Archive for March, 2008 Featured on

Karie and Scott on Mar 26th 2008 08:25 pm

Hey, check it out… is currently listed as a Featured Blog on!  Each week the site interviews a new featured blog, and this week, it’s us!  You can find the interview on their home page, or click here to go directly to it.

P.S. If you’re reading this because you found us on, thanks for clicking.  We hope you have a seat, stay a while, and feel free to leave us any questions/comments.

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Zürich, Switzerland

Karie on Mar 22nd 2008 03:10 pm

After dropping off our travel partners from Munich, we headed for our next adventure in close quarters with someone we don’t know – Couch Surfing!  Over the next 5 minutes, some of you will be thinking about how you can work this into your next trip, and others of you will think we are insane.

Here’s how Couch Surfing (CS) works: go to and create an account.  Members can specify if they have a “couch” available for “surfers”, meaning, space for a visitor to come stay with them (a couch, extra room, dog bed, patio furniture…).  If you are traveling, you can visit the website (after creating an account) and search for available couches in the city you are visiting.

We found a wonderful girl in Zürich who agreed to let us stay with her and her two cats for 2 nights.  She had a gorgeous flat in a great location, she was friendly & hospitable, and gave us a wealth of information about Switzerland… the kind of stuff you would never know without spending a few hours with a local.

Here’s a little more about how it works, for the “tell me more!” crowd:
The people who make their couches available are typically travelers themselves… generally outgoing, like meeting new people from different places, and know that some day the favor will be returned when it’s their turn to travel (kind of pay-it-forward-ish).  For the travelers, it’s a great opportunity to really learn about the city from a local perspective.  Not to mention it’s usually free, although I personally think it’s appropriate to buy your host dinner, or something to show your appreciation.

If you’re interested but not sure you’re ready to handle any couches, there’s another option that doesn’t involve sleeping.  You can create a profile and specify that you are available for “coffee or a drink”.  This is great for people who think it’s fun to talk to strangers for an hour or two, and let them buy you a cup of coffee while you tell them a little about your city.  (We’re doing this in Barcelona, by the way.)

And for the “why on earth would anyone ever consider this??” crowd:
My mom did a great job at biting her tongue, but I still heard it loud and clear… “How do you know they’re not a crazy person or a murderer???”  We just happen to believe in prayer and have a lot of faith in the human race, ok?

Well, I also think that bears look huggable, but I know better, which is why I only visit them in the zoo and not in the wild.  At the risk of insulting its thousands of members, think of Couch Surfing as the zoo – there to mediate a nice introduction and protect both parties. CS gives you the opportunity to create a pretty detailed profile about yourself, including various levels of security screening (verifying your name, address, etc). Most importantly, it gives people the opportunity to rate each other.

You can get a pretty good sense for a person based on photos, stories, and feedback from people they have stayed with or who have stayed with them.  From then, yes, it’s back to prayer and following your gut.  My advice would be to have contact info handy for a couple hotels/hostels in the area, so that if you arrive at someone’s house and do not feel 100% comfortable, leave immediately and go to Plan B.

Luckily, our experience was great.  In fact, our host was the highlight of Zürich for us. Especially considering our stay fell during an unfortunate time four tourism.  We were there Wednesday-Friday before Easter.  Easter is a much bigger holiday in Europe than it is in the U.S.  Think “Spring Break” (before it became politically incorrect to call it “Easter Break”), that applies to adults as well.  Fantastic if you’re a student or working citizen, terrible if you’re a tourist.

Things started shutting down early on Thursday afternoon, and by Good Friday, it was difficult to find food.  Now Zürich is an absolutely beautiful city, so normally we would have had no problem staying entertained around the lake or the beautiful mountains, except that there was this miserable combination of rain and snow, which made being outside super un-fun.  We had actually planned a day trip to Lucern, but ended up canceling it for this reason.  So… we hung out in the train station for a while on Friday (the only place that was open), then went back to our host home for more coffee and conversation.

