Exploring the Christmas Markets of Europe, December 2016

After a whirlwind first leg of my European travels in early November, which took me through Wales, England, Finland and Italy, I raced home to New England to grab some Thanksgiving turkey and a whole lot of birthday cake and spend the week seeing all friends and family, along with practical things like doing laundry and planning for Europe Part II in December.

I saw two excellent films: first there was the very cerebral sci-fi film, Arrival (less about blowing up alien spaceships and them blowing us up and more about how the heck two completely different species without a common frame of reference can learn to communicate and share language. The heroine of the film is a linguistics professor! I loved it). Then I saw Manchester by the Sea, starring Ben Affleck’s baby brother, Casey. The film is set on the north shore of Boston and was filmed in Gloucester and Salem during winter, and I simply loved the way New England and its people were portrayed. It was a beautiful film and both movies reminded me of how I need to see more films!!

Even more exciting was the Stevie Nicks concert I attended the day after Thanksgiving. As luck would have it, my favorite singer of all time was performing at an arena in a casino in nearby Connecticut and I was able to get a ticket, so I spent a great evening (she was on stage for almost 3 hours!) listening to a person whose music has almost been like a soundtrack to my life since 1975. It was a fantastic show.

Thanksgiving itself was, like all Thanksgivings, hectic and rushed. There was too much food, too much craziness, and not ever enough time to just sit and visit and BE. As soon as I’d digested the last of the squash pie and stuffing, there were birthday breakfasts, lunches and dinners to go to, and birthday cakes to consume, since my birthday fell on the Saturday of Thanksgiving week this year. I loved it all, but was actually looking forward to getting back to Europe and walking some of those gained pounds off!

So off I went to Europe, again, Part II on Tuesday the 29th, flying from Boston to Munich via Washington, DC. After 11 hours in the air and two hours of layovers, I picked up a rental car at the festively decorated Munich airport and was soon on a five hour drive to Strasbourg, France, a town in the Alsace region on the border between France and Germany. One of my main goals on this trip was to visit the many Christmas markets that are held throughout Europe, since my job never allows me to get away and travel at this time of year. Another gift of my sabbatical! I’d heard Strasbourg had one of the best Christmas markets in Europe, so that was my first stop.

I had rented an apartment online and so after several texts with the owner, I parked in a lot just outside the historic city center of Strasbourg and walked with my luggage about 10 minutes through a neighborhood called, “Le Petit France,” characterized by traditional style architecture and scenic waterways. My apartment was on a second floor overlooking one of the canals, and was bright and airy, with an entire wall of windows in the living area. Denise, my hostess was a hoot… a French speaking, Asian woman who struggled with English as much as I struggle with French, but who greeted me warmly and was very helpful, especially when I was unable to connect to the wi-fi. She had to phone her daughter to be reminded of the password, which was GREG LE CHIEN.  Greg is the name of a character from the American TV show CSI that Denise likes so much that she named her own dog… or the le chien… after him! Hence, Greg Le Chien!  The world has become such a mish-mash of cultures it’s really almost funny!

After what felt like the best shower in my life I was ready to explore the city on foot. There was faint sunshine, but of course it started to get dark by about 4:00PM. But I no sooner rounded the corner from my apartment and found my first small Christmas market. The stalls are made of wood and resemble little mangers. There are some selling various crafts and gifts, and some selling various things to eat, and then the most popular were labeled Vin Chaud or “Hot Wine”. Here you can get little cups of red or white hot mulled wine with lots of apples and cinnamon in them. You must pay a 1 Euro deposit on your cup, which you get back if/when you return the cups and I learned that all the stalls in the city use the same ones so you could buy a cup of vin chaud, wander the chilly streets with it, and return the cup somewhere else… or get a refill!  It was delicious and really helped keep me warm on a chilly night.

