Friday, October 6, 2017

Christmas Markets, Cologne, Germany

Ever since we moved to the Netherlands we quickly adapted a new tradition - the annual Christmas markets in Germany. They usually start at the end of November or in the beginning of December and end right before Christmas, normally on the 23rd of December. During this time you can enjoy all the Christmassy things but most importantly food. This is what keeps us going back, year after year. We normally go to Cologne because the city is very nice, compact and it has seven different markets, all slightly different.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

1. Book your hotel on time

Christmas markets are a huge thing in Europe, and especially Germany is famous for them. This is something they definitely know how to do! However, everyone else also knows how good they are, therefore the best, most central hotels get sold out way in advance. While we used to book a hotel sometime around November, this time we booked it well in advance, in August, to make sure we get to visit one of our favorite hotels in Germany.

2. Don't arrive too early, but neither too late

The markets are popular at any time but it has quite a different vibe on different times of the day. The closer you get to the evening, the busier it gets. The best time to start your market tour is around 19.00 or 20.00. You can easily visit the markets you want (even all seven of them) and have lots of cheerful people around you. The Catherdral X-mas Market is the most popular and also the busiest one at all times yet make sure you visit all of them because the atmoshpere is very different depending on the market.
Note that the markets usually end around midnight, so make sure you have enough time.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

3. You will get drinks spilled on your clothes

Since most of the markets are very crowded, people will bump into you, drinks will be spilled (maybe even food). Around the most crowded vendors, shops and drink stations it can sometimes be nearly impossible to walk forward (but don't worry, it's actually fun!) so you'll definitely feel veeeery close to other people. Don't wear your whitest, brightest clothes and make sure your pockets and pags are zipped. We've never had any issues with security but better safe than sorry.

4. It can get cold!

German winters can be cold so check the weather forecast. Even though you'll probably be moving around quite a bit and eating, it can also get chilly when you stand still so pack along maybe an extra sweater, some gloves and a hat.

Weihnachtsmarkt auf dem Neumarkt, Neumarkt Christmas market

Markt Der Engel, the Angel Market

5. Shopping

There's lots of vendors selling all sorts of stuff from food to sweets, Christmas decorations, jewellery and so on. It might not be the best idea to buy that gigantic Christmas decoration in the beginning of your visit. It might be a good idea to save it for the next day. The markets open in the morning so if you visit on Saturday evening you can easily drop by on Sunday morning to pick up whatever you got your eyes on.

Dusseldorf during the Christmas market period

6. Eating

The food is what keeps us coming back every year! There's something for everyone, from the traditional bratwurst to sauerkraut and steaks, soups, vegetarian food and lots of sweets. The vendors normally have a spot in the same place every year so we have a sort of a pilgrimage every year to visit the same vendors for bratwurst, steak sandwich, hot Mojito's, Feuerzangenbowle (Fire Punch), Hungarian lángos and Kinder crepes.
Have lots of change with you because most of the food is around 3-7 euro's and it's quicker if you have the exact money. Some do accept credit cards but it's so much faster to pay in cash.

Cathedral market, Cologne

7. Drinking

You cannot visit a German Christmas market without having lots of glühwein, although be aware that if you go for glühwein mit rum it does indeed include lots of rum. The further the night, the more rum you'll have in your mug. You can also have it without the rum, but why would you? There's also other drinks like eggnogg, hot cholocate, beer, wine and so on. Naturally, there's also non-alchoholic drinks.

Every market has their own mug for the glühwein and on most years they're slightly different. We're not completely sure if they make new mugs every year because sometimes you get a mug from one of the previous years. It's fun to check the mugs and see what's different this year. You can even take the mugs with you, if you want, to start a little Christmas mug collection. Normally they have a year on the mug also. How it works is that you buy a glühwein (or another warm beverage) that's usually roughly around 4 or 5 euro's. A deposit of 2,50e is added to the cost. If you bring the mug back you get the deposit back but if you want to keep the mug, you've already paid 2,50e for it.

Feuerzangenbowle, a must try!

