June 28, 2014

Country Roads, Take Me Home

A few weeks ago, a dear friend and I took a Sunday afternoon stroll down the quiet country roads of my home county.  I wish photos could capture the freshness of the breeze, the smell of the wildflowers, the thrumming of the woodpeckers, and the motions of the butterflies.  Everyone ought to take a relaxing walk at least once a week as a reminder that life is made up not just of the "big" moments, but these small, beautiful, little ones. 

"The road goes ever on and on, down from the door where it began..."

What do the roads near your house look like?

Linking up with #SundayTraveler!

June 26, 2014

Germany vs. USA


So I consider myself to be pretty patriotic.  I bedeck myself in red, white, and blue on Independence Day; observe moments of silence or attend services on Memorial Day and 9/11; make the effort to research and exercise my right to vote; keep up with the latest news locally and nationally; and in all other respects, do my best to be a contributing, informed citizen.

But all this aside, I think I'll be going to unpatriotic jail after today.  Because I secretly want Germany to win the soccer match against the U.S.

Game face.
Hear me out, hear me out.  It's not that I want the U.S. to lose, per se.  It's just that I want Germany to win.  You see, my husband grew up in Germany during Euro and World Cup summers, long before the U.S. even fielded a team at the international level.  As an avid German fan, nothing would make him happier than to see his team advance to the round of sixteen.  And as the best wife in the world, I only want to make him happy... plus there's the small fact that we will be in Germany during the final World Cup matches. 

We'll see what happens today down in Brazil.  If both Germany and the U.S. make it through to the next round, there is the possibility that they could face each other again when it's down to the final four teams.  I'll probably be just as torn again.

Oh, who am I kidding?  Deutschland vor, noch ein tor!

Do you watch soccer/football?  Has your team advanced to the round of sixteen?

Celebrating Germany's 3rd place World Cup win while in Stuttgart back in 2010!  This is the #TBT part of the post!

June 24, 2014

The "ABCs" of my Travel Style

The Mamaison Riverside in Prague, CZ
Judging solely by the name of this site, you'd think my travel style could be compared to the offspring of Ebenezer Scrooge or Mr. Potter.  This would play out by building my own raft, using my own breath for wind, arriving at my destination, saying bah-humbug while patently refusing to spend any money on sight-seeing, and sleeping in the meanest, most slovenly accommodations possible.  What a mental picture, eh?

While avoiding debt, being thrifty, and responsible with my money is something I strive for, it does not, however, necessarily define my travel style.  So what, exactly, is my travel style?  There are three parts to it - my travel ABCs, so to speak.  But since I enjoy mixing things up a bit, the "B" and "C" parts come before the "A."

"Traveling in a Budget-friendly, Culture-conscious manner to find a cure for my chronic wanderlust & in the process deepening my Appreciation for fine wine, good literature, culture and history."

In other words, I'm just a huge nerd -- with a regular 9-5 job and a budget -- who would prefer to learn history and culture in person than through the pages of my books!  That's my travel style.  A combination of all prices and types: decent hotels to roughing it at a campground; cheap street food to nicer restaurants; expensive sightseeing to free attractions.

But how do we accomplish this?

Window-view from our room at Mamaison. Choosing a hotel that
was a 20 minute walk from the main sites saved us money -
and saved us from being on a noisy street!
The first part of our travel style is being Budget-friendly.  We live within our means, so that we can travel beyond our dreams (I ought to trademark this phrase).  We prefer to cook our meals at home, not indulge in excessive shopping, avoid consumer debt, shop around for the best prices, and save, save, save!  This doesn't mean that we don't have a social life, but it does mean that we budget carefully and limit entertainment expenses to special occasions. 

And when we do travel, we spend hours researching the best prices and deals for our trip.  Sometimes travel expenses are unavoidable and certain must-see attractions come at a high cost (e.g., Westminster Abbey in London had a steep price tag!), but that's why we live frugally at home.  I'd rather forgo a dinner at a chain restaurant in Richmond and have a night-out in Rome any day!