As I explored further I discovered the many elegant squares around the city, almost always surrounding some cathedral, each more beautiful than the next and each sprouting its own Christmas market. One thing that surprised me was there were not a lot of food options at the markets. Cookies and candy seemed to be the extent of it, so after a little more vin chaud and as the night got colder, it was time to seek out dinner. As usual, tripadvisor.com did not let me down. I discovered Les Saveurs d’Alsace – the flavors of the Alsace region. It was an adorable, cozy place with red and white tablecloths and lots of candles and Christmas decorations. There I feasted on an amazing chicken cordon-blue accompanied by potatoes and assorted veggies and delicious bread. Followed by classic French mousse au chocolat with mandarin orange! Tres, tres bon!

The next day I enjoyed sleeping in, and then went for a very late breakfast at the Grand Salon du The`, a tea shop that is noted for its amazing array of desserts. I was confronted with a cart of at least 20 different pastries, and wanted every single one, but decided I had to narrow it to two. I got a cinnamon cheesecake with plum sauce that was fantastic, but on my waiter’s recommendation I also got a typical Alsatian pastry that was like a cross between strudel and crumble and featured sour cherries. I wish I had skipped the cheesecake and tried another fruit flavor of this dessert. Amazing!

I worked off every calorie of my indulgences by walking my big, flat feet off. The town is just so beautiful and all level, so I could easily walk for miles and enjoy the ambiance. There were several other Christmas markets to explore, and scenic walks over bridges and along river ways.  I discovered a booth that sold hot chocolate spiked with kirsh, a cherry flavored alcohol, and that definitely warmed my cockles!

I should note that security was extremely heavy in Strasbourg on the tails of a terrorist threat to the Christmas markets in Paris that had been thwarted just days before. There were dozens of squads of the CRS or national police (which is the force that my friend Gilles works with), then military soldiers. Both of these groups carried machine guns as they strolled through the town and markets. I found myself feeling so angry that such measures are needed to protect Christmas revelers participating in a tradition that has been part of European culture for hundreds of years, and as I encountered groups of police and soldiers, who usually patrolled in groups of three, I asked if they spoke English and when I found some that did, I thanked them for being there to protect us. As I know all too well from my conversations with Gilles, it’s not an easy job dealing with the stress of the job, let alone walking around for long shifts in sub-freezing weather without the mediating factor of being able to down mugs of vin chaud. They were all very courteous and polite, and seemed truly grateful for the recognition, which seemed like a very small Christmas gift to give them all.

On Friday morning I bid “adieu” to my landlady Denise and retrieved my rental car and hit the road, bound for Nuremberg, Germany, a journey of about 3 hours. I have to say that I am impressed with the German Autobahn. These superhighways are well-maintained and best of all, free unlike their French and Italian counterparts. The drivers are very orderly and polite, BUT… crazy in terms of speeds. The official speed limit is 120 kilometers an hour, which is about 75 MPH. I maintained speeds of 120 – 130, but in the left lane, which I jokingly began to think of as “tornado alley”, drivers came seemingly out of nowhere, like the Starship Enterprise at warp 10, and the rush of wind as they passed me almost blew me into the breakdown lane! They had to be doing speeds of 160 to 170 kilometers an hour. At least. Yes, it’s somewhat like this in Italy, but the Germans take it to a whole new level. The psychologist in me still longs to interview these people and try to understand why they need to travel so fast. It boggles the mind.

As I reached Nuremberg, it had started raining and the city looked rather gray and gloomy. I easily found my way to my hotel, located conveniently near the old city walls and the Nuremberg Castle, and an easy walk to the Christmas Markets within the city walls. I quickly got online and searched out best restaurants in Nuremberg, as I knew it might be hard to find an available restaurant on a Friday evening during the busy season. Sure enough the first two places I tried were booked, but the third time paid off and the manager said that if I could be there in 20 minutes, he had a table for me. The restaurant was five minutes away, nestled beneath the castle and looking like something out of a Bavarian fairytale. I got seated at a table for four people, kitty-corner from another diner… evidently this is a common practice at this place. Soon an older couple arrived and there was nothing available for them, until I offered to sit next to the other guy and let them take the other two seats. The couple was from Sweden and the lone diner was a Russian who now lives in New York. We had a fun and at times spirited conversation about politics. Being American, I have found that people across Europe are eager to talk about the election and the continuing drama that has ensued, and I am (mostly) happy to discuss it with them.

