Saturday, July 26, 2014

The road trip comes to an end

In a way, it seemed fitting that my Euro road trip with my brother came to an end over car talk. Over the course of this past week, we've seen a lot of cars. BMWs, Porsches, Mercedes, Fiats, Skodas, Opals, Fords, Chevys, and other models I've never heard of. As we drove up and through the Italian Dolomites, we passed by a cute little Fiat.

Me: "I remember that old orange Fiat you drove. It had a removable top."

Phil: "Oh yeah, the X19!"

From there we started chatting about our first cars, our favorite cars, our dream cars. Given this is my first-ever European road trip, in a way, it seems fitting that I'm in Bavaria surrounded by a bunch of BMWs and Porsches. I'm more or less in car heaven. (My dream cars are the BMW X6 and Porsche Panamera.)

Views of the Dolomites
The five-hour drive from Trieste back to Munich was visually stunning. The winding roads through the Dolomites were unlike anything I've ever seen. By the time we got to the Austrian Alps: "What an amazing world we live in." Whenever people ask my about my favorite places I've been, it gets increasingly harder. Every place I go has something so unique to offer.

My phone has been on the fritz the past couple days, so we headed to the Apple store in the main square in Munich (Marienplatz) to get it fixed. While my brother got his hair cut, I sat at a cafe with the wunderpup Clover and had my last beer in Germany. We then headed to this spot so I could get a falafel Duner and after stopped at supermarket so I could get some more chocolate before heading home (dark with hazelnuts).

I'm finishing up some laundry and pretty much packed. It's definitely bittersweet leaving tomorrow. Alas, my European adventure is coming to an end. My next will be an extended work trip in Chicago in a few weeks to catch up with some of my college friends. And I've still got another couple in the hopper for this year!

Friday, July 25, 2014

Do as the Romans (or Croatians): Sunbathing topless

The epic flotation contraption
in Porec, Croatia
Well, we got our day of sun to chillax on the beach, and it was a pretty fantastic day. First we grabbed some brekky at the resort (which was MUCH better than dinner the night before), and then headed down to the waterfront. It's not what we in the States think as a typical beach, but it more or less functions the same way -- but with a whole lotta extras! You can rent pretty much anything there: cabanas, chairs, mat, jetskis, paddleboats (with water slides on them). I mentioned the hilarious flotation contraption my brother and I got ourselves mixed up in, too. It really was a lot of fun.

The weather was perfect for laying around and doing nothing much more than reading and hopping into the Adriatic when we got too warm. What never ceases to amaze me is how comfortable Europeans are with their bodies. They just don't give a shit. Men, and I mean big men with big, round bellies, wearing Speedos or small-ish versions of boxer briefs. Even the young, fit men wear them.

Something else that was interesting -- about 50% of the young girls (around age 10 and under) would just be wearing bikini bottoms. I grew up a tomboy, with pretty much only boys in the neighborhood. One day, all the boys were running around without their t-shirts on. I was about 6 years old and decided to join them -- sans t-shirt, them -- until a neighbor lady come over and told me it was inappropriate for little girls to go around without their shirts on. I remember feeling disappointed and reluctantly (and shamefully) put my shirt back on before joining my male compadres. So I think a part of me felt envious for those little girls at the beach today -- that they live somewhere where it's okay to just be a girl -- and be void of a stupid cultural norm around modesty.

Speaking of modesty, Europen women seemed no different than the men. Women in their 50s and 60s with their full, round bellies in bikinis, other women in their 30s and 40s with their jiggly thighs -- all putting it all out there. A number of women were sunbathing topless, too. Whether it was their indifference, confidence, or whatever, it rubbed off and me. After our second dive in the Sea, I got back to my chair and went for it. When in Rome. Or Croatia. Or whatever. It felt really nice. And I won't be coming back with any tan lines. Well, I do have some tan lines.

Anyway...

After a good 6 hours at the beach, as planned, drove up the coast to Trieste, Italy. And what a spectacular drive it was! We drove past grape vineyards and olive tree farms before coming upon this amazing valley of rolling hills. Croatia is more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. After a short 10km jaunt through Slovenia, we crossed the Italian border and got to Trieste, Italy. Neither of us really did our research before getting there, and we were surpised at how big the city is. Luckily, our hotel is in a fantastic location, close to a lot of great places within walking distance. We headed to the seafront, passing tons of places to enjoy a coffee, glass of wine, cocktail, or whatever. After walking around, we found an amazing gelato place that was recommended to Phil, and it proved to be worth the jaunt to find it. He had something like an icecream sandwich, but way more impressive. I went for a scoop of pistachio and a scoop of dark chocolate. Wow, was it good!

