When in Bruges

As the song says, it's the most wonderful time of the year across Europe. While preparations have been underway for a month or more in many of the biggest light shows across London, its now less than a month away putting me quite into the holiday spirit.

I've been thinking a lot about the infamous Christmas markets that so many flock to Europe for. Despite the cold weather, or perhaps in part of it, they are the perfect occasion to welcome the season. Our first visit was Germany back in 2011 when we first started on our expat adventure and it took 3 years for us to make another visit.

When Paul's family came to visit in 2014, we took in everything London has to offer for Christmas, from Winter Wonderland, ice skating at the Natural History Museum, carols and lights across the city, but we still wanted more Christmas. So, we grabbed a train and headed across the channel to Belgium. 




Once in Bruges, we set to finding our apartment. The great thing about apartments are that they get you a local feel, the hard part is navigating less signposted streets. Our wandering was not in vain though, we meandered through the cobbled streets, peeking into windows filled with Christmas decorations and gifts as we passed. Following the canal, we found our home for the weekend conveniently situated near the oldest pub in Bruges, Herberg Vlissinghe. The pub was charming with wooden panels, a carved wood bar and a metal fireplace that was far too tempting for a 3 year old with beer that was far too tempting for grown men.




The main attraction for us was the markets so we made our way back into the city centre. In Germany, the market took over the entire city, but here, perhaps due to the city size and perhaps due to the fact it wasn't Germany, everything was concentrated in the square. A skating rink formed the centre with circles of food and mulled wine stands around the outskirts; it was too crowded to snatch an open table so we balanced mulled wine in one hand and sausage in another. The market had all the normal stands you'd expect, but somehow was a little less Christmas market than I had hoped.




Undeterred, we spent the rest of our time alternating walking around the city, with shopping, eating and drinking. The men picked out Cambrinus with their selection of over 400 beers, but we were pleased to find they also had a hot chocolate in the traditional Belgian style, where you're presented with hot milk and a "spoon" of chocolate to swirl in and create your drink. The women picked shops full of Belgian lace and Christmas decorations. We all chose plenty of food stops along the way.




Most of our attempts at true sight seeing failed - we did manage a visit to see the Madonna of Bruges, but our canal boat was thwarted due to rain and when we tried to go to the bell tower, the line was so long and it was so windy that we abandoned the plan and got hot chocolate instead. It was our first trip with friends with kids and perhaps the perfect introduction to how travel could be with a little one (which was perfect impeccable timing as unbeknownst to us, I was pregnant at the time). 




Looking back two years later, it's hard to remember specifically what we did throughout the whole weekend, yet I still recall little moments and details; picking out hats in a shop off the square, following the crowd only to find a chocolate nativity as the star attraction, picking out the perfect chocolate flavours and dealing with what I know is the over tired toddler. But despite the fuzzy memories, I remember it as a great trip among family and friends. It's been a lesson to us - sometimes the best trips are those where you aren't rushing from site to site, but rather enjoy the true meaning of vacation - and of course a great hot chocolate!




Family History in Slovakia

When I was pregnant but didn't know it yet, I had a horrible cold that kept me up all kind of weird hours. And rather than watch television, I somehow decided to fill my time researching family history. How my family fled Texas to Mexico to escape the stigma of sharing a name with a famous train robber. How my family came from France during the Protestant Reformation to escape prosecution. And that research is actually what inspired mini-Tarts name as it came from my great grandmother.

As luck would have it in 2015, I had a chance to learn more about Paul's side of the family as well. Paul's great-great Grandfather was born in Smolnik, Slovakia, but when the area was turned into a reservoir, everyone was moved out. He immigrated to the US, but Paul's grandfather still likes to go visit where the family came from originally.

Unlike Bratislava, there aren't quite as many flight options into Eastern Slovakia. Luckily, there was a flight on Wizz Air to Kosice which was a short drive from nearby Michalovce. We were staying at a hotel by the lake a little bit out of town, close to the castle.


