Sunday, January 13, 2019

Christmas + Holidays 2018

I know it seems like we are well past the holiday season, but here in Spain it just ended last week!  I wrote about how Spain does the holiday season here which typically starts around the first weekend in December but it doesn't end until Dia de los Reyes or Three Kings Day which is January 6th.

My parents were here during the entire holiday season in Spain which made it so much more amazing and fun to have them with us!  We started our holiday season off in Germany going on an epic Christmas market trip.  We also took my parents to Arcos for their Live Nativity event (which is simply amazing and should be seen at least once). 

On Christmas Eve we had a wonderful dinner with very close friends of ours, starting off the evening by having drinks at our favorite beach bar (called a chiringuito).  We didn't have too late of a night because we all had to get home to go to bed so Santa could come!  Serafina was totally into Santa this year and it made it that much more fun -- she wrote a letter, happily sat on his lap telling him what she wanted!
Santa does come to the kids in Spain but much less. maybe just a small gift.  There isn't a Santa at the mall where you get your picture taken and tell him what you want (we do all of that on base)... Kids aren't talking about what Santa is bringing them or what they got from Santa.  Christmas is still a large holiday in Spain, but it is not typically celebrated with all the presents.  

Christmas morning was so much fun!  Serafina was so beyond excited to see that Santa ate the cookies she left out (and drank the milk) and to see all the presents that were left under the tree.  She was completely into opening presents and helping everyone else open presents -- it was so much fun to watch her!  We then had some good friends over for a big Christmas brunch, everyone still wearing their pajamas.  It was a lot of fun and we loved every minute of it!

My parents were still here for New Years so Trevor and I were able to hit the town (of Rota) to experience the big huge street party and group grape eating!  We started out at a good friend's house and then made our way to one of the main plazas in town.  At midnight as the clock was striking we all shoveled grapes into our mouths, laughing and trying not to choke!
I seriously love the Spanish traditions -- eating grapes at midnight to signify luck/wishes for the coming year.  Some say each great represents a month of good luck, others say your wish(es) for the year will come true if you eat all of your grapes.  At each chime of the clock (at midnight), you eat one grape, in theory eating them all.  We cheat and get the small/seedless/peeled grapes.  My Spanish teacher tells me that is not the fun way to do it :)  Serafina's school had a party on the last day before vacation and the kids had their own new years countdown and ate these corn puff things instead of grapes -- so adorable!

And the season is not over yet -- because on January 5th is easily one of my most favorite events in Spain.  The cabalgata (parade) of Los Reyes (the Kings) coming through the city in anticipation of leaving gifts for all the children that evening to open the next morning.  This is Spain's big huge holiday -- Dia de los Reyes on January 6th.  Children write letters to the Kings, sit on their laps telling them what presents they want.  Everyone wishes you a happy holiday and that they Kings bring you many gifts and all that you want!  The Kings even go to each school (at least in our town) and the kids get to visit with them and write letters -- Serafina was SO excited to come home one day before vacation started and tell me all about her visit with the Kings!   

So on January 5th, we went out into town with everyone else and to watch the cabalgata parade through the city.  The parade is not long (maybe 8-10 floats and it moves fairly quickly) but it sure is fun.  Each float throws hard candy (and by throw, I really mean chuck, pelt, throw very hard) at the crowd.  Each King has their own float and they throw toys in addition to the candy -- typically big blow up balls, stuffed animals and other soft-ish/random stuff.  It is pure chaos and so much fun.  Everyone is flying for the toys and candy, you're ducking and covering your head to protect yourself from the hard candy being thrown because it does hurt when you get hit.  And so much laughter.  Serafina freaking LOVED it -- was so so so into it.  Because our town is small, you tend to go to a few different spots along the route which makes it so much more fun.

how adorable are my parents :)

Then we all woke up on January 6th with more presents -- the Kings came to our house!
You leave your shoes out so the Kings leave the presents next to/in your shoes, just like Santa leaving presents under the tree.  The Kings get all over Spain using camels. no magical flying reindeer and sleigh for them so you can also leave out treats for the camels who are making a long journey across the country.

Then finally (or sadly) the holiday season is over... Kids go back to school and life resumes.  But don't forget that rebajas (or sales) start January 7th :)

And for fun -- a little throw back to the past two cabalgatas for los Reyes

Friday, January 11, 2019

Day Trip {Arcos Live Nativity}

Once a year for one day only, a nearby white hill town -- Arcos de la Frontera, puts on a huge belén viviente (live nativity) event.  We went two years ago and loved it, so we knew we wanted to take my parents this year as they were in Spain for all of the holiday season!