After a delicious dinner of pork shoulder and dumplings and sauerkraut, I headed down the steep hill, through storybook buildings and cathedrals and countless Christmas lights to visit the Christmas Markt along the river. Unlike Strasbourg, which is a much smaller place, the Nuremberg Market was one huge affair, sprawling across a wide square in the heart of the city. There must have been close to 200 stalls, but I found after visiting the first two or three rows that there was a lot of duplication regarding what was being offered. The food here was more diverse than in France, with lots of bratwurst booths, apple dumplings, breads, and made to order waffles. There was also mulled wine to be had, but here in Germany (and later in Austria) I learned that it is called Gluhwein which literally means “glow wine”, not because of the obvious glow it gives the drinker but because of the hot tools that are used to heat the wine. But like its French counterpart, it was “sehr gut!”

A very eerie and heavy fog came swooping into the city quite suddenly and it because hard to even see the spires of the cathedrals under which the markets were nestled. And it was chilly and damp, so I eventually headed back up the hill toward the city walls and had a nice walk up to the beautiful stone tower that is built at the very top of the fortress that once protected the city. I got some very atmospheric shots of the castle and tower in the fog, and the climb up there helped me burn calories and warm up.

On Saturday I was off on the autobahn once again, trying to keep up with and/or dodge the traffic on the 90 minute drive back to Munich, where I returned my car and caught my flight from Munich to Vienna, Austria. Along with Strasbourg and Nuremberg, Vienna was new territory for me, and I was excited to see a new place and one which I’d heard such great things about. Getting from the airport to the hotel involved a high speed train to one of the city’s train stations and then a transfer by either subway or tram to another train station where my hotel was located. I was a little put off by the location of the hotel, as it was in an area devoid of much character just across from the HauptBahnHof or central station, but Motel One was actually a high-rise hotel that was sleek and modern inside and out, and I loved my comfortable room. One touch I particularly enjoyed was that when you entered the room and switched on the lights, the TV automatically came on and featured a Yule Log burning on the screen! I actually slept with it on all night, and though it didn’t put out any heat, the sound of the crackling embers and glow of the fire from the screen made it feel like a cozy Christmas Eve.

Again having done a bit of research, I had made a reservation at a restaurant called Entler, rated among the top 100 places in a city with over 3,500 choices. And I learned that this place was closed Sundays and Mondays, so I was happy I had a chance to experience their food. I had a wonderful pumpkin cream soup and delicious homemade breads, followed by one of the most unusual dishes I have ever seen on a menu. It was called “ragout of venison”, and featured a bowl of delicious and perfectly cooked venison medallions in a rich gravy. But then on the plate there were two larger cuts of “deep fried venison”, along with mashed potatoes, purple cabbage, and cranberry relish. Oh my venison gravy, what a treat this meal was. Absolutely outstanding flavors and the meat was so tender and perfectly cooked. And dessert was by no means the weak link: dark chocolate-orange mousse with a gingerbread brownie, mandarin orange slices and mandarin sorbet. Wow! And it was as aesthetically gorgeous as it was delicious. One odd aspect of Entler was the wall-sized photo mural depicting a bizarre parody of The Last Supper, with “Jesus” sitting next to a woman, and they, as well as the 11 other “disciples” were all nude. I would love to know the story behind that; or maybe I wouldn’t!

