nina on the go

Stories of this Canadian girl's adventures exploring Europe...join me!

Saturday, December 23, 2017

a little light christmas (market) magic...

If someone tells you that you should check out Germany at Christmastime listen. Or just listen to me. Do it. Go. You'll love it.

Every year, since moving to Germany, I've tried to visit new Christmas markets, some far and some near. This December, I stuck closer to here are 5 enchanting Christmas markets close to Frankfurt, that are my favourites.


Let me start with Frankfurt. The city's historic centre, which is interesting at any time of year, comes to life when it's lit up with the warm ochre glow of twinkle lights. The central market is set up under the view of Frankfurt's 600-year-old city hall, the Römer.

As is standard at most of Germany's Christmas markets, you will find ample mulled wine (glüwein) stands, potato pancakes and bratwurst kiosks, artisans selling wooden crafts, jewellery and an assortment of other gift items.

But, you will also be able to experience specialty items...sometimes gourmet, sometimes whimsical, to either eat, drink or gift to someone you love. In Frankfurt, I stumbled across a Swiss fondue stand, smelling heavenly with the strong scent of Gruyere and Emmental simmering in huge bronze cauldrons. Served with large chunks of fresh sourdough bread, this was an unexpected Christmas treat!


Just half an hour west of Frankfurt lies the elegant city of Wiesbaden. Their Christmas market is called the Sternschnuppenmarkt, which is sweetly translated into 'Shooting Star Market'. The state flower is the lily and huge lit blooms hover over the market stands, lighting the way each evening in December for friends to meet for an after-work glüwein.

Many Christmas markets in Germany offer specialty glüwein mugs which easily turn into collector items. Sometimes medieval terracotta goblets, other times painted ceramics, in shapes of boots or St. Nicholas heads; each year these mugs, filled with steaming wine or cider, add an element of hygge to an already enchanting setting.

I spent one Thursday evening with co-workers at the Wiesbaden Christmas market in the city's main square, and it was the perfect location to kick-off the season of peace, tranquility and friendship.


On the south banks of the Rhine River you will find one of my absolute favourite Christmas markets. Under the impressive Mainzer Dome cathedral, the market spreads across the centre square underneath a blanket of twinkle lights. This market is always packed full of parka-clad revellers come rain or shine because the setting just feels so magical.

The people of Mainz LOVE their city, their football (soccer) team, their wine and their wurst. This is one of the two hubs of German carnival and the largest city (but still quite small) in Germany's largest wine region. The folk are proud and they celebrate their city almost every weekend with wine festivals of all shapes and sizes. Their Christmas market is no different. It is beloved.

Just beyond the dome you will find the oldest parts of the city, with rows of half-timbered houses decorated with large bows, lights and mistletoe. The first time I visited Mainz, it was a week before Christmas, and there was powdered sugar-dusting of snow on the cobblestoned lanes of the Altstadt (old town). I remember telling my bf that I felt like I had walked onto the film set of a Christmas movie. It had seemed so surreal, so beautiful, and I had felt so blessed to be there at Christmas.


Further down the Rhine, about an hour south-west of Frankfurt, nestled between the river and the hills of Germany's finest Riesling vineyards, is Rüdesheim. This is a town which is very popular with tourists. It is beyond cute...almost too cute. And it's Christmas market doesn't disappoint.

Down the narrowest of cobbled lanes, the Drosselgasse is the star attraction of the town. Authentic (and some not so quite) handcrafted Christmas ornaments and wooden nativity scenes line the gasse (lane) interchanged with wine taverns and quaint restaurants offering all the hearty German fare one can dream of.

Out in the town square a larger than life nativity sits among the wine and food stands, competing for the attention of the many visitors. But, what I love about Rüdesheim is that you can find wichtels (German elves) in almost every shop window. They are the cutest things about a German Christmas, in my opinion, and whether ceramic or felt, with long beards or pointed hats, they add an element of elegant whimsy to the season...

for all ages of child.

A Moselle Christmas 

If you're in Frankfurt and you have the time, I would highly suggest taking a day trip to the Moselle River. At any time of year this winding river valley is speckled with the quaintest, most lovely historic wine towns. But, at Christmas, these towns turn into a fairytale.
On one of the looping twists of the river, amid terraced hills of lush grapes and castle ruins, is the tiny town of Bernkastel-Kues. In the small main square an advent calendar comes to life on the facade of the largest half-timbered building. Musicians play below, while visitors stop, stare, and take lots of pics. It's difficult to put into words how even the smallest details create a capricious feeling in the air.

Traben-Trarbach's Underground Magic

But if you want whimsy and magic, then the Moselle town of Traben-Trarbach is your place at Christmas. Another historic wine town, once one of the richest areas of Europe, dating back to the Roman Empire, this town does Christmas underground. Through a maze of connected wine cellars and caverns, long aisles of vaulted ceilings, some with antique wine casks, others with Christmas wares of handicrafts, wine or food, this is just another incredible Christmas market to get lost in. 