The weekend was pretty relaxed - we spent it with the locals that Paul's grandfather stays with every visit and celebrating Easter, which is a very important holiday in the region. Over the weekend, we went to 3 different church services (all in Slovakian). One church was near the Hungary border in an old stone church, no heating or air conditioning and so cold we could see our breath. Following that service, we were invited to a parisoners house for lunch - I had no idea what we were offered as English wasn't spoken, but especially being pregnant, I was offered more and more food!


A main reason for the visit was to learn about Paul's history - the trouble is that Smolnik is now part of the area that surrounds the reservoir, a main water source for the area, meaning it's not just for every Tom, Dick and Jane to go in. Luckily, we had friends who made special arrangements and got passes to drive us through. Even though the day was cold, we took a picnic to enjoy in the beautiful greenery. We stopped by the cemetary where there are still gravestones and foundation of the church. They still hold celebrations there occasionally for the family of old towns people and put a tent up over the church.



It was amazing to see a place that a century ago was the home of family - how much can change in a lifetime or two?

On the way out of town, we spent a little time in Kosice, just to get our fill of the cobbled streets, churchs and quaint shops of Eastern Europe. If you're looking for Slovakia away from the crowds, Kosice just may have what you're looking for!








Heart of Bali

On our first night in Ubud, I was worried based on my first impression that our time would be less than the exciting cultural experience I had expected. We walked past restaurant after restaurant of Western foods, streets filled with tourists, and I thought - we flew all the way from London for this?

My scepticism remained when we struck out on day two - we had no plans and no real must see sites on our list (very very poor planning), so we wandered the markets.  The knick knacks were all too familiar, coasters, mugs, t-shirts, artwork, but the more we wandered, the more I found that the people were different. Yes, of course there were the usual aggressive sellers, but L also attracted lots of friendly locals giving smiles and giggles - I was warming ever so slightly.


As the strolling continued, I realised there were two faces to Ubud. One was the first I had seen - what Ubud has become for the tourists who flock there.  The second face is the one that attracted people in the first place - the warm people and the culture. The two faces are so intertwined it's almost easy to miss; the mini mart next to the temple, the kitschy Balinese restaurant overlooking a temple surrounded by lotus blossoms. In that sense, there's something for every one, although my realisation was that we just needed to look a little harder for what we were wanting out of our trip.


The next day, we moved our explorations outside the Ubud centre to the rice paddies with a trek in the village just past our hotel. One of the things that had attracted me to Bali was the beautiful scenery of these paddies, so I couldn't wait to explore them up close. The most popular way is to travel by bike, but with the baby, we decided an easy hike would be best for us.


Besides the beautiful backdrop, the tour gave us a better idea of the history of the rice production and it's importance in Bali. Each paddy is operated by a family and provides rice for their consumption throughout the year (according to the guide, no rice is exported from Bali). There are four different cycles in the rice production, but they don't follow a specific time throughout the year, so you may see some fields flooded in early stages of growth, right next to others with rice stalks peeping out. I was amazed to see the fresh rice grains and how different they look fresh from the dried grains we are used to getting from the store. As you watch families toiling out on their plots, it's crazy to think of how much time and work goes into that £0.99 bag of rice you get from the store.





The next day we enjoyed some time poolside in the morning and decided to break for some culture  in the afternoon. After an hour walk to the far side of town, past the Monkey Forest (one of the top attractions which we avoided due to the extra aggressive monkeys who reside there), we ventured into the Agung Rai Museum featuring Balinese art. There were some fantastic paintings, but I especially loved the Batuan style paintings. Often black and white, they were so intricate and left you discovering something new every time you looked at them.



Our last full day in Ubud, we realised how much we had left to do and so our day was packed as we tried to squeeze every last minute out of our time in Bali.

First item of the day was the Campuhan Ridge Walk - we were recommended an early walk time to avoid the heat of the day which we were thankful for on the walk back. This walk gives you a different view of Balinese nature as you walk through the forests. Starting from the city, it's an uphill trek, especially fun when you're carrying a 10kg baby around.  It's a short walk to the end of the path (about 3km) where there are plenty of options to reward your walk with coconut water and snacks. We didn't have time to relax long before we continued our day's agenda.




