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

Friday, December 25, 2015

roadtrip! the canadian west part #2 - alberta bound!

I saved this post for Christmas...a little present for myself. This morning as I was sorting through my photos, I turned to Gordon Lightfoot for a little musical inspiration.

Even though I've been in Germany for five years now, Alberta is still my home and one of the most beautiful places I've ever been to. This past fall I drove this amazing route - it gives me 'Heimweh' (home hurt) just looking at the photos - with colours and scenery that was picture-postcard perfect, and should be on every top-things-to-do-in-Alberta list!

roadtrip breakdown:


We started in the foothills northwest of Calgary, went north towards Red Deer, then headed west on the #11 towards Nordegg, down the David Thompson Highway towards the #93 and mountains, mountains, mountains! Then we headed southeast along the Icefields Parkway towards Lake Louise, Banff, and then Calgary.

But first, let me give you an idea of how gorgeous the Alberta foothills are in the winter time. In the Rhine valley of Germany, where I sit writing this, winter is grey and rainy, for about four months straight. So I'm missing snow and blue skies and sunshine like you wouldn't believe.


The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you


 The morning light steals across my windowpane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near, to breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
And to be once again with you
On this winter night with you
-Gordon Lightfoot Song for a Winter’s Night


My family is fortunate enough to have land northwest of Calgary, with some big and small four-legged members, who are extra cuddly when it's cold outside.


This past trip home, I relished spending quiet moments just hanging around outside, no buildings in sight, watching the horses munch and the deer wander.


And, of course, much louder moments with my three little nephews, who love to sing and buck and scream...as all little boys should love to do. I kept up.


Then we hit the road, 'where the deer and the buffalo roam'. The big prairie sky looking east changing with seemingly each breath.


The rolling hills flatten out the more north and east you drive. The prairies which stretch across Saskatchewan and Manitoba are as open and free a feeling as sitting by the ocean; along with being as wild and unpredictable.


Driving the endless hours past lonesome farms and miles and miles of field, I'm always struck by the courage that settlers had, back in the day, to build lives here. The winter can be a very hard place in the prairies.


We stopped for a night north of Red Deer, to visit more family. Great guy's sister and brother-in-law, with the dogs Monty and Lucy, live on a beautiful piece of land among the trees.


 One family photo to share, because it's Christmas day!


 Then on the road again, heading west, with blue skies leading the way.


We drove through Rocky Mountain House and Nordegg and stopped to camp for the night at Goldeye Lake.


Great guy's only desire for this trip to Canada was to fly fish...and here he practiced his technique, patiently, for hours, while I snapped photos, wrote and just sat and stared at the water. Perfection.


Behind the blue Rockies the sun is declinin'
The stars, they come stealin' at the close of the day
Across the wide prairie our loved ones lie sleeping
Beyond the dark oceans in a place far away.

 For there was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run
When the wild majestic mountains stood alone against the sun
Long before the white man and long before the wheel
When the green dark forest was too silent to be real
And many are the dead men too silent to be real
-Gordon Lightfoot Canadian Railroad Trilogy


I grew up in Alberta, lived here for 35 years and this was the first time I had driven the David Thompson Highway, the #11, past Abraham Lake. I didn't know we had lakes like this in Alberta! It's over 30 kms long, surrounded by mountains, and a shade of pale turquoise that I had never seen before.


We continued driving through the mountains, past the gathering of tourists at Saskatchewan Crossing - at the junction to the Icefields Parkway, highway #93. This is one of those must-see trails in Canada. Towards Jasper the mountains display their best sides for visitors, the Columbia Icefield to name just one impressive place to visit in Alberta.


But, on this trip, we headed southeast, away from Jasper and towards Lake Louise. The drive is spectacular with mountain lakes around every bend in the road. Superstars like Peyto Lake and Morraine Lake shouldn't be missed. Take the time, they are worth the hike.


After many hours on the road, we arrived in the late afternoon at what is probably one of the most photographed lakes in the world, Lake Louise. Named after Queen Victoria's daughter, it really is royalty.


I've been to Lake Louise a hundred times, but it is consistently impressive. Like nothing manmade, nature's accomplishments are just never boring no matter how many times you take the time to visit. Here you need no Instagram filter..or any other filter. The colour of the water is such an incredible shade that great guy was convinced it's unnatural, like a lake of acid where the Joker plays.


