scene of the crime. I smiled at my father, who was rifling through his suitcase for some more sinus congestion pills. 

Even at the most desperate of moments (and the most disastrous of family vacations), I knew my father would do anything for us, particularly if it included a good story and a plate of food.

Have you ever done anything desperate on your travels?

Visiting Munich’s Christmas Markets

Exploring Munich's Christmas Markets

I’d long been hoping to visit Germany during Christmas time. After five trips to Deutschland during the coldest months of the year, I finally made it to Oktoberfest, an absolute dream for beer lovers.

But shortly after my trip to the Weis’n, my parents decided to spend Christmas on the Danube River aboard a river boat, leaving from Munich. Glühwein for all!

Christkindlemarkt Munich

After a chaotic trimester, I tacked on a Friday and Saturday onto a weeklong cruise to eat my way around the Bavarian capital. Flight delays dropped me into the city near midnight, and after fumbling around my hostel dorm room to try to change into pajamas, I woke up still fully clothed and running late to meet my cousin, Christyn.

The hostel workers pointed me towards the city center and circled no fewer than ten markets around town, most of which were clumped around Marienplatz. Even before 10am, the streets smelled of seared meat and sweet, candied nuts, but my sensors detected something else: the GLÜHWEIN. 

The delicious gluhwein

But in all seriousness, is there anything so delightful?

I chose a booth right in front of the statue that gives Marienplatz its name, and it seems she had the same idea: as soon as I’d wrapped my paws around the steaming cup, she’d sidled up next to me and ordered one, too.

The oldest Munich Christmas market, then called Nicholausmarkt, dates back to the 14th century, and  the city now has themed stalls all around town, from traditional to children’s to even a medieval markets that sells pelts and wooden swords. We began at Marienplatz, which has traditional offerings like Christmas decorations and food – and slowly worked our way around the periphery markets.

Visit the Munich Christmarkets

Munich Christmas Cookies

Christmas time in the Munich markets

peacocks in Munich

 

Eating brats in Munich

Christmas Time in Europe

Christmas markets and ornaments

How delicious is Gluhwein!

In the end, my money went not to whimsical dolls or ornaments for my fake Christmas tree, but to food and drink to keep me warm! I’d see more markets in Passau, Vienna and Salzburg on that trip, but Munich’s is more magical – even for a Scrooge like me!

Interested in reading more about Munich? Check out my posts on Oktoberfest, on my thoughts on Neuschwanstein and the surprising village of Passau.

Have you ever been to Munich or any Christmas markets?

The Best-Kept Secrets in Florence

I admit I’m terrible at keeping secrets, but only the kind that you’re bursting to share with people. The kind where no one is being talked about and no one will get hurt.

I would have loved to keep the Novio completely in the dark about our Tuscan holiday until we arrived to the airport in January 2013, but as someone who hates surprises, it was easier to tell him to pack for a weekend of eating and drinking, with a little bit of walking around in between courses.

It’s not secret that I love Italy and just about everything I’ve experienced – my great aunt married an Italian just off the boat, and together they founded Chicago-based Italian food import company Dell’Alpe. Italian food and language have always been present at my family gatherings. The Novio had never been to anywhere north of Cagliari, so I bought him round-trip tickets, a secret I kept for less than three hours. 

Having spent my first solo trip in Florence, the city’s main sights held little mystique, so I got a local to spill the beans – Tiana Kai, an American married to a Fiorentino, who sent me a list of bars, enotecas and hole-in-the-wall trattorias. But everything went out the window when we arrived cold and hungry to Florence after 10pm.

Despite wrong turns, nearly scratching our rental car and being at the inability to find our hotel, the concierge suggested a hidden trattoria for dinner. When I say hidden, I meant really was – even after an exhaustive Internet search, I still can’t find the name. It was near the Mercato Centrale and just as nondescript as every family-run restaurant on the street.

We arrived just before the kitchen closed around 11pm. Ushered to a table and poured glasses of wine, we blinked blindly at the menu, which was all in Italian. A group of American students chattered nearby, crinkly their glasses of Chianti together every opportunity they got.

I found two words I knew – ravioli and gorgonzola – and settled on it. The Novio ordered another ravioli dish and a plate of antipasto. We broke a no-pasta-or-rice-before-bedtime rule.