We had hired a driver for the day - after days of being hustled by taxi drivers in the city, we finally had a reason to need one! We negotiated with a couple before finding one that had a reasonable fare (negotiation was key as well, although we had already talked with our hotel about what to expect as a fare).  Our first stop was Mount Batur for the natural hot springs. There are two main locations for the springs right next to each other; we visited Batur Hot Springs as it's where our driver suggested, although looking next door at Toya Devasya, they had a better view of the mount and seems as if perhaps the facilities were a bit better - both are the same price though and the springs are the same.


We floated around, slowly introducing L to the water as she seems to have developed an aversion somewhere around the age of 9 months. The afternoon was spent between checking out the sprays and then venturing back to the views of the mount (which is actually an active volcano whose most recent eruption was in 2000!). Our time was short though as we were off to check out some of the more cultural sites on our way back to Ubud.



The first stop was Tirta Empul, a temple known for the holy water on site.  As you walk in (making sure you wear a sarong and waist wrap), the first entrance are the pools. Dragon heads line the long side, allowing the holy water to enter the pools. Many visitors, both locals and tourists, dip in the water and do a self-cleansing, just make sure you check-out the rules laid out.


We simply watched, then wandered the rest of the complex that was open to the public.  L's favourite part was the giant koi pond where she excitedly watched fish pop up to the surface to snatch whatever food was being tossed their way. The pool was scenic, set against a wall of the temple and a perfect family photo opp as we had been a bit lax in our family photos so far on the trip. Something for us to work on!


Our last stop of the day was at Gunung Kawi - not much is known for certain about the temple, although there are lots of legends and speculations. As best as I got, each of the 10 carvings was dedicated to a Balinese ruler from the time it was carved (around the 11th century). When I walked in, I was struck by the resemblance to the Lycian tombs in Turkey. Not so much as the carvings themselves look alike, but because of the incredible will power behind the act of carving something like this out of stone.



The grounds were beautiful, surrounded by rice paddies and flowing water (carrying the same water that flows to the Tirta Empul temple). The river made everything lush and overgrown.  A week or so after we left was Bali's biggest religious holiday of the year - meaning there were lots of preparations going on, and it was interesting to hear about the rituals that would happen over a few days of the festive season.  The offerings were already piling up, and although the flies were not so appealing around some of the food offerings, it was incredible to see the amount and variety, each with a different purpose.


We'd been warned of the many steps of this temple, which hadn't seemed so bad as we entered.  As we left, I realised it had seemed as breeze as everything was downhill. But on the way out, hot and tired from a long day, the 270 steps seemed more like 500. I was my usual stubborn self and refused assistance in baby wearing, but felt oh so accomplished as we made it to the top; followed by a quick demand of water and air conditioning at full blast!


And that was the end of our time in Bali - it left me realising how much more there was to see and the hopes that we may find ourselves there sometime again in the future! 

Tapas y Tapas

During my maternity leave, I was missing travel. It had been almost 6 months since my last real trip and the itch was setting in.  Some deals came through on BA, and we poured over the destinations before finally settling on Seville. At the time we were feeling like the confident parents of a child who was sleeping 6 hour stretches.  Come the time of our trip, we were excited to get 4 hours at a time. But nonetheless, we were determined and with one small suitcase for us and one giant suitcase for L, we arrived at the airport (after a small mix-up on which airport we were out of).

As soon as we arrived, I knew it would be wonderful. We were staying in the popular Santa Cruz barrio, filled with narrow and winding cobbled streets. The taxi dropped all our gear off as close as they could and we walked the streets just beginning at 9pm to fill with everyone on their way to dinner. When we finally arrived at the hotel and checked in, they told us about a free walking tour the next day, so we decided it was the perfect way to orient ourselves in Seville, figure out what sites were worth seeing before going back to explore.  We dragged ourselves out of bed at 9am ready to hit the ground walking.


Three hours later, and countless smiles for the baby from wandering locals and tourists, we had seen almost all of the city's top sights. We learned an important lesson in preparation as it started to rain on us and we fastened an umbrella (purchased at the 'it just started raining price' from a corner store) over L's stroller to keep her dry.