Phil and I enjoying cool bevvies
in Trieste, Italy
I wanted a glass of wine, and Phil wanted an espresso, so we found a cafe that looked like our style and sat down. At almost every cafe, people were drinking something out of a wine glass that was orange-ish in color, served in a wine glass (with ice!), with a slice or orange in it. It's called an aperol spritzer, and it was fantastic. (It's just prosecco, aperol -- a bitter orange flavored liqeur/apertif (like Campari), a splash of soda water, and an orange slice.) I ended up having two! Phil had a kiwi juice concoction and a cappucino. We ordered a couple tapas, not knowing that for every round we ordered, they brough out an array of other complimentary tapas for us to enjoy. We were full when we left, and skipped dinner to keep walking the city to see it all lit up at night, which proved to be just as great as we thought it'd be.

Tomorrow's plan is to check out this castle in Trieste, and then head back to Munich. If the weather is good, we plan to take the long way back through the Dolomites.

While I miss my bed and my puppies, I'm sad this trip is coming to an end. I clearly needed the time away. As much as I love my job, and as often as I do travel, I sometimes forget that we're here to live a life -- not live to work. Phil and I were chatting and in a bit of disbelief that this is the life we have. "I love my life." We've both said it a few times on this trip. I really believe it, too. Saying I feel fortunate and appreciative sounds trite. I do feel these things, but it's so much more than that. Plus, it's all the more special that my brother and I get to go on these adventures together -- twice this year alone!

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Kickin' it on the Croatian coast

It was a pretty early start to the day. We grabbed some brekky to go from a grocery store right next to our hotel and got on the road.

Views of Rosinj, just before I
stumbled on some sea glass
Leaving Zagreb, we headed northwest-ish toward Rijeka (ree-ay-kuh). The drive was incredible. A chunk of the drive reminded us both of the North Shore of Minnesota -- lots of steep hills, topped with beautiful pine trees, which would occasionally be split by a road, where you could see the rocky terrain. The road we were driving literally went through mountains, and it was like an amazing treat once you'd get through because you'd come across something new. After going through the "North Shore," we ventured into the Colorado Rockies and then California wine country, There, we pulled off and stretched our legs in Rijeka. It's a main port city for shipping goods and getting to the many islands off the coast. It was pretty, but we were more interested in getting to Rovinj (roh-vinge).


Rovinj was gorgeous. It reminded me of Mykonos and the Cinque Terre, which kinda makes sense, given it's so close to Italy. The buildings were all old, but colored in pinks, whites, and golds, all topped with bright red clay rooftops. Many had brightly colored shutters -- green, blue, red. All the streets are this smooth, ivory-colored cobblestone. I kept thinking how I'd probably slip and bust my ass if I was there when it rained -- they were slick enough dry!

Walking down a narrow
cobblestone street in Rovinj
Wandering around this city was easy. We first walked out on a pier to look at the marina. On our way back, there was a little section where I could go hop into the water and get my feet wet. When I got there, I was completely amazed to see all the sea glass, which is glass from broken bottles that washes up on shore, but over time gets a dull, smooth texture. People in the States pay big money for it. I took out as much as I could fit in my hand, and it was maybe 1/100th of what was there. I'll need to find something to do with it when I get home.

Rovinj is another small city, so after a couple hours (and lunch), we decided to head to our resort, which was on the way to our next destination. The resort is very nice, but it's clearly a family resort. It's definitely a bit too busy with kids for my blood, but it's still nice. Even though it was drizzling, we headed immediately to the salt water pool. We then headed down to the beach we'd read so much about. Talk about being blown away! Anything and everything is there. There was this crazy hilarious floatation device, probably a good 100 feet long by 50 feet wide. It had a climbing wall, trampoline, slides. It was gloomy, so only a couple kids were on it, so Phil and I took a dive into the Adriatic Sea and played on that thing. Playing is subjective, we more or less waddled and toppled on it like beached whales, but oh well. We laughed a lot.

We then noticed some cabanas for rent. Fingers crossed that the weather pans out and it won't rain, as expected. I was hoping for one beach day to relax while I was here.