With this outstanding culinary introduction to Vienna, I was pretty much done for the evening. It was very cold out, and I was in a part of the city that is not really a tourist draw. On top of that, I was really tired. This was city #3 in just the past 4 days, so I returned to my room and the cozy televised Yule Log and slept with visions of gingerbread brownies dancing in my head.

I slept till almost 11:00 the next morning, and when I finally dragged myself out onto the chilly streets I was ready for some breakfast. I rode the tram into central Vienna, or “inside the ring”. Vienna has a ring road that surrounds the center on which most of the city’s dramatic public buildings, like Parliament, the Opera House and grand museums are located.

I went to Café Central, one of many historical, traditional Viennese coffee houses that have been in operation since the 1800s. Evidently characters like Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and even Adolph Hitler frequented have frequented the place in the past. The café, like others in the city and in Berlin, where I have been before is a very ornate, Victorian space, and specializes in not very cheap breakfasts, lunches and pastries. I had a delicious bowl of Viennese potato and vegetable soup, an iced chocolate, and then kaiserschmarrn, described on the menu as “torn pancakes with sautéed plums”. Indeed, the pancakes resembles a yellow cake that had been ripped apart into big chunks (I wonder what Freud would have said about this symbolic sign of aggression…) and accompanied by a big bowl of warm, sautéed plums. The pancakes were actually just OK, but the plums really made it special.

I’d read a lot online about the reputation of Austrian waiters as being rather aloof, and I must say I did experience this in Vienna. Service is indescribably slow, and you really are made to feel that they are doing an enormous favor for you by taking your order. I also found Vienna to be a very expensive city, rivaling or even exceeding Paris, though the quality of almost everything is excellent.  Here in the cafes they actually charge as much as 2 Euros for a glass of simple tap water, and bottled water is more like 4 Euros, almost double what it is in Italy.

Sated for a while, I then set out for a long walk through the city, amazed that after my sleep-in and a long wait at the café it was already going for 4:00 and was getting dark! Shades of being in Finland again! Like the other cities I had visited, Christmas is a big deal in Vienna, and the city seems to spare no expense to go all out in its decorations and elaborate light displays. Perhaps one of the most stunning spots was Saint Stephan’s Platz, dominated by the incredible St. Stephan’s Cathedral, illuminated in beautiful pink, blue and purple lights, and surrounded at its base by Christmas markets selling the now familiar gluhwein and other assorted treats. It was very cold, and I got an order of cheese noodles at one of the booths to help warm me up, but alas, the dish became cold before I’d even had a few bites. Still, I knew the carbs would burn and keep me warm!  After a while I decided it was just too cold out, so I caught a tram down to the Schloss Belvedere or Belvedere Castle, where yet another Christmas Market awaited. I downed a big mug of gluhwein and browsed a bit before finally calling it a night and heading back to the hotel.

My third day in Vienna started with a light breakfast of eggs and fruit at the Budapest Bistro, a lot of walking, and then a stop at the famous Sacher Hotel, home of a café that invented the Austrian pastry called Sacher Torte. This is a chocolate cake with layers of apricot jam filling and topped by a dark chocolate ganache, and you won’t believe this, or perhaps knowing me, you will: that day, December 5, was officially “Sacher Torte Day” in Austria, so how could I not indulge?  It was very, very good slice of cake, though I am not sure it deserves its own national day!

From there I walked to the Maria-Theresien Platz, an enormous square sandwiched in between two gorgeous museums where Vienna’s largest Christmas Market is held. There was an impressive light display on the walls of the Natural History Museum, projected onto the building from across the square and changing patterns and colors every few minutes. At one point I spotted three Vienna policemen, armed to the teeth and patrolling the market, but they had paused at a stand selling huge platter-shaped fried dough. All three were happily munching and I dearly wanted a picture but they said no, and given the size of their machine guns, I was not going to argue.  Should have tried to do a candid shot from across the square, as it would have made a great photo, but oh well.

