March 23, 2013

The Cows Come Down...And We Hike Up!

If you thought 30 something days of vacation was where the German workforce perks ended, then you thought wrong. German employees may also get to spend weekends in a guest house owned by their company in the beautiful alp-lake countryside. That's what Umair and I, along with some of our friends took advantage of last September. 

An hour from Munich, around the area of Schliersee was our cute little guest house, bracketed by the alps and a lake. 

We spent the first night playing table tennis where I realized that I am actually not bad at table tennis. Okay, I am bad, but not as bad as I thought I would be. Okay, let's just say if there was a competition between people who were bad at table tennis, I would not be topping that list. Which means there is still hope that some day I will actually become un-bad at tennis!

The second day was all about taking nice walks around the place, and welcoming the cows. Yes, cows! I had no idea I was going to witness an old-age rural Bavarian tradition that day. I had no idea such a tradition even existed! Every fall in the villages, the cows that have grazed the mountain pastures all summer long are brought down from the mountains and given back to their owners. This festival, apparently, takes place in all villages around Bavaria. The cows are all decked up with flowers, and people wait for their arrival, excited, music playing. And so we also waited to welcome the cows. I was almost sure they would roll out the red carpet. 

If only they had! 

I love finding out about random traditions from different cultures. 

Then it was lunch time, with more cows! On one side of the little cafe was this beautiful view: 

And the other side of the cafe were... 

Yes, cows.

And around the lake was a path, for kids, where you are supposed to take off your shoes, and then walk on sand, stones, twigs and finally through the water. Yes, there is such a thing. And yes we walked that little path.

Umair was not too happy about going into the water!

But don't worry, he did manage to come out of the water safe and sound! ;) After providing us with a few laughs.

If you don't already know, Germans love to hike. That's their Sunday schedule for most of the summer. And they properly dress for it. Hiking pants, hiking boots, trekking poles - the whole shebang. So when we were to spend a weekend at a guesthouse in the countryside with our German friends, it was a given that we would go for a hike. So hiking is what we did on our 3rd and last day. In our jeans and normal running shoes. And no trekking poles.

And I conclude that I am no fan of hiking. But then I knew that even before I hiked up. The views while you go up are gorgeous, but I would rather cable car it up! Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed it that day - but I was also the last one to reach up. And Umair had to keep taking breaks with me. Not my fault. These Germans have years of practice! And also not my fault that I was the only one who tripped on the way back down. Again, years of practice for these Germans. And that thing was steep! 

View all around us while hiking

See how steep it is?!!

Anyway what matters is that I made it! Huffing and puffing, I still made it. And up there awaited some warm kaiserschmarrn for us! That was what actually kept me going, the little cafe up the mountain.

Proud and gleeful me after my first hiking experience!

March 13, 2013

11 Reasons Why Paris is Magnificent

There was once a time when I used to think of Paris as being very cliche. A place that was unnecessarily hyped. Paris was never on my top 5 list of places I wanted to visit. In fact, ever since I knew I would be moving to Europe, Scotland, Spain, Italy, Switzerland and Netherlands were my must-visits. Paris? Yeah maybe once I've covered other more quirky parts of Europe and when I'm in the mood to put up with snobby behaviour. And if you know me then you very well know I'm never in the mood to put up with snobby behaviour.  

Then one day, my colleague in Toronto, insisted I visit Paris when I'm in Europe. And that Paris might surprise me. And she told me about the food. The French food. And I live for food. So Paris started to slowly sneak onto my must-visit list. Slowly. And by the time Umair suggested we take a week's vacation to Paris and Belgium, Paris had fully crept onto my list! And I was as excited as the 9 year old Naima would be at buying a barbie dollhouse.

Anyway, I've got a Parisian friend who herself vouches for Parisians being rude and mocking people who do not speak correct French (I gotta love the Germans for never making fun of my awkward German). So are Parisians as snobby as people make them out to be? Maybe. Did I personally experience it? Not at all. And maybe that was also why I loved Paris so much? Who knows. But here's why I definitely loved Paris and would go back in a heartbeat (in no particular order):

1) French Balconies

I love Paris buildings. And Parisian decor. And I think these balconies are such a huge part of what Paris is; they give the Parisian streets so much character. They add to the chic and romantic vibe of the city. Buildings in most parts of Europe are similar in style, but what sets apart the buildings in Paris are it's balconies. Imagine living on the top floor of these buildings in the heart of some awesome district? View of the busy Paris life with traffic galore, huge cobblestone roads, buzzing street cafes and patisseries...sigh!