The restaurant’s kitchen was just over his right shoulder, so I watched the chef hand roll the pasta, shape the raviolis and stuff what looked like pulled pork into the small squares of pasta. Lumps of cheese went into mine, which were then tossed in a wine sauce and garnishes with walnuts. The Novio had unwillingly chosen wild boar, which is also the unofficial mascot of the city (hence the photo).

The following morning dawned cold but bright. I walked the Novio past all of the important sites – the Uffizi Galleries, the Duomo, Ponte Vecchio. We vowed to spend our euros on food and drink, and therefore skipped the lines at the Medici palace for an espresso in the square, just steps from the iconic David statue.

We ended up near Santa Croce at noon. Entrance was a few euros, but as soon as the Novio found out it was Franciscan, he was willing to fork over the equivalent of a nice glass of wine. Though not a secret, hidden church, this basilica houses the remains of illustrious Italians, like Galileo and Michealangelo, in addition to providing respite from the cold sun. It’s a simple church, though its 16 chapels house frescoes from celebrated Italian artists.

We sat in the adjacent plaza after our visit,and I turned on my data to try and find a hole-in-the-wall pizza place I’d visited a few years back and found an open wi-fi code at a nearby wine bar. 

A college friend of mine had studied in Florence and recommended Il Gato e la Volpe. I had a meal there five years before, during my first trip alone in 2008. The waiters had sat me with an Italian American family who shared their wine and breadsticks with me as I devoured a pizza by myself.

Secret or not, this is as dive bar as classy Florence gets – wood paneling, rickety chairs and the smell of burnt pizza crust. We shared a liter of beer, a pizza and gnocchi with pesto for less than 12€, the price of a plate of pasta or individual pizza in a moderate restaurant near any major site in the city. (Via Ghiballina, 151, near Santa Croce. Open Daily)

We walked off our plates in the neighborhood, exploring roadside monuments and tucked-away piazzas before ending up back at the Arno and within view of the Ponte Vecchio.

The last place on our list was Piazzela Michelangelo – not an off-the-map place by any means, but most tourists don’t know it’s accessible by car. Tiana had clued us is, so we grabbed our bags from the hotel, shifted into first gear, and climbed the winding street in our Fiat.

The views were stunning on the clear day. We traced our steps through the narrow roads of the so-called Cradle of the Renaissance, from the Mercato Centrale to the Duomo to the backstreets of Santa Croce.

We were soon on the road to Bologna, food capital of Italy, where we’d skip again the leaning towers in favor of pasta, oysters and wine. Even in Emilia Romagna, we’d find locals willing to lead us to local foodie hangouts and invite us to rounds of grappa in the university area.

We left Italy after 48 hours, easily a few kilos heavier and without seeing any major sites. Unless, of course, you could seeing the Ponte Vecchio from afar.

Have you ever been to Florence or Bologna? 

Is Neuschwanstein Castle Worth It?

Sometimes, as a traveler, I struggle with taking the road less traveled and getting off the beaten path. I also struggle with not using idioms because I not-so-secretly love them.

Anyway, I am the first to admit that I love what everyone else does. Duh, that’s how they get popular in the first place.

Munich has always been a city in the back of my mind to see, just as Spain was since I first learned to say, “Me llamo Cat.” After attending Oktoberfest, I was hooked. Taking advantage of having my family’s arrival to the Munich Airport for our Viking cruise, I planned three nights in Bavaria.

I knew I could see Munich in a day, exploring its Christmas markets and beer halls with my cousin, which left me a full day for going elsewhere. Top contenders were Dachau, Nuremburg and Neuschwanstein Castle.

By the time I boarded my flight, I was still undecided and started considering whatever was cheaper. 

I arrived to my hostel after midnight, falling asleep with the internal wrestle of to do what was popular and what was probably better for the history nerd in me. The following morning, as I set off to meet Christyn, a group of Brazilians introduced themselves and revealed they’d be renting a car to drive to Neuschwanstein the following morning, in case I felt like joining. I politely turned the invitation down, imagining I’d choose to go to Dachau.

An hour later, as we sipped our first glühwein in front of the Rathaus, I announced my plight: visit a castle, pay respects at Dachau, or nerd out in Nuremburg. Christyn revealed Neuschwanstein was one of her favorite sites in all of Germany (this, from the girl with just as much adventure and curiosity as me, just types “schloss” into her GPS and follows the highway to a different castle on free weekends). Without so much as a second thought, I resolved to follow her advice.