Afterward, we showered and headed over to dinner at the resort since it was included. It was...interesting. If you know me, I'm not too picky and can usually find something to enjoy. I'll put it to you this way, I enjoyed the red and green cabbage. And...that's about it.

If the weather is crap in the morning, we'll just head over to Trieste, Italy and then probably head back to Munich earlier than expected. Phil is officially rolling his eyes now every time I say, "I just want to get some Doner before I leave!" It's a popular middle eastern food the Germans eat. I had it last time I was in Munich, and I need to get some in my belly before coming home!

Not gonna lie, I'm missing my bed. Oh, and my knees are slowly (but surely) feeling better. Still a bit creaky, but better.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Losing shit, but not "losing our shit"

It probably sounds crazy, but we did two countries in one day today: Ljubljana, Slovenia and Zagreb, Croatia -- both capital cities of their respective countries. Trust me when I say it wasn't too big of a deal -- you'll find out why.

Ljubjana, Slovenia: Bridges and fried sardines
We arrived in Ljubjana (lube-jah-nuh) Tuesday evening. First, our boutique hotel, Nox Hotel, was spectacular. There are only 24 rooms, and every single one is decorated with a different theme. As the manager said "23 other reasons to come back!" It was only built in 2013 and has a really great setup. The bathroom situation in our room was hilarious, given it's my brother and I on this trip. From the bed you could completely in the glass shower. Can you say awkward?

Dragons that flanked
Dragon Bridge in Ljubljana 
Anyway, we got into town around 8:30 p.m. and decided to walk around the city to experience the night life. And I'm so happy we did! It was beautiful all lit up. The castle was sitting on the top of a very tall hill, so it basically looked like it was just floating above the city. The Ljubljanica is a river that winds through the city and has a number of very different (and very beatiful) bridges crossing it. Slovenians were out on the town, enjoying dinner, drinks, coffee. It was a great way to get acclimated to the city.

We had a relaxing start to the day and headed to the center when my brother realized he was missing his iPhone. We headed back to the hotel, and thanks to that "find my phone" app, he was able to get it back. Long story, but he's one lucky bastard. (If you've ever heard about my iPhone story while I was in Cambodia, you'll know just how lucky he is.)

A delicious lunch in Ljubljana
We missed the walking tour, so made up our own, first, making our way up and down the river and checking out the beautiful bridges. My favorite was the Dragon Bridge. My second was the Triple Bridge, which had three separate bridges that more or less merged in a very neat way. The architecture is a great mix of old world charm (from the 1600s), the very distinctive look of 1960s communism (if you've ever been shown what it looks like, you won't forget it!), and uber sleek modern design.

We made a great hike up the hill to check out the castle and take in the views. It really didn't take us much to see the city -- it's pretty small. We planned to head over to Zagreb, Croatia that night anyway, but not as early as we did. Before heading out, we enjoyed some amazing fried sardines and sautéed squid. It was delicious! (I should mention I lost our parking ticket, but we were able to talk to the security guy and we avoided a huge fee.)



Zagreb, Croatia: St. Mark's Church and an abundance of fantastic little cafes
Zagreb is only a 90-minute drive from Ljubljana, so we arrived around 4:30 p.m. (Not before I got another stamp in my passport -- yay!) Our hotel room is nice, but tiny -- and we have a more sibling-appropriate (a.k.a. private) bathroom in this one.

After a short break, we walked over to the old town. There were some similarities to Ljubljana, but Zagreb is a much larger city and a bit more cosmopolitan. Regardless, it's still fantastic. Almost everywhere we walked we seemed to go by a fantastic little cafe on the side of streets. There were many tables under umbrellas with comfy seating so you could just sit and watch people walk by. Phil and I sat down and enjoyed a beer. It was warm and we'd been walking all day, so it was perfect.

The beautiful St. Mark's Church
From there we walked on to see one of the coolest things I've ever seen: St. Mark's Church. To see it, we walked up A LOT of stairs and around some very winding roads. But when we got to the Square, I literally blurted out, "Okay, TOTALLY worth that shit!" It is one of the coolest churches I've ever seen. (And that includes The Vatican!) They decorated the roof of the church with Croatian colors, including the crests of the city. I loved it. Churches seem to be built on hilltops in Europe, so naturally, we were able to check out some great views of the city.