For one day only (and if it rains, it will be cancelled and not rescheduled), the entire town of Arcos transforms into Bethlehem in various scenes and reenactments all throughout the city.  It is no simple nativity scene, that is for sure!  It is insanely detailed and well planned out, complete with actual bread and other food being cooked and live animals.  It really is amazing and should be seen at least once, especially if you live in Spain!
When we went two years ago, we waited in line for easily 2+ hours before being able to enter into the upper city to see the nativity area.  So this year, we went much earlier.  We knew it started about 5:30pm but we didn't know when the town would shut down the upper city, so we arrived probably about 3/3:30-ish.  It seemed as if they didn't shut down the city until closer to 4:30/5:00pm so you could easily head up into the upper city about an hour before it starts and be good.

Closer to start time, we noticed people just hanging out -- drinking, eating and not moving up into the city to follow the route of the nativity event.  We decided they must know something, so we hung back too and we lucked out!  The event starts by the Three Kings parading through the city to go see the baby Jesus before taking their place in the nativity -- basically meaning they sit on their thrones and all the kids deliver their letters and sit on their lap and get their picture taken.
Remember Santa doesn't really come to Spain, the big holiday is Three Kings Day when the Kings deliver presents.  So for Spanish children, sitting on the Kings' laps is like American children going to visit Santa.

And then we just wandered the route of the belén viviente which is really well marked and will easily take you 1-2 hours (probably closer to two hours, even if moving at a decent pace).  The route takes you all around the upper city/hill area of Arcos past all the scenes and such.  You can go as slow or fast as you want!

Serafina has a slight obsession with the Baby Jesus (she does get religion classes at school) so she was so excited to go see the Baby Jesus and was just in awe when she finally saw Him.  It was pretty adorable watching her!  She would have stayed at this scene all night if we had let her :)
the real baby Jesus

Some quick tips -- we parked at the bottom of the hill in a dirt lot where everyone else was parking.  This really is the best place to park but just know that you will be walking a lot and up hills!  It also gets super crowded (literally wall to wall people at some places) so if you can wear your kiddo, that is best -- strollers can be tricky to navigate the large crowds.  We did a stroller our first year and I wore Serafina this year and wearing was MUCH easier!

We had a wonderful time and so happy we were able to experience this event again!

Longer Travels {Germany + Christmas Markets}

After our unforgettable Germany trip two years ago (catch up here, but basically we all got the stomach flu and saw the inside of a hotel the whole time), we were finally ready to try again to see all things Christmas in Germany!  Our goal was to see as many Christmas markets as possible in one week and well, we sure succeeded!

We flew in and out of Frankfurt airport as the flights were cheapest and then rented a car to get us around to all the places.  We also met up with my parents so a car was the easiest way to get all five of us around.  We stayed in Nürnberg and Heidelberg, saw those two cities and also did day trips from there.  This allowed us to see as much as possible but not move hotels/apartments each night.  In both cities we stayed in AirBnB places a little ways outside the city but on tram/metro lines that would take us easily into the city.

A quick note about German Christmas markets -- most open about 11am and close about 8-9pm (depending on how big the city/market is).  Most also run the four weeks of Advent, often the last day being the day before Christmas.  On a very very simple level, Christmas markets are like large, specific street fairs but with traditions going back centuries and typically decorated elaborately (lights, Christmas trees and more).  At each market you can find vendors selling goods (usually relating to Christmas or winter), food, drink and typically a ride or two for the kids, most often a carousel.  However, every market is unique -- from the food to the glühwein to what is being sold to the theme.  Food is typically sausages/bratwurst and drinks are typically glühwein which is essentially hot mulled wine.  Each market has their own specific glühwein mugs (changing from year to year) and it is a must to collect them all (if you return the mug you will get your deposit back)!  Families tend to go the market earlier in the day/afternoon and then in the evening, markets turn into a glorious, fun and fairly calm street party with eating + drinking.