She gave us some great insights on life in Zürich, the Swiss people, their economy (including their amazingly low taxes!), the impact of wars (or lack thereof), and the fact that they do not drink hot chocolate.  In fact, she thought we were kidding when we said we have a brand of hot chocolate called “Swiss Miss” in the USA, and that we seek out “Suizo con nata” (Swiss hot chocolate with whipped cream) even in Spain.  She explained that the Swiss are known for their chocolate, but not necessarily drinking it.  She did say that there is one drink, but usually only for kids, you stir it into milk, serve it cold….

“Um, would that be Nesquik??? Yellow can with the bunny on the front?”

“Yeah, that’s it!  I think I have some here if you’d like to try it,” she generously offered.

“Thanks, but I didn’t come all this way to drink something I had in my cupboard at home. I’ll take another cup of Nespresso, please!”

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The Romantic Road and Munich, Germany

Karie on Mar 19th 2008 03:03 pm

In order to fulfill Scott’s dream of driving on the Autobahn, we rented a car and drove from Berlin down to Würzburg, which is somewhere in the middle of Germany, not too far from Frankfurt.  Unfortunately, we were not able to rent a Porsche, but our little Opel didn’t embarrass us too badly.

Scott is convinced that German drivers are the best in the world.  I’m sure this has nothing to do with the fact that he is of German decent.  Ok, I also admit that there seems to be a mutual respect on the road.  Drivers reserve the fast lane strictly for passing, no one cuts anyone off, and rules of the road are obeyed (whether those rules are laws or just unspoken etiquette).  Needless to say, we spent a lot of time in the right lanes, at a comfortable 130-180 kph (roughly 80-110 mph), and kept the left lane open for the Mercedes & BMWs that regularly fed us their dust as they flew by at 200+ kph.

After a 5-or-so-hour drive from Berlin, we stopped in Würzburg for the night, which is the beginning of the Romantische Straße, or Romantic Road.  Our hostel, on the other hand, was not representative of this title.  It felt more like an old hospital clinic than the gateway to the most beautiful scenery in Germany.  At any rate, we didn’t spend much time there, as we were off again early the next morning.

The Romantic Road is a 2-lane, scenic drive that connects a series of medieval villages through Southern Germany.  You could easily spend a few days stopping at each town through this 350 km (215 mile) drive, but since we had a limited amount of time, we stopped at the Tourist Information Center in the first village and picked up a map that included descriptions of each village.  We selected 4-5 places to visit along the way, including the castle and gardens in Weikersheim and the tourist trap of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

As the day closed in on us, we veered off the Romantic Road and headed for Munich.  Of course, the first thing we did the following morning was take the New Munich Tour, which is a free walking tour, offered by the same company as the tour we book in Berlin.

*If you have not read the article about our tour of Berlin, please do.  It includes the most valuable tip on this website – period. Click here to read.

The New Munich Tour was also very good.  If I had not already been to Berlin I might have thought the Munich tour was great… but then again, my personal opinion is that Berlin is a more interesting city (at least as far as tour-going information is concerned).  That being said, we also learned a great deal about Munich’s history, as we literally traced Hitler’s steps as he first attempted to begin the revolution unsuccessfully during the Beer Hall Putsch. I wasn’t aware that Hitler first attempted a revolution by force before he was elected into office, so the tour gave me even more insight into the dynamics that led to his election.

On our last night in Munich, we stopped for dinner in a local hall, which is pretty much cafeteria-style seating with lots of people eating fried foods and drinking beer by the liter.  (side note: Munich consumes more beer than any other city in the world).  There are signs labeling tables that are reserved for regulars, called Stammtisch, where you can sit if there are no other options, but if a regular shows up and wants his seat, you move.  We spotted non-reserved table with a couple empty seats and used the universal language of pointing & grunting to ask if the seats were available.  The 2 gentlemen sitting at the table motioned back that we were welcome to sit.  After a couple minutes, they heard us conversing in English and said, “hey, where are you guys from?”  Turns out they were brothers from Washington, who just so happened to be heading to Zurich the next day, as were we.