The next part is being Culturally-conscious.  This encompasses a lot of things.  I don't understand travelers who go to countries simply to bar hop.  While I can certainly appreciate a fine brew or a glass of white, getting trashed in a foreign country and missing out on day-time sight-seeing due to nursing a hangover is just not my style.  We visit both big and little sites, explore what makes that country/location so unique, and try to blend in with the locals to get as much out of our experience as possible.

Appreciating the grandeur of St. Vitus Cathedral
in Prague!
Finally, it's being Appreciative, or open-mindedAlthough I map out our trips almost to the minute, I understand that the best parts of a trip can erupt organically and that I need to be flexible for spontaneous additions (or detraction) from the original plan.  This also means that while I possess a political, social, and religious opinion on everything (just ask my husband!), I try to stay open-minded towards the traditions of our current location while there and respect that my American ideas may not necessarily be the best practice for a different culture.  I hate when non-Americans hound me with their opinions on how our country should operate, and I don't want to commit the same error when abroad.

So, in a very large nutshell, that's my travel style.  What's yours?

Linking up with Bonnie, Van, Kiki and other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

June 23, 2014

Thwarting Thankless Thugs & Thieves

I am absolutely convinced that we are going to be the victims of pickpocketing while in Europe next month.

With the almost-pilfered
purse at Hohenschwangau
Call it paranoia, pessimism, or mental-preparation, but I just have this uneasy feeling that we'll come back from Europe considerably lighter than planned.  Perhaps it's because we've been so fortunate thus far.  We did have one pickpocket attempt in 2010 when in Augsburg, Germany.  There was a vibrant street-festival in full swing as we wandered through the streets, and as we walked back to our bus, I noticed that my purse was partially unzipped.  Nothing was stolen, but as my tiny purse had been clenched tightly between my arm and side, I was astonished that anyone had even tried to pilfer it!

Or perhaps it's because I've been reading about so many thieving instances in Rome or because my co-worker just had his iPhone stolen in Paris.  Maybe it's a good thing that my new phone won't actually work in Europe (darn you, lying customer service reps!) so it's one less valuable item to go missing.

So with only 10 days left until we're winging across the Atlantic, I am scouring blogs and travel articles for various tips and accessorizes that will hopefully mitigate the pickpocket risk.  Here are a few things we plan to do:
We use a generic pouch bought through
Amazon.com. Source.

1.  Wear a money pouch.  While neither fashionable or particularly comfortable, we will be utilizing a money pouch or two for this trip.  It fits snugly around the waist and under your clothing.  So long as you're not flashing it in public, no one's the wiser that you have extra goodies stashed out of view.  A pickpocket may be able to get in your pocket undetected, but I think I would notice if someone had their hand down south, if you know what I mean.

2.  Locks on our luggage.  We've actually never put locks on our luggage -- not out of excessive trust of our surroundings but simply out of laziness.  We will this time.  I won't be locking our checked luggage until we collect on arrival, as TSA may arbitrarily decide to search my bags and they'll simply cut the locks.  So while I can't prevent theft by the TSA (other than keeping all valuables in my carry-on), I can deter thieves from nipping into our bags when we're maneuvering through the unfamiliar and potentially packed train system in Italy.  And although our hotel in Pompeii and hotel in Rome look fairly secure, unprincipled staff can work even in the best hotels, so I will be keeping our luggage locked even when left in the hotel room.

3.  Don't look like a tourist.  Now this is easier said than done, and ultimately, a good pickpocket will be able to detect that we're tourists.  We usually do a pretty good job of dressing like locals, although I've had a few faux pas in the past (e.g., wearing too short shorts), but this part is always harder for my husband than me.  He is most comfortable in a loose t-shirt, shorts, and flip-flops.  And almost every site says that the fastest way to scream "I'm an American tourist!" is to wear flip-flops in Europe when not at the beach.  So I bought my husband some slip-on boat shoes; they may still mark him as a tourist, but at least not as obviously as his beloved flip-flops.  