We were both famished, but sweaty and gross, so we kept dinner light. Greek salad and grilled calamari, which hit the spot perfectly -- along with the delicious dark beer that went along with it.

The plan is to get up early and take a chill drive around the northwest coast of Crotia before making it to our beach spot in Rovinj and get in a couple days to chillax in the sun. From there, we head to Trieste, Italy, then back to Munich, then I come home. What a whirlwind roadtrip it's been!

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Neuschwanstein: Enchanted day in an enchanted castle

After an early, three-hour train ride on Sunday, I made it safely to Munich. My brother was there to pick me up at the train station and get me back to his place. I took the day to get in a lot of missed rest. I hadn't been sleeping well (or much) since I've been here, plus, my knee was swollen and killing me. The day to get in some RICE (rest, ice, compression, elevation) did me good. As was the time to catch up with my brother and watch some stupid movies. While my knee is still tender, the swelling has gone down a ton. Fingers crossed more rest is all I need.

Neuschwanstein Schloss
Monday was my day of "me time." It was nice to have my own agenda. I took the 9:00 a.m. train to Fussen, and then a couple busses to get to Neuschwanstein Schloss, or better known as Neuschwanstein Castle. I've been to Germany a few times, and this is the last "touristy" thing to check off on my list. The castle was in an absolutely stunning part of Bavaria. It means "new swan stone," which apparently was a bird King Ludwig II was a big fan of. 

One of my favorite classes I took in college was an art history class on Walt Disney. It was during that class I learned that the inspiration for the castle at Magic Kingdom came from this castle. He and his wife spent time at the castle while on a European vacation. It was first depicted in the movie Sleeping Beauty, and then created at Disney Land (which came before Disney World).

Despite it being a rainy, gloomy day, it didn't take away from the magic of the day. The mist would part occasionally, to see this massive castle on the top of a very high hill. There were options to bus, take a horse-drawn carriage, or walk up it. I opted for the hike, which I'm so glad I did. The walk was very steep and was like walking through an enchanted forest. I joke about it, but I really did have a number of "Pretty, Pretty Princess" moments that day. There were streams, and waterfalls, and just...magic. I hiked around a lot that day, taking in the incredible surroundings. I guess I get what may have inspired Disney.

Views of the "enchanted" forest on
the way up to the castle
I missed the train I intended to take back to Munich, which unexpectedly gave me some great time to explore the very small city of Fussen, pronounced "foo-sin." I think Bavaria is like Switzerland in that they can't help but make their little towns so damn quaint and beautiful. I was damp and cold, so I grabbed a coffee and croissant to try to warm me up. I napped for a chunk of the train ride back, occasionally peeking out the window to take in the Bavarian countryside. I met a really nice man who commutes in an hour every day. He mentioned that while he works in Munich, he prefers living where he does over urban life, which after what I've seen, I kinda get. (Don't worry -- I'll still be a city gal with a penchant for the outdoors!)

So yeah, it was another wonderful day.

I planned to walk around Munich with my brother's dog today, but it's been raining again, so I decided to catch up on my blogs, pack up my stuff and get my stuff ready. My brother and I head out of town and will be making our way down to Ljubljana, Slovenia tonight. We'll then make our way through a few cities in Croatia, then on to Trieste, Italy, before getting back to Munich on Saturday night. I've heard great things about where we're headed tonight, so it should be a good time!

Earning my trip: On with the tournament

I recently came on my 10-year anniversary with the company I work for. It's been a fun ride, especially with this company "Olympics" they put on every four years. I was at my first event in 2006, which brought me to Paris. My second turn, in 2010, led me to Budapest. This third run has been fantastic, in Zurich. I've gone each time to play volleyball. It's an amazing thing to be part of. To see those familiar faces from the 2006 and 2010 events. Some whose names I know, some just the faces I remember playing or watching.

At the team dinner on a Zurich
mountaintop
So basically this first week has been on the company -- I know, rough life, right? The events kicked off Wednesday night with a team dinner. It was on a mountaintop overlooking Zurich. The food was amazing, along with the company and the views. It was a relatively low-key night, as we had practice in the morning.