We already had a rental car reserved (or so we thought), so after a couple hours of dinner conversation, we invited them to join us for the ride to Zurich.  Early the next morning, after walking 2 miles to get to the car rental agency, we learned that they did not have our reservation. We had a confirmation number from, the 3rd party booking service, but the Avis rep pointed out that beneath our confirmation number it read “Please do not book”, in German.  Why they would give us a confirmation number at a location that specified it was not available is beyond me.  Avis did have a 2-seater available, but we had already promised our new friends a ride, so we ended up running back across town and pay an extra 50 Euros to get the car that we thought we had originally reserved.

Travelers Tip: Do not use, even if they do have the best price.  Price is irrelevant when there is no car… and I’m still awaiting the refund on the insurance deposit I paid in advance.

It was an exhausting morning, but we eventually crammed into yet another Opel and hit the autobahn.  We could have made it to Zurich in about 3 ½ hours, but we opted to take a detour, back to the base of the Romantic Road, to see King Ludwig’s Royal Castle of Neuschwanstein.

This castle is said to be the inspiration for Disney’s Sleeping Beauty’s Castle.  King Ludwig II died before its completion, hence only 20 of the 60 rooms are completed; yet it is every bit as magical as its fairytale imitation.  Set in a mountainside, with beautiful peaks & waterfalls on one side, and expansive valleys on the other, you can see why it’s the most photographed site in the country.

It was the perfect end to our time in Germany.  I have definitely gained a lot of respect for the German people throughout this trip.  Not that I lacked respect for them before, but it felt something I have not felt in other countries.  There was a strong sense of pride, yet humility in learning from (and in many respects still paying for) the mistakes of their forefathers.  Thick-skinned and hard working, yet warm & friendly.  I even quite liked the pork schnitzel.

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Berlin, Germany

Karie on Mar 16th 2008 07:10 pm

I learned more in Berlin in 2 days than I learned in all my years of schooling combined. What a fascinating place, AND, to top it all off, the best things in Berlin are FREE!

If you remember one tip out of everything I share from our entire year here, let it be this: take the New Berlin Free Walking Tour. If you are ever in Berlin, or anywhere near Berlin, please take this tour. If you have been to Berlin and did not take this tour, go back and take this tour. The company, New Europe Tours, now offers free tours in several major cities, including Paris, London, Amsterdam, etc., but the history of Berlin made this one of particular interest to me.

The philosophy of New Europe Tours is that every person deserves a high quality informative tour, regardless of status or income level. The reason it works is that the tour guides are extremely enthusiastic about history, and they have to be good at what they do because they work solely on tips. So while it’s nice that the tour is free, that’s not necessarily why I recommend it. In fact, make sure you take money with you because you will want to tip your guide generously.

When we arrived at the tour meeting point, Starbucks (aka, the American Embassy) across from the Brandenburg Gate, the crowds were starting to gather. By the time the tour began, there were at least 200 enthuasiastic but poor tourists. We were getting kind of nervous that we were going to get exactly what we paid for (nada). However, they first split the group based on language, which pretty much cut it in half, then the remaining 100-or-so English-speakers were split into 2 separate groups.

I never would have guessed that a group of 50+ people could really be that enjoyable or informative. However, our guide had great voice projection and was a master at organizing the group so everyone felt a part of the experience. I’m sure all their guides are great, but Dave from Manchester is amazing. When you go to Berlin and take this tour, look for Tour Guide Dave and follow him around as long as he’ll let you. I honestly believe that if every child had a history teacher like him, it would change the future.

What was supposed to be a 3 ½-hour tour turned into over 5 hours, as Tour Guide Dave got carried away in sharing great stories, and we were all too captivated to notice the time. We spent quite a bit of time at the “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”, which would be expected on a tour of this sort, but we also spent some time at some less descript areas. For example, at one point the guide stopped the entire group in the middle of a parking lot, and went on to explain the events surrounding Hitler’s suicide in the Führerbunker directly beneath where we were standing.