8. All the different markets

Every market is different and it's a good idea to visit (almost) all of them. They have different themes, different vendors and different food. Some have music, activities like ice-skating and so on. We often start either from the Neumarkt that's a bit smaller but has great food or from the one by the Cathedral which is not our favorite as it's by far the largest and the most crowded one. From the Cathedral X-mas market you can continue around the corner to the next one. We don't know it's name as it's not on most maps but it's smaller than the rest but is definitely worth a visit. From there continue to Alter Markt which is probably the most beautiful one and has an ice-skating rink. From Alter Mark we continue to Angel's Market (Markt der Engel) that's our favorite one as we feel it's has the best atmoshpere. In case we started our journey from the market at the Catherdral, we walk to the Neumarkt to end the visit there or in case we started from Neumarkt we walk the other way and end the day at the Cathedral market. There's also a Gay & Lesbian market that's fun to visit, too and another one by the harbour we've never visited.

Neumarkt Christmas market

The biggest Christmas market in Cologne, the Cathedral market

Monday, September 25, 2017

Estonia vs. Finland

If I got a penny every time someone said that Estonia is basically the same as Finland I would have a lot of pennies by now. Even though these two countries share some similarities, like similar languages and maybe culture in some ways, these are still two very different countries with completely different mind sets. Here's our list of some major differences we think are important to understand.

Old Porvoo

First major difference you'll immediately notice is the architecture that starts to unveil the major differences of these two countries. When you approach Tallinn by ferry you'll see the beautiful, medieval skyline with thick towers along the city walls and the distinctive churches. In Finland you don't see quite a similar sight anywhere as the countries had their days of glory on quite different times. I always mention Tallinn having been in the hanseatic league in the early middle ages but this is indeed such an important thing to mention as it defines the history and the culture in so many ways, even today.

Flying over Helsinki in a hot-air balloon

However, if you fly into Tallinn by plane you'll see quite a different view being composed by so many long lines of soviet time apartment complexes surrounding the city from the huge districts of Mustamae to Lasnamae and beyond. Again, this is a strong reminder of more recent history when Estonia was part of the Soviet Union, something that many of us consider quite a dark time period for the Estonians.

Tallinn from above

Finland, however, had quite a different history being under the rule of Sweden and later Russia. Finland doesn't really have such strong architectural reminders of the historical events. As the biggest airport in Helsinki-Vantaa is in the capital area you don't see too many historic buildings on the way as Helsinki was made the capital only in the year of 1812. Before that, the biggest town in Finland was Turku, another hanseatic town, which was settled in the 13th century, around the same time as when Tallinn got it's town rights. Turku was, however, badly destroyed in the great fire of Turku in 1827 after which majority of the city had to be rebuilt. So you see lots of buildings from the 17th-19th century in both Turku and Helsinki. When arriving to Helsinki by ferry to the Katajanokka terminal, you will probably pass by Suomenlinna, an island fortress (18th century) that is currently a popular place to enjoy a nice day out sightseeing, have a picnic and so on. A few moments later you see the beautiful, white Helsinki Cathedral (completed in 1852) and the orthodox Uspenski Cathedral (completed in 1868). Tallinn, however, has more and older historic sights going back to the middle ages.

Estonia has a more colorful history

Because of it's great location and access to the Baltic Sea, Estonia has been in the interest of many larger countries in the region. Estonia has been under the rule of present day Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Russia which has affected the culture, cuisine and the language. As Estonia was in the Hanseatic league, it was influenced by even a larger amount of nearby nations involved in the trade.

Christmas market in Tallinn, closed for the night

Finns are more tolerant

Generally I would claim that the Finns are way more tolerant than the Estonians when it comes to racial differences, sexual minorities and gender equality. Estonians tend to be quite traditional, and not always in the positive ways.

Estonians are healthier and have better genes

Since Estonia has been occupied by many different nations, it means that there have been much more different genes walking around than in remote Finland. Due to this, Estonians tend to be healthier than the Finns, well, at least when it comes to hereditary illnesses. Finns also suffer from allergic diseases (food allergies, hay fever and such) much more than the Estonians.

Midnight sun in Estonia

Tallinn has a more central-European vibe than Helsinki

Tallinn has many cafe's (purely for drinking non-alcoholic beverages or a nice glass of wine) that stay open until late in the evening. In Helsinki it is difficult, almost impossible, to find a cafe to that's open in the evening and is not filled with people who have had a little too much alcohol. Also, and I'm claiming this purely from my own experience, Estonians visit museums, theaters and other cultural events more often than the Finns. In Estonia, you dress up when going to such event (to see a play at the theater, for example) and wearing something like jeans and a sweater to such event is often frowned upon.