The following morning, I boarded the first train out to Füssen, the end of the line. The train was chock-full of tourists, and I cursed the 44€ train ticket and the two-hour trip and the two girls seated opposite me who talked on their phones the entire time. I was moderately hung over from all of the wine and beer yesterday, and my stomach churned from overdoing it on the sausages, too. 

The landscape went from industrial to flat and without so much as a trace of a village for hours. By the time we got to Füssen, a small town near the foothills of the Alps, I’d gotten over myself. Like cattle, everyone emptied out of the carriages and directly onto the bus bound for Hohenschwangan. I kept my nose pressed to the glass to see the fairytale castle that inspired a hundred, um, fairytale castles, but the swarm of fellow tourists gasped as it came into sight. 

Built as a retreat for Ludwig II in the 1870s and 1880s, the castle is visited by more than 1.4 million people each year. On a crisp day just before Christmas, the whole place was alive with activity, and I felt like there were 1.4million people there with me. I chose to walk on foot to the nearby Hohenschwangau castle first.

I overheard two other tourists claim that the best, unconstructive view of Neuschwanstein could be seen from the chapel built right into the mountain. I eagerly climbed, Camarón ready, but it was hard to see the celebrated castle. 

Already feeling a bit disappointed with German Disneyland, I decided to forgo entering the castle, as I already felt overwhelmed by the number of tourists, the wait time (nearly two hours!) and the cost of the guided tour (12€ or 23€ to go into Hohenschwangau, too). The train ticket had already cleaned me out of cash, so I grabbed a grabbed a glühwein at a small cafe in town before starting the trek up the hill.

The thing about traveling alone is that you have no one to pull you one way or another and no one to take pictures of you. I grumbled as I looked for someone who spoke English or Spanish to take my picture (see above). In the two hours I’d spent at Neuschwanstein, I didn’t feel inspired or awed or even able to find a reason why it was worth making the trip.

In the end, I didn’t think visiting Neuschwanstein was worth the day or the money. The train trip was long, the cost to visit the castle itself was steep, and I worried I’d have to photoshop the hell out of my photos to remove the other baseball caps and elbows that surely snuck into my shots.

Don’t get me wrong – I will go to the Eiffel Tower every time I am in Paris, and I will enjoy it. I gleefully step into Plaza Mayor in Madrid and marvel at the fact that it was once a bull ring. Seeing the Taj Mahal was an intense experience between the heat, the people and the sheer beauty of the place.

But Neuschwanstein didn’t do it for me, even after I’d braced myself for the tourists, the prices and the cold.

Turning on my data to search GoEuro for busses back to the train station, I found I had enough time to walk down the hill, grab a few postcards and stand in line for the bus back to Füssen, where I would kill nearly two hours before the train back to Munich (and I ran into the Brazilians there, after an all night binge).

Füssen, as it turned out, was a lovely surprise to end the day. The Christmarket on the main shopping street was small but lively, and the morning bustled with shoppers and partygoers. I camped out on a bench with a beer and a bratwurst and listened to Tyrolean horns toot out Christmas carols.

Later that night, after wandering in the Christmas markets, I called the Novio in the hostel’s atrium before saddling up to the bar for another weisserbier. The bartender addressed me in Spanish, confessing to having overheard me on the phone. Inquiring about my time in Munich, I recounted my day and my disappointment with the castle.

My heart sunk when he told me that I could have bought a youth pass or even used my Carnet Joven to get a hefty discount on the train at 10am, something I would have known if I had actually done more research, as I intended to. I gulped down my beer and ordered another, sharing travel tales with the worldly bartender. Like many travel fiascos, a drink and a laugh do me wonders.

I’d consider going back for half the cost, and perhaps during the warmer months. I feel at home in the mountains, despite being from the Prairie State, and find Neuschwanstein more breathtaking in the summer. 

Love Germany? Been to the-Castle-with-the-Impossible-Name? Or have destinations that didn’t live up to your expectations? Check out my other posts that you’ll liebe:

A Guiri Guide to Oktoberfest // Passau, the City on Three Rivers // Karnevals of Cologne

 

How Bratislava Surprised Me

There was nervous anticipation on the boat. 

“And tomorrow,” Marek said shrilly, “we tour the greatest country in the world, my home of Slovakia!”