All 5 hours were packed full of interesting facts that we otherwise would have never known. It really gave us a better understanding of the history, as well as its lingering impact on today’s society… and possibly tomorrow’s. Seriously, I can’t stress it enough – just go.

The second free & fabulous thing we did was touring the Reichstag building, which houses the German Parliament. I’ll spare you the building’s extensive history (although it’s quite interesting if you ever want to look it up), but in 1999, a glass dome was added to the top of the building. It offers wonderful views of the city, but the best view is looking down inside the building directly onto the floor of the Parliament. The architecture is a representation of democracy, with the people reigning at the top, and the government below – fully transparent to all – serving to support and uplift its citizens. It’s beautiful, but be prepared to wait in a long line. When we were there, the line extended down the stairs and toward the expansive lawn, and the wait was about 1 ½ hours. However, I’ve heard that in peak season the line can wrap all the way around the building.

Now there were a few things we did that weren’t free, one of which was the Story of Berlin, an interactive, multi-sensory type of museum. I got the impression that it’s targeted at younger audiences, perhaps around the age when children/teens are learning this history in school. However, considering I must’ve missed that day at SCS, I still found it quite interesting. It also included a guided tour of a bunker, which was probably worth the 9.20 Euro admission on its own.

Oh, and we also saw one of the 7 Wonders of the World – the Ishtar Gate to the inner city of Babylon at the Pergamon Museum. Well, actually it is no longer on the list of wonders, but when we realized we were that close to something that was once considered one of the most magnificent things on earth, we had to see it. We heard “7 wonders” and we went… at the time, we didn’t even really know what we were going to see.

We ended up going through the museum backward (because we took the most direct route, not caring about anything else in the building… the wonder, take us to the wonder), so we experienced the gates as if we were leaving Babylon. However, if you were to make this visit as it was intended, the journey would lead you down a long corridor housing the Processional Way, building up to the grandeur of the gate itself. The vibrant colors make it hard to believe that this gate was built in 575 BC, by order of King Nebuchadnezzar. Anyone remember Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego?

I don’t mean to downplay its significance by putting it at the bottom of the list (and long after the free tour). It was quite spectacular, and it’s not every day that you see something commissioned by someone that you learned about from Bible stories in Sunday School. However, the fact that when you say “Berlin” I think “free tour” tells me that this wonder has been overshadowed by the many amazing things that we saw & learned in Berlin.

Certainly every bit of history makes an impact on today’s society, but what I experienced in Berlin is tangible. We have family members that fought in World Wars, and we remember watching the news as the Berlin Wall came down in 1989. As much as I am continually blown away by really really old stuff, this trip reminded me that we are still writing history – some beautiful & heroic, and some dark & tainted. Some day, perhaps many years from now, someone might walk where I walked and be just as enamored with the stories of 2008 as I am with the stories of 575 BC, 1492, 1942, 1989…

Maybe I’m starting to say this about every city, but I really wish we had more time in Berlin. We barely scratched the surface.

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Amsterdam, Netherlands

Karie on Mar 13th 2008 07:03 pm

While Las Vegas is the self proclaimed Sin City, Amsterdam is the real deal. However, a couple factors set it apart from the self indulgent attractions of Vegas. 1) everything is legal here, hence no “sins” have been committed (except as determined by your own conscience or moral beliefs), and 2) Amsterdam has so much more to offer that such a title would be a disservice to the beauty of the city.

The Amstel River runs through the city, as do 100+ other canals, and over 1,000 bridges. In the 1960’s, the city went to great efforts & expense to install safety railings around the canals. However, their hard work and money might have been more worthwhile if those railings were more than 4 inches tall. According to the tour guide on the canal cruise, an average of 1 car per week falls into the waterways… and certainly countless drunks or bicyclists over taken by the gusty winds that are typical of this area. Houseboats are also commonplace in these canals. As the city started to grow there was a shortage of housing, so many people took to life on the canal. Most of these homes are legal, and are supplied with water, gas & electricity. However, there are some boats docked illegally, and have no access to utilities.