2) Beautiful Gardens 

Paris has a got quite a few gardens spread across the city. There are the famous ones with pretty buildings and fountains. And then there are also little squares of parks in places you wouldn't really expect to see a garden. Our first day in Paris was spent strolling around the gorgeous Luxembourg Gardens. And there were chairs around! Apparently, there are chairs all around Paris' gardens. Not the wooden benches like gardens usually have. But actual chairs. And people just chill around absorbing the awesome Parisian air. The gardens located all around the city also add to the charm and romantic side of Paris. 

chairs, people, Luxembourg gardens!

3) The French Patisseries 

husband trying to decide which pastry he wants

Scent of freshly baked bread and cute little patisseries displaying the yummy croissants, pastries, cakes, eclairs, macarons can be found almost every other corner of the street. A simple butter croissant is absolutely delish in there. So warm and fluffy and buttery!  All these look so inviting displayed at the windows. And it doesn't help that these patisseries are usually colourful. You're drawn to them against your will. At every corner of the streets in Paris, you are seduced by Parisians and their whimsical patisseries. And next thing you know you're eating your 4th cake of the day. 

4) Laduree - The Macaron Heaven

in front of Laduree. Look at the lineup!

oh sweet heaven! remember when i said Parisians like to seduce us?

Technically this should fall under #3 as Laduree is a patisserie, however it deserves a spot of it's own. Laduree's macarons itself are a reason enough for me to go back to Paris again. Laduree is known to make one of the best macarons in the world. Macarons - those adorable double decker cookie-like things with lush smooth butter cream filling!

How cute do these look?!! They can be found in many flavours, some quirky ones too. Our favourite were salted caramel. Chocolate ones are amazing as well, ooh and also lemon! The orange was quite good too. But salted caramel - you know when I said cheesecake is my favourite dessert? Well, maybe, just maybe, salted caramel macarons are what I'd cheat on cheesecakes with. Macaron is the thing that all cakes would be jealous of. They would hate macaron, but secretly want to be one! But it's okay rest of the cakes in the world, lucky for you, macarons are not as widely eaten as other pastries/cakes. Yet. 

5) Parisian Doors

somewhere around the Le Marais district

photo found on flickr paris mosaic pool

Whether it's a door to a little patisserie, a clothing boutique or a decor shop, Paris streets are filled with whimsical doors! I entered quite a random bunch of shops just because of the doors. Just to see how it felt to pass through such doors. I sound like a door-geek now. That's Paris for you. It makes you a door-geek. Along with making you gain weight. 

6) Art Galleries in Le Marais

My favourite district of Paris was Le Marais. We spent a day here just strolling around. It is one of Paris' main localities for art galleries. This district is also known for it's trendy fashion boutiques and restaurants. I am not going to pretend I know much about art, and I'm never the one to run to art museums. However, the vibe in Le Marais was just so cool. There were narrow hallways with so many art galleries and I loved walking around. 

the hallways with art galleries

inside an art gallery - so weirdly cool!
again, hallways and hallways of galleries and galleries!
Strolling around the galleries, a garden nearby and then walking up to the narrow streets with trendy clothing boutiques and decor shops - Le Marais really is my favourite district in Paris. There is also a Jewish quarter there and they make some of the best falafels in the world! 

7) Red, Blue and Yellow shops

little shop with home decor, stationary etc 

Parisians' aim is to seduce us innocent people. They put up such charming and colourful buildings, with adorable window decor to entice and lure us in. And these seductive techniques are not just limited to shops, but also to their scrumptious patisseries, cafes and restaurants. I read somewhere that Parisians call window shopping 'faire du leche-vitrines', which actually means window licking. Well that makes sense. That's what I wanted to do when passing through these shops. 

Patisseries, cafes, restaurants, shops - everything is so colourful! It makes the city feel so chirpy and vibrant all the time. I think that even when it's wet and rainy in Paris, the city still looks fun and lively. It's like living in a barbie world. When I was little, my barbies used to live in a pretend town with coloured houses and shops. Little did the 7 year old Naima know barbie world exists in real! I grew up in the UAE, and the Arabs don't believe in turquoise doors and red houses. 

8) Crepes for Dinner Anyone?

This post is becoming more of a food post, I realize. But what's Paris without it's amazing food? I don't know why the French aren't fat. I gained quite a few pounds in just 5 days. I love crepes and my favourite is the typical chocolate banana crepe. And I mostly eat it as dessert or breakfast. But the lovely Parisians eat it as brunch, lunch and dinner! Creperies usually are not even open in the mornings for breakfast; they open around noon. Umair tried a salty one for brunch once - with eggs, spinach and goat cheese - he loved it! There's so much to choose from. And the fact that it isn't limited to just sweet crepes, and that people can actually eat salty ones with variations for dinner? Awesomeness!