And some general tips/tricks about attending Christmas markets -- things can get insanely crowded towards the evening/dinnertime so strollers become a little difficult.  During the day, we took our stroller to each market and it was just fine.  In the evening, we wore Serafina in our preschool Kinderpack carrier and it worked great.  Germany in general is a cash economy and the markets are no different.  Make sure you have plenty of cash on hand if you plan on buying anything (this includes food/drink too).  Some of larger markets will have name brand German goods (typically Käthe Wohlfahrt) so those you can find again, but a lot of the smaller stalls are goods/products you won't find again -- so something to remember if you find something you love!
But now, let's just dive right in and get to the cities and their various markets, tips and tricks for each and more!

Our first stop was Nürnberg (it's about a 2-3 hour drive from Frankfurt depending on traffic).*  Our first full day was spent in Nuremberg to see the sights.  We started off at the Dokumentationszentrum Reichsparteitagsgelände (Nazi Documentation Center) -- the grounds and buildings made famous by the Nazi Party Rallies in the 1930s.  The museum is very well done and explains how the Nazis came to power and the effects of their reign of terror (make sure to get the audioguide as most of signs were in German).  The museum portion is inside Congress Hall which was not completely finished during the Nazi regime.  You can also walk around the grounds to see the old marching grounds and Zeppelinfeld (Zeppelin Field).  We wandered some of the grounds but not all as they are quite large and it was not warm.  And yes, we took Serafina to the museum -- once again we used her tablet/headphones as a distraction but she did ask questions about where we were and why and we answered her with age appropriate answers.  Next we went to Kaiserburg (the castle) at the top of a fairly steep hill.  While we didn't go inside, the views were gorgeous.  We ate lunch at Bratwursthäustle and it was amazing (traditional Nuremberg food but so so yummy).  Also, if you are in need a break from German food -- Aloha Poke is great and close to the main part of town.

The Nürnberg Christkindelmarkt (Christmas Market) is suppossed to be one of Germany's largest and most famous, but sadly we were a little underwhelmed.  While it was gorgeous and magical, it just wasn't what we expected -- a lot smaller than we anticipated.  However, we did love the Kinderweihnacht (Children's Market) and could have easily spent our whole time there (adorable activities for kids and rides -- just note that all riders need a ticket).  We also loved seeing the Christkind (Christmas Angel/Christ Child -- typically known to pass out gifts).  Serafina loved bouncing between the rides and we were lucky that lines weren't terribly long.  I will also say that the the Nuremberg sausages were my favorites, so at least go to the market for them (eaten with horseradish sauce on a roll, so yummy)!  Near the main stage (in front of the main church) there is a large sign with the day's events -- worth a quick walk by to make sure you won't miss anything.

Next up was a day trip to Bamberg (about an hour drive from Nuremberg).  Bamberg is known for their beer (and many breweries) and a gorgeous small town, so worth a trip if you are in the area.  Typical Bamberg beer is actually smokey (called rauchbier) and while it sounds gross, actually doesn't taste terrible.  Highly recommend parking here which is right under the Tourism Office.  Stop in the office and grab a map so you know the brewery route to follow (in the summer there are brewery walking tours that hit the major breweries with a stop at the beer museum).  The weather was not great so the breweries were packed (we were easily the only Americans in each one we visited) -- but we recommend these two for sure: Schlenkerla for their famous/original smoked beer and also Brauerei Spezial (this place was recommended by the nice lady at the tourist office and it was amazing, the beer was so good).  Both places served typical German food (we ate at Schlenkerla and it was fine -- large menu but limited available for the time we were there).  We did walk up to the Bamberger Dom (Cathedral) and while gorgeous inside, it can easily be skipped for more breweries.  We did go to the Bamberg Christmas Market and it was quite small, so go for the amazing town and breweries not the market!

Next up was Rothenburg ob der Tauber (as a stop on our way to Heidelberg).  Rothenburg is a famous German town -- it is on the Romantic Road, it is fully enclosed by a medieval wall and has a very famous Christmas market (the well known Käthe Wohlfahrt main store and Christmas Museum are here).  Parking is not available inside the walls, so park on the outside in the marked lots (I recommend P5) and walk into the city.  Everything about the Rothenburg Christmas Market was magical and amazing and all things Christmas -- from the live music from the Rathaus (town hall) to all the amazing Christmas stores, it was awesome.  The food was so good too, both at the market and lunch at Gasthof Greifen.  Once again, weather was pretty bad (rainy and so cold) so we chose not to wait in the long line for the Christmas Museum or walk the wall, but Rothenburg is a must stop even if its not Christmastime; although if you have a chance to go for the markets then do -- they are amazing!