My last supper in Vienna was also memorable. I went for a very late dinner at 10:00 PM to a place called Salm Brau again listed among the best of the best of Vienna’s restaurants. They are known for their version of the traditional Austrian dish, Wiener Schnitzel (Wiener is German for Vienna), which is breaded veal served with lemon, cranberries and potato salad. I have had things called wiener schnitzel in the U.S., mostly bready, heavy, dried out and tough slabs of faux-veal, mostly hideous. But the dinner I had in Vienna was just gorgeous. I do not know how they get the meat so tender, the breading so beautifully light and flavorful, but it was absolutely amazing. I also had a delicious bowl of pumpkin soup as my starter… pumpkin is certainly a popular item on menus here, and I love my orange vegetables! My big disappointment came when I tried to order dessert, apricot strudel and was told that the kitchen was closed and no desserts were available now!  I think this was a first… to close the kitchen before a diner has completed their meal seems so strange to me. If I’d known, I’d have ordered it in advance, but alas, I was out of luck. I really didn’t need it, of course, but after how good the rest of my meal was, I will always be left to wonder what a treat the apricot strudel would have been!

And so the next day I did take a last tram ride into the city for a long walk and a light lunch before heading to the airport for my 5PM flight to Venice. I felt like a student from hundreds of years ago, taking the famous “Grand Tour of Europe” which children of the nobility took as a way of completing their formal education, but instead of being exposed to the great art, music, and literature of the European capitals, I was on a Grand Culinary Tour of Europe, eating my way across the continent.

I arrived in Venice and had an entire Airport Express bus to myself as I traveled to Piazzale Roma, and noted how quiet the city seemed as I walked from there to my hotel. As usual, despite knowing fairly well the direction I needed to go and using the GPS on my phone, I ended up going off track and walking for at least 10 minutes longer than I’d needed to. I wouldn’t have minded had I not been carrying my luggage over all those cute little stone bridges. Sweaty and very, very tired, I arrived at my hotel, the Ponte di Moncenigo and grimaced as the host told me my room would be two flights up, but dragging my bag up the long, narrow stairways seemed worth it once I opened the door to a beautifully decorated Venetian style room in shades of moss green and gold. It was a spacious room looking out on a typical Venetian courtyard, and the quiet was deafening. Ah, home again in my Venezia.  I didn’t have a whole lot of time to rest before it was time to make my dinner reservation for 9:15 at my old standby, La Zucca. But I had planned well, as my hotel was literally about 300 paces from my favorite Venice restaurant.

On this night, as I dined on a simply amazing spaghetti with pear and gorgonzola cheese, I was seated beside a young couple who were engrossed in conversation. Well, actually the young woman was conversing and her male companion sort of listened and mumbled, “yes, I think so too” once every 30 seconds. She was speaking in English but with a heavy Italian accent and was going on and on about philosophy, but it sounded more like “pop philosophy” if you ask me, and her companion sounded thoroughly bored or confused by her ramblings, I couldn’t tell which.

At some point in the evening we struck up a conversation and she told me that she’d been listening to me speak to the waiter and that my Italian was very good, which always makes me happy. So I cut her some slack on the pop philosophy stuff! I learned that she was from Milano, and her boyfriend was Danish, and they asked me for some suggestions as to what to do in Venice with only one full day to spend. So I played travel guide for a bit, and then conversation turned to music and I told them a bit about my Italian music radio show that I’d done at my university. She was very curious as to who my favorite artists are, and despite knowing how this would ultimately turn out, I said, “Eros Ramazzotti is my favorite.”

She turned up her nose and scoffed like so many of my Italian friends do. Her companion however jumped in and sided with me, saying he really thought Ramazzotti was great and she snarled at both of us. I then offered that I also love Giorgia, thinking that this would be a more acceptable answer as Giorgia seems to be more popular with younger Italians. But not with this one, evidently! She turned her head away in disgust and almost spat, “I would sooner listen to Eros Ramazzotti!  Giorgia! How can you? How could you? Have you listened to her lyrics? They are stupid and meaningless!”