I didn’t share his enthusiasm, though have always thought that their flag is pretty sweet. For an itinerary packed with so many European highlights, Slovakia seemed like a necessary stopover because we didn’t have any onboard entertainment (save Marek dressed as Mozart the night we left Salzburg). All of the opportunities I had had in the past to visit Slovakia’s capital city had been met with the same response: “Skip it, there’s nothing to see there.”

And then, of course, there’s the city’s shining portrayal in the film Eurotrip.

So I wrote Slovakia off altogether until it was part of our Viking Cruise plan; a morning in Bratislava. This also meant my 31st country, one I’d merely passed through on an overnight bus between Budapest and Prague in the past and where I laid groggy eyes on the castle from the gas station.

We piled into buses at the small Danube port. Remnants of Communism remain, but the city proved to be a strange juxtaposition of Maria Theresa’s opulence and Czech repression with a few modern structures thrown in for good measure. 

Climbing into the hills behind the castle, we passed the various embassies, monuments to liberation and elegant states houses, plus TV towers, grungy hotels and decrepit houses. Squat housing developments and factories lay just across the Danube towards Vienna. Our guide pointed it all out, joking about how Communism meant that she grew up getting her knuckles rapped at school for having a shoelace untied, but her kids now graffiti the school without punishment.

Calling the castle an “overturned castle,” she confessed that it was, amidst crumbling buildings and Soviet architecture, quite possibly the biggest eyesore in the city. Maybe because it was glistening white and unspoiled by war and oppressive regimes, but I had to agree (and then took my obligatory picture).

Crossing into the historic, traffic-free center of town through Michael’s Gate, the streets were lined with small shops and cafes. Cannonball holes made for interesting stories about tax payers who purposely mutilated their own homes to get out of fees for a few years, even when the trajectory made no sense. Our guide was quick to make fun of oppressors who had tried to take control of the landlocked territory.

Pressburg’s former glory was reduced to ruins quickly during the last century, but it seems that the iron-clad spirit of the Slovaks have given the city a sort of revival; it was no wonder that every Slovakian staff member on board or ship was colorful and good-natured. The country has seen its share of battles, changing of rulers and didn’t gain independence until 1993. Amidst the cannonball-laden buildings, there are McDonald’s, boutiques and whimsical statues. 

Once we’d tipped the guide, we set Nancy loose in the city to do some shopping, and we joined a family from Maine in one of the city’s most famous chocolate shops. In a city where coffee culture is king, we opted for beers – and the Slovak beer, Zlaty Bažant, was awesome. Bratislava is rumored to have great nightlife, as evident by the slew of bars on Sedlárska Street.

 

While not a dazzling European capital, Bratislava was an easy-going break between regal Vienna and Budapest that gave us a chance to drink in a bit of small-city Europe. It was a place where I, for the first time on a trip that had us in four countries and eight cities, didn’t need to blindly follow a tour guide and tick things off my list.

Between the coffee culture and architecture, I could have spent the entire day popping in and out of locales for a drink or snack. It seemed to blend a tragic past with a hopeful future and a fun-loving, self-deprecating present.

Would it be it worth an entire trip? Perhaps, but as just an hour’s drive from Vienna, it’s definitely recommended for a quick visit (if even just for its cheaper prices, hilarious locals and yummy beer).

Have you been to Slovakia or Bratislava? What did you like (or not) about the city?

Exploring Passau, Germany

One of the cities that really surprised me during my winter travels was Passau, Germany. Known as the Dreiflüssestadt, or the city of three rivers, this Bavarian town was walkably charming and the departure city for a cruise down the Danube with Viking River Cruises.

Passau reminded me a lot of Sighisoara, Romania with its pastel-colored rococo buildings and cobblestone alley ways. The peninsula of the town meets not only the Danube, but also the Ilz and the Inn. 

Lukas, an Austrian who is also a lecturer at the renowned university of the city, told us the city’s history, peppered in with anecdotes about city life and statues of patron saints floating down the river (really! That tricky Saint Nicholas). Having lived in cities with rivers all of my life, I found it irrisistably charming and picturesque, from the cobblestone alleyways to the dimly-lit beer gardens and antiques shops.

 

Before our official embarkation and welcome cocktail, my family and I stretched our legs by taking a taxi to the Oberhaus and taking in the view from above. Bavaria has famously good weather, and we were treated to a memorable sunset above St. Stephen’s Cathedral and nearby Austria to the south.

Have you been to Bavaria or Passau?

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