Then it was on to Heidelberg for a few nights.  We spent one full day exploring the city and it was lovely.  We started out at the Schloss Heidelberg (The Palace). You can't go into the interior without a guided tour but the outside ruins are gorgeous, including the views from the top of the hill.  I highly recommend taking the bergbahn (funicular) to save on some serious walking (buy a combo ticket for the palace entry and funicular).  You can go inside the The Fassbau (Barrel Building) with your ticket and you should -- it's quite spectacular to see a barrel that holds over 34,000 gallons of wine!  We also went to the University Museum which was small but really amazing.  We somehow got a private tour of the university Great Hall and it was so cool.  And make sure you go to the famous Student Prison (included in your museum ticket).  The university is one of Europe's oldest (founded in 1386) and it is worth seeing the Old University (where the museum, Great Hall and nearby prison are today).  We ate at Joe Molese for lunch -- some of the best burgers/sandwiches we have ever had, so highly recommend (they do have an English menu and were so sweet to Serafina)!  The Heidelberg Christmas Market was another amazing one -- and quite spread out throughout the city which made it easy to wander through the market and also check out the city!  While we did like Heidelberg, this could easily be a city and market that you skip -- cute market, cute town but nothing to really write home about.... (lunch was really good though)!

Then we went to Strasbourg, France for another day trip -- no cars allowed in the center of the city during the market so I recommend here.  Strasbourg calls itself Capital de Noël (capital of Christmas) and we have to agree, Les Marchés de Noël (Christmas Markets) were simply amazing.  The market is quite large and is spread out throughout the city.  The whole city is decorated, including sides of buildings... a huge tree, an ice skating rink and so much good food (French food -- so so yummy).  The vin chaud (France's version of mulled wine) does taste quite different from the German glühwein, but in my opinion it is better!  We went inside the gorgeous Cathedrale (cathedral) and it is worth a walk through, go to the back corner to see the astronomical clock.  Also worth a walk through is the Petite France area of the city -- while touristy, it is so pretty.  Strasbourg is worth a visit even if it isn't Christmastime.
Strasbourg is amazing and wonderful and should most definitely be seen anytime of the year but especially at Christmastime.  I had been in 2003 and desperately wanted to get back, so this day was just amazing for me.  Sadly, the day after we were in the city a horrible shooting/attack occurred.  We are so thankful we changed our plans last minute and went to Strasbourg a day early, but this attack should not stop anyone from seeing the gorgeous city.

Our final stop and market was Essinglen (a smaller city near Stuttgart).  On our fateful Germany trip we had planned on going to this market, so we were quite excited to get back here and actually see it.  We parked here and it was in a great location, but does get busy in the evenings.  The Essinglen Christmas Market was easily our favorite -- part typical Christmas market and part Medieval Market, it was awesome.  The Medieval side had SO many activities for kids -- medieval rides, candle making, archery and more; Serafina had a blast.  And the food at both markets were so good (we basically ate our way through Esslingen).  Highly recommend the bread stuffed with cheese and bacon with a sour cream type sauce on top, the dampfnudle (a bread pudding type dessert but better) and the käsespätzle (fresh egg pasta with cheese).  Esslingen was so much fun and a great way to end our epic trip!

hand crank ferris wheel
A quick note on safety while visiting the markets -- the markets draw a lot of people from all over the world and can become very crowded, especially in the evening.  We typically stuck to the afternoon hours when it was less crowded.  There were police officers at most markets, not a large presence but noticeable and most markets also had large trucks parked in ways to protect those visiting.  Strasbourg had the most police presence (before the attack) with bag checks, no cars allowed into the center of the city and the occasional SWAT type officers walking past (all were very friendly).  But we never once felt unsafe in any of the cities, so please continue to travel and enjoy these amazing cultural events!

This was an epic Christmas trip that fulfilled all of our German Christmas market wants and needs -- we had a blast.  While it was an ambitious trip with so many day trips and cities, we really enjoyed our time in Germany and felt like we were able to experience many different markets and activities.  I would for sure put Rothenburg, Strasbourg, and Esslingen on your Christmas market list and put Bamberg on your list just to visit!

*A note about driving in Germany -- on our trip to Germany in September the driving was a lot easier, according to Trevor who is our driver on trips (I am navigator).  This time we were traveling on much bigger autobahns which made for more traffic and more stress, but overall still fairly easy.

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