It took everything I had not to come back with, “Giorgia’s lyrics are a lot deeper than any of the crap I have heard you spouting for the last half hour!”, but I kept it together, even though attacks on Eros and Giorgia are declarations of war as far as I am concerned.

“But her voice!”, I exclaimed… “it’s incredible!” She dismissed this with, “There are lots of good voices. I search for deeper meaning in my music.” Oh yes, Miss Philosophy, to coin an Italian phrase, you are really busting my balls here. At any rate, they finally left and had decided to take my advice and visit the island of Burano the next day. I then had another conversation with an elderly Italian couple who live in Milano also, but have a home in Venice and come often to spend time there, and we talked about our shared love of the city. Afterward, as I walked back to the hotel, the streets were deathly silent; I have rarely seen Venice so quiet, but evidently this period before the holidays is always like this and I have to say, I loved the serenity.

I slept until almost 9:30, crawled down to the breakfast room where I had yet another great conversation about travel with a couple who own a B & B in Colorado. They seemed to enjoy my travel stories and they are, like me, foodies, so I told them about La Zucca, but said I doubted they’d be able to get a reservation on such short notice. Well, miracles happen and the hotel called for them and got them a lunch reservation. When I ran into them later in the day, the wife proclaimed that it was one of the best lunches of her life and before we parted ways, they invited to come and stay at their B & B for a night or two on the house – if I promised to share more of my travel stories and recommendations! What fun!

Given that this was probably my 30th stay in Venice, that I have spent a cumulative 2 or 3 months of my life here, that I have taken a few thousand pictures of her and have spoken about her incessantly, what else can I possibly say about her now? Simply that I love her with all my heart. Wednesday was sunny and very mild, and I just walked and people-watched and took a few more photos, and got a gelato and took long, leisurely rides up and down the Grand Canal on the back of a vaporetto. I did nothing out of the ordinary except for the fact that I was doing it all in such an extraordinary place. Thursday started out sunny, but by early afternoon the sky turned ominously gray, with a heavy fog bank that just seemed to enshroud the city silently and quickly, dropping the temperatures considerably as the sun disappeared and the dampness in the air increased. I ducked into various churches I’d never visited before to warm up, sit quietly and enjoy the silence. I got several tramezzini… a Venetian tradition of little sandwiches like the ones you might get at a formal tea. I went the seafood route: Tuna and olive, crab with eggs, shrimp and celery –  each one only about $1.50 – and took them in a little bag to the side of a canal and watched the gondolas pass by, listened to the sound of foghorns in the lagoon, and watched the night slowly fall.

After dark it became even more atmospheric. When I described the scene to him, my friend Fabio from Rome sent a text saying, “Attenti ai fantasmi!” (Watch out for ghosts!) And indeed, Venice by night and in the fog makes the imagination run wild. A city that has sat on the edge of this foggy lagoon for 1,000 years definitely has its ghosts, and yet Venice has never seemed scary to me… lonely, mysterious, a little sad, but never frightening. I took a long ride on a vaporetto, the only person sitting outside in the cold and dampness. It was truly surreal to watch as other boats and ferries would appear out of nowhere from the fog and silently glide past, many of them almost completely empty, like ghost ships that had been lost in the lagoon decades ago. The domes of the Basilica of Santa Maria della Salute or the campanile at San Marco would appear for a split second, only to evaporate again into the mists. Church bells rang out from the total darkness and mysterious lights would appear and disappear. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen Venice quite like this before, and despite the chilling cold I could not bring myself to go back inside the boat. It was one of the best nights I have ever spent in my beloved city.