Just 2 minutes from our hotel, which was in the Montparnasse district, was this street which should be named Rue de Creperie. It was creperie, after creperie, after creperie. Red, green, blue. Cute little crepe restaurants. If heaven was on earth, it would be on Rue de Creperie. Maybe heaven is on earth and I managed to stumble upon it!

rue de creperie! (just so we're clear that isn't what the street is actually called.)

9) Trendy and Chic Cafes 

I love the cafe culture in Europe. I wish we could have this in Toronto too! It's such a contrast from the Canadians who grab a cup of coffee from Timmies and drink it while doing their other important activities. For French, having coffee is one of the important activities! French take their coffee very seriously. In the afternoon, all the cafes are buzzing with people chatting over coffee. Although Munich is very similar to Paris when it comes to coffee time and cafes, sipping a hot drink outside facing French balconies is a completely different feel. 

10) Saint Germain des Pres

My second favourite neighbourhood, after Le Marais. Located in the 6th district, this is one of the more upscale districts of Paris. It's situated along the Seine river, and if you walk along the Seine river from St. Germain for about....65 minutes, you'll see a certain Mr. Eiffel standing tall. How do I know? Because one fine night after having amazing dinner at a restaurant in St. Germain des Pres, I decided I felt like checking out Mr. Eiffel sparkle at night. Umair suggested we walk along the Seine river - as it would be pretty. And pretty it was, yes. But Umair also said it would take us only 20 minutes. And so I agreed! My feet were already dead from the entire day's wandering around and by the end of the night, they were in quite a bit of pain. But I absolutely LOVED the walk. Paris is gorgeous at night, walking along the river with beautiful bridges and architecture and lights - maybe romance in Paris is cliche but it's the kinda cliche that should be done!

we had the most amazing dinner here

St. Germain des Pres is filled with trendy restaurants, some even seat you on the first floor in the French balconies :)

11) The Bigwigs of the Tourist World

Who would not love seeing Mr. Eiffel sparkle under the moonlight? Or the Louvre with it's architectural beauty? And when we speak of architecture, who can forget the gorgeous, detailed Notre Dame? The giant Arc de Troimphe standing tall at the end of Champs-Elysees in all its glory. And then there's Moulin Rouge and right next to it the white beauty Basilica of Sacre Coeur. Paris has some of the biggest tourist attractions. 

Mr. Eiffel

We checked out Mr. Eiffel 3 times during our trip. Once, the very first time when we climbed to the top and got beautiful views of the city. Once when we decided on testing our feet and walked all the way from St. Germain des Pres. And then one last time on our last day - I just wanted to go and lie around the garden by the Eiffel tower. I speak of the romantic side of the city again - soft breeze, garden spread across with the backdrop of a giant architectural landmark...

view of Paris from the top

it sparkles beginning of every hour


Louvre is huge. We walked around for 3 hours and we were still not done. And as expected, Mona Lisa had the biggest crowd. I wonder if they've actually put up the real Mona Lisa picture?

Notre Dame and Arc de Troimphe

Notre Dame has breathtakingly detailed architecture. I had to sit down on a bench nearby to give the details some time and to take it all in. It must have taken them so many years to build this masterpiece. I'm reading 'The Pillars of the Earth' currently which is set against the backdrop of building a cathedral in 12th century England. The book points out details on how long cathedrals take and the kind of work that goes into them - it is amazing and so admirable that there were men who could spend years building something so creative and beautiful. 

From Louvre, we walked across to Champs Elysees to this magnificent monument. It's so huge right in the middle of the road. Paris' roads are huge and I don't know how people drive there! I would be so flustered if put behind the wheels in Paris. The walk along Champs Elysees is great with tons of stores and Laduree! 

Sacre Coeur

we climbed up the Sacre Coeur to see pretty views of Paris

Up there, behind the Sacre Coeur were some art galleries and also patisseries!