One of the most famous houses in Amsterdam, sitting right above one of the many canals, is the home of Anne Frank. We toured the home, which is now a museum, and paid tribute at the small monument which now stands outside of the church across the street. Berlin is our next destination, and in a few more weeks we will be visiting Auschwitz, the concentration camp in Poland where Anne Frank died. Walking through her house and reading excerpts from her diary gave some perspective to the journey through history that we are about to take. Certainly not one of the most fun parts of our trip, but definitely among the most meaningful.

Holland was also home to Van Gogh, before he moved to Paris, became a painter, went crazy, cut off his ear then killed himself. I hadn’t realized that he only sold one painting during his lifetime. I wonder if his life would’ve been different if he had known what a success he would become. I bet all our lives would be different if we knew what we were really capable of. Hmm….

Another one of Amsterdam’s claims to fame is their floral industry. The Bloemenmarkt is a “floating” flower market along the canal that’s open to the public, and the Aalsmeer Flower Auction is the largest flower auction in the world. The children in It’s a Small World wearing wooden shoes dancing with tulips makes a little more sense now.

There is so much to do and see here (even more than we originally knew), that we had to balance work & tourism efficiently to be able to fit it all in. We always base our hotel search on a combination of factors: price, availability of Internet access (necessary for work), and location. We’ve learned that it’s worth a few extra dollars to stay in the center of all the action, especially when you only have a short amount of time, and you don’t want to spend your time & money on public transportation. Well, our hostel in Amsterdam fit the bill, having received outstanding ratings for all our requirements. As it turns out, this perfect location “in the center of all the action” was in none other than the Red Light District.

Contrary to what most would imagine, this is not like mistakenly wandering off the main strip in Las Vegas, or ending up in the wrong neighborhood in Los Angeles. Some drugs, such as marijuana, are legal (or technically, just not illegal); hence, there are no drug dealers on the streets. Instead, there are “coffee shops.” Lots and lots of coffee shops with happy people inside. We found it interesting that an area known for its drugs, alcohol & prostitution was a series of safe streets (well, as safe as any metropolitan area) lined with clean cafes.

Now, if you walked over a couple blocks, there are more prostitute houses and video stores than I ever cared to see, but still in an organized fashion, without peddling on the streets. Some argue that making such activities legal cuts down on the related crimes that usually come with the territory, but I have to admit, my heart still breaks for those women, even if they do make more money than me.

While Amsterdam was the only city in the Netherlands where we spent time, we were able to see a lot of the countryside on trains from Belgium, and then onto Germany. I was slightly disappointed to have only seen one traditional windmill, and a handful that look like you’re driving on Highway 580 through the Altamont Pass. I bet the children dancing with tulips in the fields don’t really wear wooden shoes either. I guess that’s how Europeans feel when arriving in California to learn that everyone is not as cool as David Hasselhoff.

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Brussels, Belgium

Karie on Mar 10th 2008 07:38 pm

A while back we watched a Travel Channel special on Brussels that really peaked my interest. Brussels is referred to as the Capital of Europe, being home to the European Union headquarters. Its country also stakes claim to the best waffles, chocolate, and beer, and swears that they invented the french fry. Some might argue that this tiny country has made more significant contributions to modern society than any other. Seriously, we could all live without the space program, but without waffles there would be no holes to keep the whip cream, juicy strawberries or softened peanut butter from sliding off your fried batter. The world would be flat – pancake flat… and my mom made terrible pancakes. (it’s ok, she’s a great cook otherwise, and she even laughs at herself once a decade when she tries them again.)

The most common scent in Brussels was sugar. I guess with that much goodness going around, it’s hard to be uptight. We found the locals to be very friendly, and never taking themselves too seriously. As one local put it, “Paris has the Eiffel Tower, New York has the Empire State Building, and we have Manneken Pis” – a famous statue of a small boy relieving himself. We later found a less famous female version along the same lines, the Jeanneke Pis.

Brussels is also the birthplace of the comic strip. Tintin is Belgian, as are the Smurfs, and many others you would recognize. We visited the comic museum one day, and while we intended to also find the many comic murals painted on the sides of buildings throughout the city, we only stumbled across one.