4.  Be aware of your surroundings.  This is where my martial arts training and my natural distrust of public places comes in handy (although, yes, my awareness semi-failed in Augsburg!).  Don't fall for the fake "tourist-policemen" scams, the I-need-your-help-with-directions distractions, the take-a-flower-offered-by-a-child-and-then-the-parent-demands-payment scam, etc etc.  This website has detailed a lot of pickpocket tricks that will have me on high alert, especially when we're in Naples and Rome.  In the picture to the left, I'm looking very distracted and tourist-y while in London, but my husband was right beside me and there were virtually no crowds.  I will not be this oblivious-looking in Italy, that's for sure!

5.  Make photocopies, know where the police stations are, and where your consulate is located.  Italian hotels are required to hold your passport on check-in for the local police to inspect, so they should be relatively safe while you are not in transit.  But if your passport is stolen, it will be easier for the consulate to provide a replacement if you already have the pertinent information.  Same with your credit cards.  Write down their numbers and the (international) phone number of the issuing bank for you to call in the event that the cards are stolen.  Before you leave on your trip, have at least a vague idea where the police stations are and know where your embassy is located.  

Hopefully, we will not be the victims of theft while in Europe, but it's good to make sure you've prepared for all contingencies.


Have you been the victim of theft while traveling?  Do you have any more tips to add?

June 22, 2014

Burger Bach: New Zealand Burgers with Virginia Beers

Picture of the West Broad location from Burger Bach's Pinterest.
I must confess that I was a bit dubious about trying out Burger Bach a few weeks ago.  Not that I dislike burgers (or Bach, for that matter), but I wasn't really in a burger mood.  It was a hot June day, and a greasy, condiment-y burger just didn't sound appealing.  But willing to try anything once, I bowed to the popular vote of my group and decided to give Burger Bach a try.  Boy, am I glad I did!

As their website explains, Burger Bach (pronounced "batch" - sorry, Johann Sebastian!) is a "New Zealand inspired gastronomical house, or 'gastro pub'... [specializing] in gourmet burgers."  The Short Pump location offers outdoor or indoor seating, and if seated indoors, you have an open view of the kitchen.  Our server was eager to explain Burger Bach's concept of "best tasting and humanely raised beef" and was quite knowledgeable on all the Virginia craft beers offered.  I quickly selected a Bold Rock Virginia Apple Ale, crafted near Wintergreen, Virginia.  It was everything I could wish for - crisp, fruity, but not terribly sweet.

It was hard to decide on a main course, however.  My friend finally put an end to my mental eenie-meenie-miney-mo method of choosing and told me to order the South Lamb burger.  "It's really good," she said, "you won't be disappointed."  She was right.  Served hot with a slightly pink center, it melted in my mouth.  The goat cheese, Manuka Honey Dijon vinaigrette, and cilantro sauce were perfect.  (My mouth is watering just thinking about it!)

Unfortunately, I didn't even think to take a picture of this gastronomical masterpiece.  I was too excited about eating it to think about sharing what it looked like!  Thankfully, I found a picture on Burger Bach's pinterest page.

The menu prices reflect Burger Bach's emphasis on antibiotic-free, grass-fed, sustainable raising of animals, with beef burgers ranging from $8-12 and their other signature burgers pricing between $9-11.  Certainly not within my usual "thrifty" range, but my dollars were well-rewarded by the flavor of the meat.  The craft beers ranged from $3.50-$7.00, if I remember correctly, which is pretty typical for the market.  Burger Bach also offers a variety of seafood, from oysters to mussels to shrimp, from local and national seafood providers.  My friend ordered a dozen oysters from Hog Island, VA, paired with the same Virginia Apple Ale I was enjoying.

In addition to the good food and selection of local craft beers, I was also very touched and impressed by the managerial staff at the Short Pump location, who I observed displaying generosity and patriotism by comping the drinks and sides of a military family enjoying a meal there.  As the wife of a (former) Marine, I love to spend my dollars at military-friendly establishments.