When I finally did come ashore, I found the city eagerly decking itself out for the holidays, with lights strung across all of the major streets, Christmas trees brightly lighting up various piazzas, and numerous balconies and windows showing some sort of Christmas decorations. I discovered another new restaurant this time: La Lanterna di Gas… or the Gaslight, where I had memorable gnocchi made in-house and served in a bowl with a mix of mussels, clams and shrimp. I also visited the chocolate shop Venchi, which sells the best, darkest chocolate gelato you can find. It was a beautiful three days and some of the most peaceful I have had in all my time in Europe.

When I left Venice the next morning, rolling my suitcase down the alley to the vaporetto stop and heading for the bus station, the calm that “La Serenissima” (the most serene one, as Venice is nicknamed) had instilled in me came to a screeching halt when I got a text message saying, “Your Air Berlin flight to Dusseldorf has been canceled. Please contact our agents.” If I couldn’t get to Dusseldorf, I couldn’t make my connecting flight to Berlin, and the considerable amount of money I had spent on pre-paid, non-refundable hotel rooms and return airfare would be lost. Of course I could not reach AirBerlin by phone, so I got on the bus and headed for the airport. Interesting, I really didn’t get too worked up over this. I was fully prepared to just say the heck with it and remain in Venice for another couple of days. But when I got to the airport, after waiting in a very disorganized line for a while, I was told I’d been booked on an Alitalia flight to Rome, and from there to Berlin, and would be arriving in Berlin only a few minutes later than my original flight.

My flights went smoothly and all was well until I exited baggage claim at Berlin’s airport and went outside to catch the Express Bus into the city. There must have been 100 people on the platform, not in any sort of line or order, waiting for buses that simply were not coming. Evidently there was horrific rush hour traffic and the buses were running way behind. But when a bus did pull up, people laden with countless suitcases would swarm to get inside and there were now probably 200 people waiting. I missed two buses as I simply couldn’t get to the doors, but I used my bag as a battering ram and got myself into bus number three, not happy to be standing up and crushed by the crowds inside, but happy to be on my way to the city at long last. And then, the bus stopped and an announcement was made: due to mechanical problems, the bus was stopping here and we all had to get out. Good Lord!  When I got outside, I realized that it was likely hopeless to wait here and hope another bus with any room in it might come along, so spying a nearby U Bahn station (Berlin’s Metro), I dragged my suitcase through the turnstiles and took two subway lines to get across the city to my hotel. There are no words to describe how tired I was when I finally got there.

Yet as always, I’d overbooked myself and had a dinner reservation at Renger-Patztch, a restaurant I discovered on a university trip about 8 years ago. So off I went for the mile long walk to the restaurant. For those of you thinking, “This guy sure eats a lot!”, you’re right, but keep in mind that virtually every time I go to a restaurant I am walking a mile or so to get there, and then a mile or so more to get my pastry or gelato, and a mile or more back to the hotel, so despite all this feasting, I am probably averaging almost 4 or 5 miles of walking per day, and I can actually feel my pants getting looser on me by the day.

The first item on the English language menu item that caught my eye was “Pumpkin Soup with Pebbles and Truffle Oil”. Pebbles? Yikes!  I inquired with the waitress, and she squinted at the menu and looked very confused. She was not really sure what it meant, but assured me that I would not be eating little stones, so I ordered it and I realized when it arrived that the “pebbles” were pumpkin seeds looking like little pebbles amid the lake of orange soup! I then had roast duck with dumplings and red cabbage, and for dessert the local dish Tarte Flambee`, a sort of flatbread pizza common in the Alsace region, and this one was covered with baked apples and a pound or so of cinnamon. I could not finish all of the dough parts, but I ate every last apple slice!