Wine cellar market

Wherever you find yourself this Christmas, whether in Germany or not, I wish you a peaceful, reflective and thankful season filled with love and family and, well, wine!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight!

Thursday, November 30, 2017

my whirlwind days in Hong Kong...dim sum, ding dings, and long horns

So flying to Hong Kong from Frankfurt for 3 nights is not something most people think makes a whole lot of sense...Germans for sure not. But, I am so glad I did! Hong Kong now lives in my imagination and inspires me in a way that a city hasn't impacted me for some time. It was my first trip to Asia. It won't be my last.

Honestly, I've never really had a strong urge to explore most Asian countries. I'm not sure why. It could be because I don't really enjoy the attention I receive about my height, and well, in Asia I was pretty sure that the attention would be exponentially increased (I wasn't wrong). If any of the Asian countries had really intrigued me before, then it was India, but I really didn't want to go there alone.

As I was planning where to go I pulled out a map and quickly realised that I also didn't feel like flying over North Korea in this current political climate, with Trump due to be in that region the exact week I was planning to be there. So, Japan was out, and so was South Korea - both incredible countries, I have no doubt.

Hong Kong proved to be the perfect choice for me. It is a very safe, easy-to-navigate, inexpensive and incredibly interesting city. I had no qualms walking down any street I decided to turn into, wandering around, getting lost, and exploring the fascinating corners that I came across. It is like New York (a city I know very well) on crack. Apologies if that comparison isn't fair, but the noise, the bright lights, the cultural impacts as obvious as fire hydrants on every corner, the shiny bank towers looming over the very busy waterways below, ferries, tourists, quick getaways for locals, and food, such great, great food.

The very cool Mid-levels Escalator in Central

Soho happenings

Hong Kong has energy. I still feel it as I sit and write about it 3 weeks later. There is so much life buzzing by, which I found incredibly life-affirming, coming from the chattering of the masses and the hum of constant traffic. But what struck me like hammer to the head was the aroma wafting over the streets. I couldn't place the smell and still don't know what it was, but when I bought a rice noodle-soup bowl with beef balls (a very unfortunate translation), radish and broccoli from a street kiosk, I recognised the same intense aroma floating over the sidewalks. I can only assume that it's an ingredient in the broth.

On my first morning, I took the bus in order to see more of the city, to the Peak lookout at the top of Hong Kong Island. The weather was a beautiful 27 degrees Celsius and the skies were blue with just a hint of haze. I opted not to do the hour-long circular walk around the peak in the interest of time, but I have heard many recommendations that it's a must-do tour. I just had a shamefully short period of time to do everything on my list!

View from The Peak

I loved travelling around this city, swiping my Octupus card everywhere I wanted to go. With an Octopus card (identical to London's Oyster card) you can pay for all of your public transport needs: ferries, buses, and the metro. When you need to top the card up just head to any 7-11 store or metro station - it's very easy and very handy. The fares are so cheap that even with my island-hopping, 2 long bus rides, and many metro jaunts, I didn't even spend 15€ in total.

The Peak lookout platform

Visitors, listen up! Don't do the Hop-On, Hop-Off bus tour in Hong Kong. Really. First of all, it's much more cost effective to get an Octopus card, and secondly, you will miss out on so much of Hong Kong's flair - like riding on the Ding Dings (Hong Kong's authentic double-decker tram cars - my new favourite thing to do!). You also shouldn't miss the experience of Hong Kong's incredibly efficient and very clean metro system. There is so much going on in the under ground, and you never need to wait long for a ride!

After the Peak, I bused back into the city and then jumped on the ferry to Lantau Island from Pier 6 at Central Station. It's roughly a half-hour trip, out among the many fishing boats and ships zigzagging through the South China Sea. With my rice bowl and beef balls, for which I didn't even pay 3€, I disembarked the ferry at Mui Wo and walked directly to a waiting bus driver (New Lantau Bus #2) who was frantically waving me over. I climbed aboard and settled in for the windy, approximately 35 minute trip, to Po Lin Monastery and the Tian Tan (or Big) Buddha.

As I walked towards the long steps leading up the Buddha, which I knew lay ahead of me, I saw the cows. I am quite the fan of cows, not sure why, maybe it's a Canadian thing. Here on Lantau Island, the black and terracotta-coloured longhorns were just wandering around the monastery grounds, checking out tourists or trying to ignore them, while Big Buddha watched over his flock.

Huge and silky, curled up (as much as cows can curl up) on the grassy patches among the tourists or looking into the shops and picking out souvenirs.