Island of Kökar in Finland

Finns are (more) religious

I was 9 when I moved to Finland. First thing that surprised me at school was that religion was one of the subjects being taught throughout the whole educational cycle. Up until this, religion didn't play any part in my life what so ever so you can imagine the confusion I experienced. Aside this, kids say grace before eating lunch at school, although I believe this only applies to the younger pupils in smaller schools and maybe it's not done as often as it was in the 90's. Teenagers attend confirmation school around the age of 15 and every school year ends with a divine service at a local church. This might be different in larger cities or in schools with a significant amount of foreigners.

In the Evangelical Lutheran Church (which is about 75% of the Finns) children are baptized about 6 weeks after birth and the christening event takes place either in a church or at home. On average every child has 2-4 godparents. Imagine the confusion when some of my classmates found out that I was actually non-religious (read: an atheist), wasn't baptized and also had no godparents at all! Also, the weddings and funerals are very often held in churches. Finns also pay something that's called the church tax. "All members of either the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland and the Finnish Orthodox Church (the two state churches of Finland) pay an income-based church tax of between 1% and 2%, depending on the municipality. (Wikipedia)"

Estonia, on the other hand, is one of the least religious countries in the world. More than 50% of Estonians don't believe in God, at least not in the traditional way. You can read more about this on Wikipedia. Baptism isn't very common in Estonia as names for newborns are registered at the city hall. Actually nowadays you can do all this online. While funerals are often held in churches, weddings not so often, although personally to me it does seem that church weddings are becoming somewhat more popular in Estonia.

Tallinn old town

Estonians are more innovative

In Estonia you can do many things online and the local ID card allows voting, doing your taxes, using public transportation (which is free for those that live in Tallinn, by the way) and more.

There's also e-Health meaning that over 95% of the data generated by hospitals and doctors has been digitized, which makes it easy for the doctors to store patient data digitally (

So technologically the country is quite advanced in this sense.

Enjoying traditional dinner in Naantali, Finland

Finns complain more, yet also take action

Personally I find the Finns to be the type of people that generally complain about things more than the Estonians do, but this isn't necessarily a negative trait as they actually do something about the complaints. Finns aren't shy about their opinions and often make them public and make sure the feedback or complaint reaches the required sources. If an Estonian gets bad service in a restaurant, hotel or a shop, they don't normally complain as these bad experiences are often forgiven because of the low salary of the impolite/unprofessional service employee.

Fall colors in Porkkalanniemi, Finland

Estonians get things done faster

While Estonians might not send out complaints as often as the Finns do, they still get things done by searching for alternatives. In working life Finns often seek for everyone's approval, while Estonia is more hierarchical in the sense that decisions are made fast(er) and not everyone's approval is necessary. It's sometimes good, like when Estonia legalized same-sex unions / partnerships.

Aesthetics are more important in Estonia than in Finland

Generally things look a little nicer in Estonia. People value aesthetics more in Estonia than in Finland. In Estonia it's important how things look, how you look, how your house looks. It's just a part of who we are. It has changed a lot in the last 20 years but even when you turn on an Estonian TV-channel, everything just looks.. better! Flip through a few of Estonian Facebook profiles and see the difference. The pictures are generally prettier, more thought through before posting.

The medieval old town in Tallinn

Estonians are more private

When you compare the social media behavior between these two nations, the difference is significant! Finns share more of their personal opinions, pictures, thoughts, anything. Estonians post a few pretty pictures here and there but don't post actual status updates or personal opinions very openly. Same applies to general communication. I feel that the Finns generally value openness and even honesty more than their southern neighbors. Estonians often make things look and sound a little nicer than they might actually be. It's not the case of dishonesty, it's about keeping your private life private. So they might tell you that they have a new great job, but don't mention that the employment contract is only for three months and their role in the company is actually lower level than in the previous company. A rough example, but you get the idea.
The Finns, however, often discuss even negative things more openly.