I certainly will be returning to Burger Bach (sorry, but I just can't seem to pronounce it "batch"!) with my husband in tow, so that I can satisfy my lamb burger cravings.  Speaking of which, thank goodness they're open on Sundays...

Richmonders, have you been to Burger Bach yet?

Linking up with the #SundayTraveler!

June 19, 2014

You Can't Spell Beer Without "Mekong"

Ok, so obviously that title isn't literally true, but if you've ever visited Mekong here in Richmond, you'll know what I mean.  For the second year in a row, Vietnamese restaurant Mekong (located near Broad and Staples Mill Road) has won the number one spot for "Great American Beer Bars" in the region and the nation.  This past weekend, I decided it was high time to find out what all the buzz was about Mekong.

Situated in a strip mall-like building near Willow Lawn, the exterior is anything but impressive.  However, the interior is open and welcoming, with a rich-wood bar and plenty of high-top tables nearby.  And the beer selection is phenomenal!  Mekong boasts over 50 craft beers on tap and over 200 bottle offerings.  Beer director An Bui explains that at Mekong, "beer is the answer" -- and I would assert that they've provided a variety of answers from which to choose!  Even the pickiest of beer aficionados should be able to find something to their taste.  I sampled my friends' choices of a Singel, a sour beer, and a few others (including a spunkily-named PocaHOPtas beer!), but settled on the Allagash White, a traditional Belgian wheat ale, for myself.  Coupled with the most delicious spring rolls I have ever eaten, I was one happy chick!

Although craft beer has a reputation for being expensive, Mekong's prices were fairly reasonable, varying from $4 to $7 depending on serving size and bottle versus draft.  The food prices were also affordable; two spring rolls were only $1.50 and were served with an interesting sweet and sour sauce.

As I was designated driver, I was unable to sample or evaluate more beers than that, but I plan to return as soon as possible.  If you're ever in Richmond, I strongly encourage you to stop by for a beer and a meal!

Have you been to or heard about Mekong before?

Linking up with Friday Favorites hosted by Virginia Bloggers!

Throwback Thursday: A Love Story

While not travel related, I did want to use my Throwback Thursday photo post for something a bit more special than traveling...

Happy fourth anniversary to us!  May we have many more years (and travels!) together!

June 17, 2014

Würzburg Residenz

After after exploring the walls and grounds of the Marienberg Fortress while on our honeymoon in July 2010, our thirst for castle-romping was not yet satiated.  So we made our way to an entirely different sort of castle - the Würzburg Residenz, located just 1.8km away across the Main River.

(Sidenote:  German has two words for castle: burg and schloss.  A burg is a defensive castle, replete with ramparts, walls, moats -- just like the Marienberg Fortress.  A schloss, however, is more like a palace than a castle, and the Würzburg Residenz is a perfect example of such.)

Grand Staircase. Source.
The Residenz is not nearly as old as the Marienberg Fortress, having only been completed in the 1780s.  The grounds and gardens are beautiful and extensive, adequately reflecting the grandeur and beauty of the Residenz itself.  Despite having suffered heavy damage during World War II, the Residenz has been restored to its former glory and is an excellent example of Austrian/South German Baroque architecture.  Upon entrance into the palace, visitors are greeted with a stunning grand staircase over-arced with an impressive vaulted ceiling, which at one point was the largest unsupported vaulted ceiling in Europe.  The fresco depicts the four continents of Europe, Asia, Africa and America.  Unfortunately, photos were not permitted inside, but you can see the ceiling fresco and other interior rooms in a virtual tour here.  The staircase and vestibule, the Mirror ("gold") Room, Garden Hall and the Imperial Hall were among my favorites.

Outside, however, we took a multitude of photos in the gardens and under the shaded walkways.   Admission is free to the gardens, but it is only 7.50 euros a person to tour the inside, so it is well worth your time and money to see both.

The Residenz was my first experience of a German palace, and as such I will always compare visits to other palaces with this one.  Below are a few photos of the interior (found on various websites, sources noted) and the exterior:

Front facade of the Residenz. Source.