Thursday's practice went well. It was just nice to check out the facility and get my body used to the courts we'd be playing on and the equipment we'd be using. European volleyballs are very different from the ones we used in the States -- they're A LOT harder. We've been practicing with them before getting to Europe, but not consistently. (After a long day of playing, I have A LOT of bruises on my forearms from those balls!) Plus, the court lines are different. The dimensions are the same, but there are a lot more lines for other sports on the court, so it was...helpful. That night marked the opening ceremonies, where we saw people from all the 40+ countries competing at the event. Another night of amazing food and seeing people. 

My setter and I icing our very sore
knees, post-tournament
Pool play began Friday bright and early. It was a long, hard day of playing volleyball. We were fortunate enough to play at the same venue as the men's team. It was fun being able to watch them and cheer them on -- and have some fans cheering us on, too. I can say that even four days later, I'm still hoarse and don't have much of my voice. And then there's my body. I forget how physically taxing it is to play a day's worth of volleyball. I think it's the playing, then resting, then playing again that makes it so tough. We played well, but clearly not enough. With our silver medal finish in Budapest, we had high aspirations to the very least take home a medal. But we played hard and had a lot of fun with some truly talented competition.

I'll admit, I'm furious at my body right now. If you know much about my journey, you'll know that in the past four years, I've lost about 100 pounds. I'm in the best shape of my life, truly, even when I was playing in college. I've been working and training hard for this event. Pre-game warm-ups on Friday morning went great. And then came my first hit of the tourney. It was a kill. But I landed funny. It felt like my left knee went out of joint. I tried kicking it back into place, to no avail. My teammate loaned me her knee brace, which made playing the next match bearable. During the middle of the second one, I went up for another hit. It was another kill, but this time I landed on someone's foot, feeling a click in my other knee. SHIT. I sat out the next match, which was against the team that has taken the gold medal match for the last several events. To say I was frustrated was an understatement. Another teammate luckily had another knee brace, which I wore during the next match for the bronze medal. I played really well, despite the pain. Despite a lot of ice and rest, my knees are still in a lot of pain. At least the swelling has gone down. I'm worried I tore my meniscus in both knees. I'm hoping that no running or jumping these next few days will be all I need and that my body just needs time.

The men's volleyball team and basketball teams both took the bronze, which meant we all were done for the day. So we drank our sorrows away that night. Dinner and drinks were on the company, so...yeah...drinking ensued.

Feeling no pain at the closing
ceremonies on Saturday
Saturday marked the last day of the event. Since we were done playing, we took time to cheer on a few athletes who made the finals. I also got in some much-needed time by an icy cold pool and some hot sun. We then headed back to the hotel to get dolled up for the closing ceremonies. As expected, it was a fantastic night of good food, great entertainment, and a lot of ass-shaking. It ended up being a late night, again, also as expected, which made for a very early train ride back to Munich on Sunday.

I feel so fortunate to work for the company I do. They're really good to me, and opportunities like this...I mean, c'mon, how awesome is it? The next "Olympics" will be in Munich in 2018. I'll be 38. I'm staying cautiously optimistic that me and my knees have one more left in me. But four years is a long ways away.

Another day, another beautiful Swiss city

On top of the world in Rapperswil
I'm wondering if the Swiss just intended for every city in its country to be absolutely breathtakingly stunning.

We didn't have a full day to do our own thing, since we'd be heading to the North American  team dinner that night, which gave us just enough time to make another day trip out of Zurich. That led a bunch of us to Rapperswil, which was just a 40-minute beautiful train ride down Lake Luzern. With the mountains in the distance, and the sailboats on the lake, it was an easy way to take in the morning.

The city itself is very small, so it was easy to get around and see the sights. Not a lot of shopping, which is more than okay. One of the first things we saw in the middle of the main center was 8-foot tall white letters saying "Dolce Vita" or the sweet life. Seemed pretty perfect. The main square led to an outstanding vista to look at everything going on around the lake. Once up there, there was a fantastic breeze, which felt especially great. From big yachts, to smaller sailboats, to jet skis, to paddleboats, the Swiss definitely take advantage of what the lake has to offer.

We eventually made our way down to the rose garden before taking a quick break to grab a drink at the cafe on the lake, taking in more of the great breeze. We then dawdled a bit and hopped in the lake and got our feet wet. I don't know why, but I was surprised that it wasn't colder. Don't get me wrong, it still felt refreshing!

Compared to the day in Luzern, this trip to Rapperswil was short and pretty relaxing -- and very much worth it!

Stunning panoramic views of Lake Luzern from the main lookout in Rapperswil