Summer in Nauvo, Finland
The (un)traditional naming habits

Even though we consider the Estonians to be quite a bit more traditional than the Finns, this definitely doesn't apply to the naming habits of children. While Finns are increasingly favoring older, more traditional names like Kerttu, Hilla and Elias and Vilho, Estonians prefer more international or modern names such as Mia and Arabella for girls, and Miron and Romet for boys.

Families are closer in Estonia

Families are much closer in Estonia compared to Finland. Estonians have more and bigger family gatherings, cousins are more important part of a family, grandparents are a huge part of the childs life and adult children generally take care of their elderly parents in Estonia. In Finland, unfortunately, families tend not to be that close. A good example of this is Christmas, when many Finns celebrate the holidays with their immediate family. In Estonia it is often slightly different, and the celebrations tend to be larger including even more distant family members like second cousins, in-law's and more. 

While in Estonia we don't know even one person that doesn't know their cousins, we do know many people in Finland that really don't have any interaction with theirs, ever.

Spending habits

A Finn would brag about the great deal or the low price they got on something they bought.
An Estonian doesn't brag about cheap prices. Estonians generally take pride in being able to afford expensive things and would feel slightly ashamed for having to search for a bargain. And if they did, they certainly wouldn't go around talking about it.

Both want to be better than their neighbor

Being better than your neighbor is actually a thing in both countries but how it's handled is sometimes different. When a Finn's neighbor buys a new car, the jealous acquaintance might call the tax authorities to start a check on the owner of the new car, to see if there's something shady going on as there's no way the neighbor could be doing better by honest means. And even if they were doing better financially, they should, at least, be paying more taxes (at least, according to the neighbor)!  Estonian will, however, work their butt off, get a huge loan and sell the shoes off their feet to get an even better, faster car that they can't really afford.

A Finn and an Estonian in their natural habitat

Monday, September 11, 2017

Exploring Romania

Romania is one of those countries we always think of traveling back to. It seems like there's so much to explore. It is a big and versatile country, probably best for those who seek for something that you really can't find in central or western Europe anymore. The nature is beyond beautiful but you also have lots of history to explore and fantastic food and wines to enjoy.

Palace of the Parliament
Bucharest, Romania

Our trip started off from Bucharest where we spent one full day. I'm sure we could have spent a little longer there, but not necessarily more than a couple of days maximum. It's a huge city with a beautiful, yet small old town, which was our favorite. We loved the little shops, cafes and restaurants. The city does need a bit of renovation but nothing out of the ordinary.

The shopping possibilities seemed quite decent as there are a couple of huge malls in Bucharest. They have a good selection of western brands but what's way more interesting is actually the selection of eastern European (and beyond) brands that's still as modern and fashionable but you probably can't get the items in your country. 

Bucharest Old Town

Holocaust memorial, Bucharest

After strolling through the capital, we drove off to Brasov, a famous small town about a three hour drive from Bucharest that served as a base when exploring the Transylvania region. It's a very lovely, charming little city near the mountains. The drive itself is magnificent as the scenery is breathtaking. It could also be a great country for hiking.

On the road to Brasov

On the misty road..

While driving in Romania is definitely recommended for the views, it definitely requires some good driving skills. Even though there wasn't that much traffic, it was one of the worst places to be on the road because of the local driving culture. I can't even count how many times we had to beware of a crazy driver on the road either overtaking other cars in a total blind spot or just stopping on the road without any prior warning.

..still driving..

This aside, the drive to Brasov was so great, it took us about two hours extra time as we were constantly stopping to admire the Carpathian mountains. 

A sight you don't see too other anymore

Brasov, Romania

Brasov is a delightful small town, even when the weather is not on your side as there's plenty of museums, cafe's, bar's, restaurant's and shop's to escape the rain. It's also a beautiful place to spend a couple of days when in the region. While it might not be big enough to really offer you new corners to explore, you can easily pass a couple of days in there. Also, like mentioned before, it's a great base to explore the nearby regions.

One of the main streets of Brasov, Romania

Our intention wasn't to drive the Transfagarasan (which we didn't) but we did drive nearby trying to find the beginning of this famous, scenic route. And still we didn't find it but instead we did get to see some beautiful small villages and amazing scenery. We have a habit of driving around almost aimlessly exploring every little corner we find and Romania was another great country to do this. The food was very delicious no matter where we went and it's easy to find nice restaurants serving traditional, local food.