Although the Tian Tan Buddha is relatively young, completed in 1993, the impression he left on me was one of historical significance, of being in the presence of someone who has been entrusted with the care of millions who adore him. It felt as if I had spent tender time in the presence of a wise old soul.

Whether you are Buddhist or not, it's difficult not to be in awe of the dedication with which the Chinese acknowledge and humbly (as far as I could see from the non-tourists around me in silent reverence) submit to Buddha and the deities serving him. At the very least, I found it very beautiful.

The Offering of the Six Devas

The Po Lin Monastery is much older than it's Buddha neighbour - built in 1906 by 3 monks from the Chinese mainland. It's a complex of various ornate buildings, infused with gold accents, dragon heads, every colour of the rainbow, and small buddhas which hang under the eaves like chubby gargoyles.

Po Lin Monastery
The intense, but calming, scent of incense permeated the air among the monastery grounds. Worshippers could buy bundles of incense sticks to burn and place in large and small cauldron-like pots filled with sand. Back in the city, I noticed many sand-filled pots with burnt incense sticks outside kiosks and stores lining the sidewalks.

Back on the bus, after spending a little bit of time in contemplation (which such a monument invariably effects), I headed toward Tung Chung, on the northern side of Lantau, in order to take the metro towards my evening destination of the Mongkok markets in Kowloon.

Everywhere I go I take photos of hanging laundry. I don't know why, but I love laundry...except my own. In Hong Kong, clean clothing and sheets and towels hang out of most windows and off most balconies, dressing up the sides of narrow apartment buildings like fringe on a well-worn suede coat. 

Old men sit on make-shift stools of stacked crates or plastic boxes and just watch or wait, I'm not sure. Small shops line the sidewalks selling everything from dried sea creatures to teas and packages of, what I can only assume, are mysterious herbs and potions. Kiosks offering fish balls, beef balls, soups and skewers, bowls and sweets, pop up all across Kowloon, creating an enchanting, almost whimsical atmosphere among the crowds (at least that's how it made me feel!). You can't go hungry in Hong Kong, but you might need to stand in line!

I stood out walking down the street as if I was screaming 'Hey look at me, I'm a really tall white girl!', so I didn't need to actually say anything to anyone - they noticed me immediately. I just smiled and took photos. Usually I try to blend in when I'm touristing, but here I realized there's no chance that I'll look like I belong, so I'll just stand in the middle of the street and take photos. The men sitting on their crates just watched and didn't seem to care one bit.

For a while I walked away from the big, bright lights of the main streets and crowds, in order to get a feeling of where people actually lived. But, here in Hong Kong, people live everywhere. I turned a corner to go down a narrow road overflowing with, not tourists, but families and elderly folks. I had stumbled upon a real market. Shoppers were picking up bamboo (for what?), riffling among tables of large, unfamiliar fruits, perusing dried animal parts like duck necks and octopus tentacles, and admiring every vegetable you could ever need. I was on Canton Street - only locals, no white people (that I saw), everyday life. I could've stayed all day.

I continued on towards Ladies Market and then the Temple Street Night Market (the 'must-sees') and honestly, I pushed my way through those pretty quickly. There was an insane amount of tourists looking at kimonos, tiny buddha figurines, jade jewellery, teapots, 'I love Hong Kong' t-shirts and other standard tourist market fare. In every other country these market wares make me crazy - everything 'Made in China' - but here that's how it should be :)

 By 8pm I was exhausted, totally jetlagging, and very hungry. I decided that I desperately needed some dim sum and sum drink drink.

Tim Ho Wan, whose Kowloon restaurant has a Michelin star, is said to have some of the best dim sum anywhere, and so since I had never tried it I figured why not head to the best. It is also very inexpensive. Win win. I ordered spinach shrimp rice wraps and BBQ pork buns (which so many onliners have said is an absolute must!). Both dishes were so delicious and filling and cost only 6€ total! The sweet pork filling of the buns still makes my mouth water weeks later. But, like a macaron, one or at the very most 2 is enough...3 is just too much of a good thing. So, go with a friend!

Another must-do in Hong Kong, which I had read a lot about before I came, is to ride the Star Ferry. These ferries are a cultural phenomenon, shipping 70,000 people daily between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. National Geographic has named the Star Ferry crossing as one of the '50 Places of a Lifetime' - check! Because it is such an efficient and reliable source of transport, and very inexpensive, it is beloved by locals and tourists alike.

I also made sure to check out the Hong Kong Island skyline while I was on the other side of the harbour. It is an incredible sight, unlike one I have ever seen before. Honestly, my words can not do it justice. All I can say, if you have the opportunity, short or long, to visit this city and an outer-lying island or two, then don't miss it. I am already trying to figure out when I can get back...this time for much longer.

Stay tuned for my upcoming post on hiking the Dragon's Back Trail, named Time Magazine's Best Urban Hike in Asia!
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