We took the obligatory selfie, along with every single other visitor to this place. Like the queen herself, Lake Louise must be really sick of all the cameras pointing at her.


I convinced great guy to take a look inside the Chateau Lake Louise, so we did a quick walk-thru. Staying in this Fairmont Hotel, an original CP Rail creation from 1890, is a treat.


Then quickly back outside. A fairly easy hike from the lake, if you only have a couple of hours, is to head up to the Lake Agnes teahouse on the right side of the lake.


Even if the teahouse is closed, the jade hues of this small glacier lake is filled with peace itself. I took a moment on this perfectly-placed bench and enjoyed life. How can you not, when you find yourself in a moment like this?


After another night camping, this time at the Lake Louise town campground (there are much prettier sites, but in late September you take what's open) we set out early towards Banff.


Banff is, of course, filled with tourists from all over the world. It's no secret that this is a place to visit when you're in the Calgary area. If you get the opportunity, try to hang out with a local or two. The Banff folk are interesting, very outdoorsy, and well, a treat. The Banff Arts Centre gives the area an artsy flair that you might not expect from a moutain town.  There are a host of interesting things to do in Banff.


Not the least of which is, unsurprisingly, hiking. One of the best things to do in Banff, right at the edge of town, is hike up Sulphur Mountain. A two-hour hike or a 7-minute gondola ride, the views are exhilerating in every direction. 


And afterwards, we treated ourselves to a dip in the Canadian Rockies Hot Springs. I have loved going here since I was a kid. After a day of skiing at Lake Louise, Norquay or Sunshine, we would end the day in the Hot Springs. Especially when it's snowing, relaxing in this pool, surrounded by mountains, is a dream. 


Whenever I have the chance, I drive the #1A highway back to Calgary from Banff, getting on it in Canmore. It is the less traveled and much more scenic route than the big #1.


Sometimes, you're even graced with an animal spectacle, such as these gorgeous, velvet-covered elk. I saw these in the spring a year ago, but on this year's roadtrip I was looking for them again, trying to show-off to great guy.


The #1A highway winds along the Bow River valley, past Mount Yamnuska - the face of a lying-down First Nations Chief, as if carved out of the rock by God Himself. This view impresses me every single time I see it.


And nearby, a stop at Nakoda Lodge is always on my list of things to do. You can have delicious brunch, stay over in the rustic lodge or just take a walk. I love this place located on the Stoney Nation, and every time I'm here I get an overwhelming feeling that it's sacred space.


 "Long ago my ancestors used to go to the mountain tops to pray. They were a deeply religious, sincere, and tradition- oriented people who followed, observed, and upheld the teachings, customs, and beliefs of our forefathers, respected the creations of the Great Spirit, and lived in harmony with nature. They were the Stoneys – members of the Great Sioux Nation who spoke a dialect of the Nakota branch of Siouan language family. Today we, their descendants speak the same tongue."
-Chief John Snow


And just before Cochrane, is this, possibly my favourite chapel in the whole entire world, the historical McDougall Stoney Mission Church built in 1875 at Morley. There are no words.


The rolling fields, with a Rocky Mountain backdrop, as seen here at Grand Valley, have long inspired me. I literally feel my chest open with love for life when I'm here. It's an hour outside of Calgary, and I would often just drive out in the afternoon to sit and stare and write for a moment.


Then we come to Calgary. Firmly planted along the banks of the Bow River, with remnants of the Olympics speckled across it, this city has long looked up to its bigger sisters Vancouver and Toronto...but with parking prices akin to New York City.


Cool diners, hip clubs, and cozy pubs, this is where I was born and where family-time rules.


In September, at the end of our roadtrip, we landed in Calgary in time to celebrate my brother's 40th birthday! A good 'ol Oktoberfest themed party, with the perfect Weizenbier and lederhosen (of course). My brother and his hunting buddies treated us to a wild meat cookout outside on the deck.


Away from the small boys, the big boys hot-rocked an assortment of marinated meat, the likes of which I had only seen on the Wild Kingdom. Elk, deer, seal, bear and even a drunk newfie moose (brought by the drunk newfie himself), which incidentally was my favourite. So tender! It was a raucous good time, the perfect exclamation mark to our trip.