Sadly, Romanian wines are surprisingly underrated as they would definitely deserve more acknowledgement than what they currently get. Try and taste as many as you can. They totally blew us away.

Driving aimlessly

Stunning Romanian countryside

Bran Castle, Bran, Romania

Bran castle is, of course, a sight not to be missed. It's pretty interesting to take a step in. Again, the scenery around it is stunning.


Brasov, Romania

Next time we will definitely pack along our hiking gear and explore the nature a little closer. We can only imagine what amazing trails this country has to offer. Also, we'll definitely drive the Transfagarasan. The food in Romania is simply great so make sure to try mămăligă (polenta with cheese and sour cream), cârnați (pork sausages) and, well, just try everything you can get your hands on. It's delicious! Save time for shopping, if that's your thing, and keep your eyes on the road when driving.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Lago Maggiore

Lake Maggiore in the north of Italy is simply one of those magical places in Italy you can't believe really exist, but they do and we can't get enough of them. Here's why.


The view

Until very recently we mainly visited lake Como and thought it was simply magnificent, which it truly is but as Italy is full of incredible places, it often feels like it's only getting better every time we look further. 

During our stay in April we felt that lake Maggiore was slightly less-touristy than lake Como. This doesn't mean it's not touristic (it definitely is), but it has a tiny bit more authenticity than the Como region. Our journey began from Malpensa airport as it only takes about 45 minutes by car to reach our 1st destination, Laveno-Mombello. We chose this location almost randomly, mainly basing it on a nice hotel and a famous restaurant. The town is small and vibrant, with the beautiful, almost crystal clear lake and palm trees as well as the snow-capped Alps in the background. The town is small enough to feel completely at ease when spending a day at the hotel spa until early afternoon and then doing a little sightseeing. Just make sure to hit the town before 16.00/16.30 as the Funivia, cableway taking you near the top of Sasso del Ferro, closes around that time. Unfortunately we were there too late and completely missed it. The schedule you find online doesn't always apply as it seems to depend on how many visitors they have that day. 
The cableway is not to be missed because the cars are tiny, only fitting 1-2 people and it appeared as some of them are open on top which looks like loads of fun. 

A walk by the Lago Maggiore
The pool at Hotel Charme de Laveno

We chose the Charme de Laveno hotel and it instantly became probably the best hotel we have ever stayed at. The location is perfect, overlooking the lake. It's very central and you have everything nearby, the interior is simply beautiful and the spa & pool area fantastic. I don't think that a hotel can get much better than this. The service was fantastic and during the night we could actually photograph the night sky over the lake right outside the hotel. 

Night time in Laveno Mombello

Laveno-Mombello was the perfect place for a weekend getaway. Aside the scenery there are a few places you must visit, one of them is Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso. Yet, we didn't turn back yet, instead decided to continue up to Switzerland, more specifically to Lugano and back down to Italy to Baveno, on the opposite side of the lake from Laveno-Mombello.

The lake, the Alps, the nature

Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso

Eremo di Santa Caterina del Sasso

The drive to Lugano was stunning. We visited the Foxtown Fashion outlet yet left empty handed, not sure if we can recommend the place but as it always turns out with these outlets, it really depends on the time of your visit. Lugano itself is definitely worth a visit. It's small so you're done sightseeing in a day so a daytrip from Italy is more than recommended also because of the prices of the local hotels there. You definitely get a better value when staying across the border in Italy.

On the road to Lugano

..and back to Italy, still on Swiss side.

On top of  Monte San Salvatore

Our third night of this trip was spent in Baveno, in a small hotel with magnificent views. When you continue driving down towards south along the lake you'll see probably hundreds of villas and stunning hotels one after another. There are two islands, Isola Bella and Isola Superiore which we unfortunately didn't visit on this trip. In Stresa you have a beautiful lakeside road with some fantastic looking hotels. It is such a beautiful region to visit.

We definitely recommend to explore lago Maggiore by car as you'll be surrounded by magnificent views no matter where you drive. It's a fantastic region to explore for days, even weeks.

We simply can't wait to return!