Loved how people were just chilling around, some picnicking up around the Sacre Coeur. We first had crepes, then bought some strawberry tarts (again, why are the Parisians not fat?) and sat on the stairs taking it all in. There was a guy singing and playing guitar as well. It was all nice and pretty and romantic until Umair decided we leave. Because the singer started singing (or butchering a/c to Umair) his favourite song, Stairway to Heaven

March 7, 2013

A little bit of Munich (part 2)


I love Christmas time. It's the only good part about winter. I'm not a winter person; I feel more chills than a normal person, my shoulders start hurting after wearing 3 sweaters + thick coats for hours (yes I layer up like crazy!), night time approaching at 4PM - I loathe all of it! And that's when Christmas time swoops in like a knight in shining armour and rescues me from the dark gloomy days ahead. And Munich's knight in shining armour is even more awesome because it has Christmas markets! The Distillery District in Toronto does it as well but I think that runs for only a week or so? Anyway, streets filled with lights and wooden stalls and food and sweets and gorgeous handmade crafts and music, what's there not to love?! 

These street markets start four weeks before Christmas, marking the beginning of Advent and run every day all four weeks. My research tells me the Christmas Markets started around Late Middle Ages. Those Middle ages folks really knew how to have fun! Someone please invent a remote control for life that allows you to rewind time - I'd like to go back to the middle ages! Especially after going to a few medieval towns (Bruges, Nurnberg, Regensburg) and reading a book based on medieval times 12th century England, I think it'd be really cool to experience the old world feel and charm. As a watcher. I don't want to live in medieval times because I love my iPhone and green tea too much. But it'd be cool to just watch Europe back in time. Like, you see them but they can't see you. They would be walking and you'd make fun of them and they wouldn't know! Sounds borderline creepish. BUT HOW COOL WOULD THAT BE?!

Anyway back to the weihnachtsmarkt! There's quite a few in Munich. One of the smaller ones is in the area Munchner Freiheit I mentioned. There's a really big one in Marienplatz. You can see it in the video below:

My favourite one is a medieval themed one. The stalls and their vendors are decked up like medieval times and sell items that evoke feel of that period! Someone make time travel happen! I did not have my camera on me when we were there (and we were there at least twice) so here's a couple crappy pictures from my phone: 

a kiosk with old kitchen tools and cutlery!

Hot apple drink to keep me warm - cute cup!

I really should start taking more pictures of Munich. I realize I only really use my camera when we are outside of Munich. Christmas Markets also have tons of lebkuchen, it's a special kind of gingerbread cookie these Germans like to have during Christmas time. 

Tollwood Festival

chocolate covered warm cream puffs in one of the indoor market.
This takes place on the same grounds as Oktoberfest. So it is huge as well. Tollwood festival is not just limited to Christmas Markets. They start around 4 weeks prior to Christmas but actually run till the new years. They do have their own Christmas markets as well. However, what sets them apart from the various Christmas markets are the huge tents with huge indoor markets selling all kinds of ornaments, handicrafts, other cool stuffs with each tent providing it's own lounging area/eatery and entertainment. There is a lot to do at the Tollwood festival. Some tents actually cost you money because they provide special entertainment such as music and theatre. We were only able to go there once but it was fun! And they had so many food options, we couldn't decide what to eat! Finally we settled on yummy gorgonzola cheese pizza.

New Year's Eve

If there is one thing that did not please me about Munich, it's the way these Germans celebrate New Year's. It actually is not limited to just Munich. It's the entire German nation. They go nuts. Absolute nuts. And I wish I was exaggerating when I say this but the city that usually is charming and chill, on new year's becomes a chaotic mess of a war zone. Fireworks are not conducted by the city. And fireworks and rockets are available in stores for public buying. Now you can imagine what ensues when all these Germans buy their own fireworks and rockets, go outside and fire them off haphazardly in EVERY DIRECTION POSSIBLE. Umair and I couldn't decide what to do on new year's so we thought 'oh, why don't we go to the city center, they'll maybe have nice music on and fireworks. Maybe a concert.' And when we get there, I kid you not, I wanted to run right back down to the subway. It was madness. And it was only 10.30 PM! We found a sheltered spot to view the chaos, but every now and then, I would cover my eyes or head or pull Umair back because there would be a rocket coming our way. I had a few sparks go off on my jeans - and that's when I told Umair that I had had enough! So we decided to head back. But there was another issue - we were in a somewhat sheltered spot. To leave, we had to walk through the battlefield. And that was impossible. So we waited till midnight. It got even more crazy at midnight. And by that time I was so terrified that I was ready to run through that battlefield just so I could get to the subway and be home safe in my couch. 
It was quite an experience, new year's in Munich. 

I know being in an actual battlefield is something I cannot ever imagine as to what it'd be like....but this chaos was like nothing I have ever seen before and war zone really is the word to describe it. And once it all ended, the streets were a complete trash-mess! But everyone knows the efficiency of these Germans. When we woke up in the morning, the streets were all clean and Munich felt like the same charming Munich again. But one thing is for sure - I am never spending another new year's in Germany!