In Calgary, I spent some lovely days hanging out, keeping up with my three nephews. They're a handful, but luckily so sweet. I think God makes clever, stubborn little children super-cute, so that you keep them around. 


Here's Aunty's attempt at trying to take a photo. That's what you get when you actually try to get two two-year-olds to stop for two seconds to pose. Say ch....okay don't.


In the summer and fall, the corn maze is an afternoon full of fun for small and larger children. I had never been to a corn maze, but unless you have allergies, it's kind of a magically strange way to take a walk.


My favourite part was watching the pig races. Have you ever seen anything as cute as this? I think not.


And in the evening, as I do every time I'm in Calgary, I spend some quality, quiet time with my brother (aka hunting). Usually I sit in the bush, tall grass or canoe, silently praying that he misses, while whispering him encouragement. I know that he is very serious about trying to provide healthy, homegrown meat for his family...and that is what he does.


I, on the other hand, just love spending time with this big boy and his truck. His hunting outfits also really entertain me.


If you're planning a trip to Calgary in the summertime, which I'm longing to do again soon, then plan for the beginning of July. If you have never been to the Calgary Stampede then I suggest going at least once in your lifetime. It is a beautiful rodeo spectacle, with lots of country music and a bit of the wild west...


with lots of cowboys to boot! We've been going with my dad (as seen below seriously studying the cowboy action) since we were very small. He was even on the Stampede Citizen board back in the day - that's how much the horsey world was part of our childhood.


I get excited just seeing these photos again (taken by my stepmum, not ninaontherhein...sorry!). The sweat, the tears, the snorting, the dust, the courageous rodeo clowns...can you say crazy fun? It's not everyone's cup-o-tea, just like there are some strange peeps out there who don't actually like country. Plain weird, but to each his own.


And every Alberta trip of mine ends with pub night at my favourite watering hole. My friends, always the loyal bunch, come whenever I say 'pub night!' It's possible that they just like the beer...but I'll choose to think they're there for me. Love being home.


In the early morning rain with a dollar in my hand
With an aching in my heart and my pockets full of sand
I'm a long way from home and I miss my loved ones so
In the early morning rain with no place to go
-Gordon Lightfoot Early Morning Rain
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Thursday, December 17, 2015

christmas on the mosel...uncanny, underground, unequalled.

An underground Christmas market? What? Why? France for the day? Okay!

For the past three weekends I have been on tour. One of the best things about Germany (for a travel lover) is its size (small!) and its location (central!). For a Canadian driving two hours to get somewhere is...totally normal. So, the chance to drive to France for the day, to an old old city, at Christmastime, sounded perfect.

Germans do Christmas, well, differently than North Americans. Think less giant blow-up lawn Santas, and more white twinkle lights, wooden ornaments, and alcohol...hot alcohol.

When I heard about the Christmas markets along the Moselle Valley, as the river makes extreme switchbacks through steep vineyard-covered hills, I knew I wanted to check them out to see what the fuss was all about.

So, join me, won't you, as I show you three unique cities along the Moselle ('Mosel' in German) which are all decked out for Christmas...each interesting in its own way - food, architecture and location.

Metz, France



Let me begin by saying that the city of Metz has aged well. It's over 3000 years old. It also wears its very important past as gracefully as a once-famous actor who hasn't turned to drugs and alcohol. Like Grace Kelly, Metz just moved on to other important things, not needing to be in the spotlight anymore.


I visit France any chance I get. The atmosphere, the language, the people (really, we were walking down the street and a mother, wearing the cutest outfit of pea coat, boots and little hat, comes skipping by us, hand-in-hand with her young daughter, her left arm out and her head back..I thought, am I in a movie?)...and the food. Or should I say, the food style. In France, it's the style of everything that's different...the French do everything with an élan that stands out from the rest.


Which brings me to the most stylish of cookies. The Jackie O of cookies. The macaron. ('macaron' or 'macaroon' in English). A meringue cookie filled with ganache or cream, they are sweet, expensive and really hard to make. It's one of those DIY projects that I won't attempt again. Mine tasted okay, but I never knew a cookie could have the colour of death. The sad grey discs that came out of my oven were so unappetizing to look at I had to eat them all myself. To think that such an elegant confection had a birthplace other than Paris, can only mean one thing...Venice.