On Saturday I set out on a very gray but very mild day – the temperatures have been in the mid to upper 40s here – and had a very late breakfast at 12:30 PM at Café Einstein, a Berlin institution modeled after the Viennese cafés I’d visited in Austria. I was familiar with this place too, as I have been there many times on past trips to Berlin. I had a very funny and boisterous waitress whom I nicknamed Frida, given her striking resemblance to Frida, the dark haired vocalist from ABBA. I mused that perhaps this is what Frida is doing now… waiting tables at Café Einstein after selling gazillions of music CDs in the 70s and 80s! Frida made me smile when she informed me that breakfast was still being served, and I had eggs with smoked salmon, some excellent coffee, and then it was dessert time. Café Einstein has wonderful apple strudel, but I noted that they also offered a cherry and gingerbread strudel. Daring to be different, I ordered that, with Frida assuring me I had made the right choice. It was divine, with tiny crumbles of gingerbread tucked inside the dense cherry filling, and swimming in a vanilla sauce. Before I ever visited Berlin, I would never guess that it was such a great place for dining, but it offers some of Europe’s best food.

I visited Berlin’s largest Christmas Market, located at Potsdamer Platz. Having visited the markets in three other cities, it was fun to compare and contrast. Berlin does it big time!  A huge ramp, perhaps 3 or 4 stories high, had been constructed at the edge of the square. Covered with a surface of icy snow, people of all ages were being issued giant rubber inner tubes and climbing a massive flight of steps to toboggan down the slopes as a crowd laughed and cheered at the bottom of the course. Dozens of stalls selling a huge variety of food, pastries and drinks lined all the streets surrounding the square, and anything that wasn’t moving had lights on it! It was a very bustling, fun atmosphere that would have been almost perfect but for the fact that every German over the age of 3 years old seems to smoke. I have never seen anything like it… far worse than France or Italy, and again the psychologist in me wonders why. So holding my breath a lot, I worked my way through the crowds, not stopping to eat anything, having been so thoroughly satisfied by my visit to Café Einstein.

From there I took the U Bahn to the Brandenburg Gate, one of the most famous symbols of Berlin and the site where President Reagan gave his memorable, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech in 1987. It is a lovely spot, but the presence of a simple, giant Christmas Tree with white lights made it all the more impressive on a clear, dark evening… well, 5:00 PM.

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I have really been suffering from serious fatigue, probably from way too little sleep, way too much running around, etc. It truly is hard sometimes when I wake up in the middle of the night to remember what city or even which country I am in at that moment! But I do love it. So I went back to the hotel for a couple of hours of down time, and then it was off on foot again to an Austrian restaurant named Sissi for dinner. I had yet more pumpkin soup, followed by another amazing portion of wienerschnitzel with cranberries and potato salad. It was a great meal except for the fact that all the seating was on high stools which absolutely killed my back after a couple hours; service was polite, but very slow! I finished with Sissi’s version of the Austrian Sacher Torte, but their take on it was to replace the apricot jam with cassis or red currants, and I have to say I think theirs was better than the original!

And so ends my whirlwind tour of Europe. Well, almost. From Berlin I headed back to Venice, where I picked up a rental car and headed to Padova where I met Claudia and Marco in a fantastic restored stable for another dinner filled with much laughter and wonderful foods, some of which were local specialties that I had never tried before, like a handmade bigoli pasta in a ragout of ground salami and local cheese. Wow. Claudia and Marco are now an aunt and uncle; Claudia’s sister had her baby, little Giacomo, who has more jet black hair than George Clooney and looks like he’s in his 30s!  They have also had more interviews about the adoption and may hear some news before Christmas, so if you’re so inclined, say a little prayer for these two that they will finally be able to become parents to some fortunate baby or child.

From here I will see more friends in Padova and Verona, then head down through Tuscany to Rome and see several more friends there. On Sunday I fly to Paris for a couple days and hope to rendezvous with my friend Gilles, if he can get away long enough from his patrol duties, and finally I spend a last night in Frankfurt, Germany to see the last of the Christmas Markets on my list and from where I fly back to Boston for Christmas. It’s all been an amazing ride, discovering some exciting new places that I already want to return to, as well as relishing the familiarity and comfort of being in Italy and Paris and surrounded by good friends. Happy holidays, Merry Christmas, and a beautiful new year to all of you reading this!  Ciao!

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