The Mirror Room (aka, Gold Room). Source.
Imperial Hall. Source.

In the gardens

I LOVE this photo.
Making fun of the naked, fighting fauns.

Have you visited the Würzburg Residenz?

Linking up with Bonnie, Van, Kiki & other travel bloggers for #TravelTuesday!

June 15, 2014

Colonial Williamsburg: Hotbed of Sedition

Governor's Palace
As July 4th approaches, I find myself becoming increasingly patriotic.  Wearing flag pins, humming Grand Old Flag under my breath, and craving apple pie are just a few symptoms.  With a dear friend in town from Texas this past weekend, I wanted to play tour guide and yet indulge my patriotic feelings.  So armed with a Groupon deal for half-off admission, we drove down to Colonial Williamsburg to find out just exactly what was going on there in 1776.

Capitol Building
We arrived mid-morning and found ample parking was available, although I'm sure that may not be the case in another week when school is out.  I've visited Colonial Williamsburg a handful of times over the years, but this was C's first visit.  Grabbing a map from the large visitor's center, I gave a quick orientation of the colonial town's lay-out while the shuttle bus transported us back a few centuries.  We began with the Capitol.

We were greeted by a bespectacled, smartly-dressed young woman, who caught us up on the latest news.  Apparently Lord Dunmore, the Crown Governor of the Virginia colony, had fled the capitol of Williamsburg in the middle of the night as the rebel cause had grown in intensity and popularity.  His departure led the way for the Virginia colony to seek independence from Great Britain.  As she was speaking, the young woman led us from the walled-in courtyard surrounding the Capitol into the building itself.

As we entered the H-shaped building, the woman pointed out an emblem above the entrance.  It featured a coat of arms underlined with the phrase Semper Eadem.  Our guide chuckled and said, "A lot of irony in that phrase.  It means 'always constant,' and yet it's anything but that right now!"

Our guide
She led us into a large room lined with boxed-benches around the wall, a large chair at the far end, and a long table in the middle.  "This is where the House of Burgesses meets," she announced to us.  "Although now we have decided to call them delegates."  She began to outline the grievances that Virginia held against Great Britain and how as the largest and richest colony, we ought to pave the way to formerly declare independence.  She also pointed out that by declaring independence, we had the opportunity to restructure our government.

"Up until now, the royal Governor has held ultimate legislative, executive, and judicial authority over the colony.  We believe that absolute power corrupts and that there must be a division of power so as to prevent tyranny," she said earnestly.

From the House of Burgesses, she led us upstairs to "the bridge room" as it literally bridged the gap of the House on one side and the Council on the other, then later led us back downstairs to the other side of the building into the high court room.

After leaving the Capitol, we heard a commotion close by and discovered that Patrick Henry was haranguing the crowd on a variety of issues.  He answered several questions from the crowd, and his answers fascinated me in terms of content, wit and sound reasoning (these questions were rather political in nature, relevant even to today's politics).  Upon conclusion of his speech, we began to wander up the Duke of Gloucester Street.

Patrick Henry
Munching on some delicious chocolate chip and raisin cookies from the Bakery, we toured the Armory, the Garden, Bruton Parish Church, the George Wythe house, and finally, the Governor's Palace.  The Palace lived up to its title, impressing even the youngest tourists with swords and guns used as decorations in the entrance, the size and grandeur of the ballroom, and the beauty of the drawing rooms.

Unfortunately, our allotted time was up, and we had to head home to Richmond without seeing the Randolph House, the Plantation, or experiencing a meal at one of the taverns (Chowning's and King's Arms are past favorites).

Here are a few more snapshots from our day:

From the armory

Someone looks happy to be in the stocks!

...Not me, though!
Inside the county courthouse

The armory

Bruton Parish Church

Enjoying the gardens

The Governor's Palace

Have you visited Colonial Williamsburg before?  What was your favorite part of it?

Joining up with Chasing the Donkey for #SundayTraveler!