Metz was once the hub of Gaul and then Roman activity. Walking the narrow, cobbled streets in the shadow of massive stone structures, you feel the presence of a thousand ghosts. Even more so wonderful then to turn a corner and see a gorgeous patisserie! Each item displayed as if in a showcase...the key to the French diet: savor what you eat. Indulge in excellence in tiny bite-sized portions. Quality over quantity. Personally, I usually opt for both.


Slabs of nougat, candied ginger and all sorts of fruit, and giant marshmallows are some of the sugary treats found in the wooden huts at the Metz Christmas market. The French like to experiment with flavours so that you'll find yourself saying 'Oui' to a foie gras macaron or a whiskey-infused marshmallow. You'll eat it and most likely enjoy it because it has a certain something...it has flair!


What I didn't expect at a Christmas market was escargots! We were in France and so it shouldn't have come as a surprise. These little suckers are the perfect le snack!


With the aromas of roasted almonds, skewers of marinated beef, all sorts of baked goods and chocolate; not to mention the trails of wafting goodness from the glüwein (mulled wine) stands you will want to snack a lot....at least un petit peu.


After a vin chaud blanc (mulled white wine... oh so good) at Place Saint Louis , my French-speaking, Germany bestie made quite the unattractive face as we came across the stand with big white letters:
cuisses de grenouille.

My French isn't that great and I didn't realize 'cuisses' meant 'legs' until she tentatively moved to take a closer look at the nice gentleman who was swiftly turning small v-shaped bundles in fine breadcrumbs. Now I do realize the irony...what's the difference between consuming plates of wings from a chicken and legs of a frog? Nothing. Except that one I'm used to and the other not so much. Usually, I'm very much a when-in-Rome-let's-try-it traveler, but on this day I couldn't bring myself to nibble at these former little hoppers.

While I was doing a little background-check on Metz for this post, I came across the following piece of trivia, and actually had a physical reaction:

„Frog muscles do not develop rigor mortis as quickly as muscles from warm-blooded animals (chicken, for example) do, so heat from cooking can cause fresh frog legs to twitch.“ - wikipedia



No matter what you eat or drink, there is something magical about a Christmas market - everyone huddled together, friends and families greeting each other, the crisp cool air mingling with the steam of mulled wine, the sun going down and twinkle lights appearing as if by magic.


In the darkness, the city takes on a whole new look. At the Place de la Comedie a park of winding pathways through truck-sized lit characters awaits kids of all ages. It feels fairytale-ish, probably due to the excited children running amok and the warm glow of christmas lights. One last parting look backwards at the Cathedrale St. Etienne. Now back to Germany...the perfect daytrip.


Bernkastel-Kues, Germany

As the Moselle River winds into Germany it carves out a steep path amidst vineyard-covered hills. This is one of Germany's oldest wine-making regions, with Riesling being the star of the show. If you get the opportunity to visit this area, make you explore a town or two.


I think the word 'cute' originated in the town of Bernkastel-Kues (okay, I do know that it didn't, but it should have). The half-timbered houses seem to lean into each other for support...trying to stay standing after all of these hundreds of years. For the tourists, ya know.


Christmas spreads into every narrow space here, oozing along the Gassen (lanes) and up the housefronts. The Christmas market stands are set up, really anywhere there's room. Coming from the river, you wander criss cross inbetween these ornate buildings, all eyes up, while Christmas vies for your attention...ever the diva.


The half-timbering building traditon can be found all over Germany, and into France and Austria. On a foundation of brick or stone, a frame is constructed using whole, squared timbers. The frame was often left exposed from the outside, while the spaces were filled with straw, plaster or layered sticks.


These 'spaces' were then, depending on the region, often decorated with patterns, often looking like the most beautiful x's & o's board you've ever seen.


There is a fairytale-feeling you get wandering among the buildings here, as if Alice herself had taken up architecture and practiced it here. One of the most photographed houses is the 'Spitzhäuschen' (the pointed house) which is fairytale exhibit A.


It was built in 1416 in the middle of the Old town. Even though it looks so whimsical, it's origin was absolutely practical. Back in the day, home owners here were taxed by the amount of surface area they built upon. Therefore, many of the still-standing, centuries-old houses grow wider, not just taller, as you look up.