The main square, Grand Place, is said to be the most beautiful square in all of Europe. While it was difficult to get the full effect with the huge tent they were constructing in the center for some type of special event, we did find it pretty spectacular. Every single building that lined the square was beautiful and unique. Despite the lingering winter chill, flowers were also in bloom throughout the city, which added to its charm.

We had 2 full days in Brussels, which most people would agree is enough for such a small town. However, I think we could have easily filled up a 3rd day of entertainment. There is a “Mini Europe” on the outskirts of the city, with knee-high replicas of all the famous sights in Europe. I was already envisioning the sequel, “Honey, I Blew Up the Kaufmanns”, until we learned that the park was closed for a few weeks.

Despite all the wonderful things that the Travel Channel had to say about Brussels (which were all true), we (ok, I) came to Belgium in search of waffles, chocolate, and waffles covered in chocolate. My mission was to find the best in town, but sadly, I left defeated. I certainly wasn’t disappointed in anything I tasted, but inevitably, I saw someone walking by with a waffle that looked better than mine, and I was never able to locate the source of that vision… the grass is always greener. So we departed from Brussels with a challenge for the future. Some day, we shall return to complete Opertaion Waffle, and conquer the other giants (tourists) to reign over Mini Europe! Some day…

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Just a Random Saturday Night in BCN

Karie on Mar 1st 2008 08:58 pm

You just never know what you’re going to find in Barcelona. I’m pretty sure that every night we stay in, we miss something. For example, we spent most of the day today inside, preparing for our upcoming trip, doing chores, etc. So about 6:00pm we were ready to get out. We had nowhere to go, so we just started wandering.

Walking down one of the main streets that we take pretty regularly, we heard some music, so we followed our ears. We wound up in the Plaza de la Constitución, where a band was playing and people were dancing the Sardana. Sardana is a traditional Catalan dance that represents unity. People gather in circles, holding hands up high, and step in unison. Coats and bags are usually placed in the center of the circle for safe keeping.

We’ve witnessed this before, usually with groups of senior citizens outside of the Barcelona Cathedral on a Sunday afternoon. We still don’t know the reason for this particular celebration, but we enjoyed watching it for a while.

Then we continued wandering. We thought we had been down nearly every street in this area, but we found a new route tonight. What looked like a network of quieter, mostly residential streets, turned out to have a plethora of cafes and shops that we had never seen. They weren’t necessarily clustered together like you typically see downtown, but spread out amongst some apartments and other businesses were these little jewels. Unique clothes & jewelry, neighborhood bars & cafes, more art galleries, and even a shop with hand made espadrilles. We spent a couple hours just following the streets to places we had never been.

On our way back home, we passed through the plaza again, which now had even louder music and more dancers. However, the band now had some competition – a demonstration march not too far away. We continued walking in the direction of our flat, and before we knew it, we were actually IN the parade of activists.

Barcelonans love to demonstrate. I think there’s probably some type of demonstration just about every weekend (always peaceful in our experience). Last weekend it was for animal rights, so there was a parade of dogs and people carrying pictures of their pets down the boulevard near our flat.

We couldn’t quite figure out what tonight’s demonstration was about. From clues I gathered based on what little I could read of their signs (which was restricted due to a) my limited Spanish, and b) they were waving them too vehemently to be read), my guess is that it had something to do with homelessness. The demonstrators were a group of drummers, followed by crowds of young people dancing & waving their signs. Drum marches seem to be quite popular here, but this was by far the most talented group we have seen. Even tourists pushing strollers, who were now part of the parade just like us, couldn’t help but bounce to the beat.

Now the Barcelona-Madrid football (aka, soccer) game is on, so after all that excitement, the streets are now quiet and the bars are loud… the night has just begun for the Spaniards.

So our efforts to just get some fresh air for a few minutes turned into an evening of unique entertainment that didn’t cost a dime. That’s just the way this city is, and that’s one of the things I love about it. We should never leave home without a camera.

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