Much of the region's slate was also used in building the houses' wine cellars or used for delightful facades. Taking a riesling break in one of these weinstuben (tavern) is a treat.


And as I was about to leave for the hour-long drive home, I got another pleasant surprise. I came upon this little guy busily writing down all of his Chrismas wishes into the wishbook for the Christkind to bring on Christmas Eve. I think he'll become a writer when he grows up.


Traben-Trarbach, Germany


 

A colleague mentioned that the Traben-Trarbach Wein-Nachts-Markt takes place underground in a maze of the town's wine cellars and I came to see it the very next day. Christmas underground has a lovely ironic feel to it, and with the weather as dreary and rainy as ever, there was no reason not to spend some time as close to the underworld as I'm comfortable getting.


Don't get me wrong, this is in no way similar to the Paris catacombs experience. These cellars are large, cavernous, rooms, which stretch on seemingly for miles, but there wasn't anything creepy about them. No bones, just wine barrels, as we made our way down the tunnels.


As I've already mentioned, this area is prime wine-real estate, with a fragrant history. It was the monks (it's always the monks) who began a thriving business of producing great wines here. In the 19th Century, Traben-Trarbach was the biggest wine trading point on earth, second only to Bordeaux.


The Christmas markets spread through four underground locations of interconnecting cellars. Filled, not only with families, couples and shoppers, but also with every handmade item you can think of to wear, eat or put on a shelf.

 

Jewellery, leather, stoneware and pottery. Italian pastries, chocolates, candies and cakes.


Wine, wine, and then some more wine. Schnapps, liquors, and glüwein...all to taste first, of course!


The air was warm, stuffy at times, but the aromas of Christmas - roasted almonds and glüwein, the standard must-haves - found their home underground. Combined with twinkle lights along the rounded cavern walls, adorning the massive stone pillars and many of the stands, it was as merry a feeling as any other market I've been to.

It was honestly, just much more interesting! I followed the crowds through the tunnels, slowly moving from one cellar to the next, with no one really knowing what to expect around each corner.


Opening into one such space...really, I have no idea how vintners used these insanely long cellars...was an elderly man standing beside four overflowing tables of the most intricate woodwork the likes I haven't seen since being in the mountains of Bavaria. He was a crochety man, which I can't blame him for. Being stuck with Christmas shoppers and tourists, all-together in an underground hole for three days must not be much fun...especially in your golden years.


He grudgingly nodded when I asked if I could take some photos. I smiled and thanked him. He turned away. Okay, so he's not into sales. I find overbearing salesmen so annoying anyhow - this is almost better. So I focused on his craft, which was incredible to say the least. If great guy wouldn't have kicked me right out of the house, I would've bought a whole forest of these most-lovely wooden trees. No decoration needed.


A couple of cellars later, I was herded into a long and very narrow room filled to the arched ceiling with the aroma of sausage. I got hungry. The urge to move along and get out of this packed stone coffin was high, but instead I waited patiently to buy a small meat present for great guy.


The choices were mouth-watering, some very peculiar. Donkey or Kangaroo sausage, anyone? I opted for walnut, but it was a tough choice. Camembert, fig, haselnut, elk, paprika...the list was a table long, and the line double.


Moving down from sausage, was cheese and then bread. If all of the people had left, I could've easily spent quite a few days making myself comfortable. These simple, homemade foods piled high against a raw, stone wall reeked of a simpler time, when what we ate didn't all come enclosed in plastic; when we knew the names of the those who made what we took home to feed our families. I had that lifestyle in Saskatchewan and I want to find that again here. It's important...and lovely.


Waffels are also important - pronounced 'vuffel' auf deutsch. And these little boys waited very patiently for the waffelman to finish building theirs. The wait was worth it judging by their satisfied smiles after the waffels were history. Off to the next underground tunnel!


As dusk approached I came up for air and was greeted, again, by this lovely river. The Moselle, a slower, calmer cousin to the hectic Rhine, looks as serene as a lake in places. The people of Traben-Trarbach festively lit their houses and hotels in soft colours, while trees everywhere were adorned in white twinkles.

With a chilled Riesling and family, Christmas can come.

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