As we finished at Plaza Espana, we decided to continue the walk and meandered through the gardens and streets.  I was taken in by the vibrant tiles found everywhere from buildings and walls to park benches. If there was one memory I took away from Spain though, it was the oranges - every park was laden with orange trees and the time of year must have been right as you could smell their aroma as you walked through and stepped over all the ripened oranges that had found their home on the ground. All of it together with the sun seemed a bit like paradise to a woman who'd been landlocked for such a long time!


That evening we had arranged to visit a flamenco show. We were a bit worried about both the noise and the later hour for the littlest Tart, but she was fascinated with it. It was an intimate venue with one guitar player, singer and dancer - the setting meant you heard every pluck of string and stomp of the heel, and see the expressions on their faces showing the pain and joy of the music. The excitment must have been too much as L fell asleep in my arms; we had a few moments of smug thoughts as we decided to put her in the stroller and grab dinner while she slept. We wandered til we found a restaurant near the hotel with the famed Iberica ham hanging from the window, ordered our meals and wine, only for her to wake up as soon as our entrees had arrived! Karma.




After getting whatever sleep we could get that night, the next day was time to get more into the details of the sites, as so far all we had done was leisurely strolling,  taking lots of breaks for croquettes and sangria.  We first visited the Alcazar of Seville - a tour probably would have been a good idea as there wasn't a lot of direction on where to go or what to see, so without much decision making on our part, we first wandered through the buildings.




You can see the Moorish inspiration in so many places in all the little details of the tiles, ceilings, walls, floors - many of which I shared as my favourites in my last blog post), and the distinctly Arabic carvings - these were beautiful, detailed and sprawled across the facade of the building, around the courtyard, but also found their way into the details of the rooms with arches across doorways and windows.



The building brought us to the "backyard" of the Alcazar or as Game of Throne enthusiastics would know it as Dorn. It wouldn't be Sevilla without orange trees, flanked by stone pathways that always seemed to intersect with a fountain in the middle.



When the wind picked up, we decided to duck inside the nearby Catedral de Sevilla to escape.  The highlight of the visit is the Giralda bell tower. Our tour guide had stumped us with a question on how many steps the tower had - it was a trick question since the tower is actually filled with ramps! Originally the minaret of the mosque, before converted to a church, the ramps allowed a horse to ride up for the 5x a day call to prayers.  From the top, the views are beautiful and worth the walk up (even with a baby in tow!)



On our last day of our trip (after a quick day in Cordoba), we revisited the Plaza d'Espana - compared to the first dreary day, it was a completely new plaza. The sun was shining, people were selling hats, shirts, balloons and artists had set up to paint the view, or do quick sketches for tourists. I had wanted to look at more of the detail of the plaza, with each province of Spain represented by a tiled alcove depicting something unique to the province.



All that sun meant it was time for a tapas break before our last look at tiles and gardens at Casa des Pilatos. With tiles just as beautiful, but far fewer crowds, it was a perfect way to end L's first European vacation.













Bali Baby

Hi - remember me? That girl who used to blog a lot, then occasionally, then never? I'll simply say I'm sorry again, but life as a working mom has me busy! Between baby, work and travel, I find myself spending an evening sleeping instead of blogging. Promise I'll at least try to work on it :)

Early in our days in the UK, we invested in a travel map - it's a beautiful map hanging above our fireplace dotted with red pins marking our travels. Europe was looking more and more red, and as we chatted about our travels to visitors a few months ago, we realised how sparse our Asia travels had been. Paul swirled his finger and bam - it was decided we'd take a trip to Indonesia and the planning began!

There was painstaking deliberation on which island would be the best (Bintan would be easiest, Lombok would be quietest, Sumatra might be nice), but even after deciding Bali, there was still decisions to be made. You could spend weeks in Bali, but we only had one, so hours on the internet finally brought us to what we felt was a hidden gem amongst Bali beaches.


Just 30 minutes drive from the airport, but south of all the craziness of Kuta, we found a perfect getaway. A short walk down the cliff steps brought us right onto Balangan Beach, full of energy from those soaking up the chance to be near the water and bathe in the sun. Restaurants doubling as surf shops and hostels lined the beach offering cheap food and views. Onlookers grabbed these prime spots on the deck to sip cold coconuts while watching the water full of bobbing boards and bodies waiting for the perfect moment to make their move.


The fine sand was different from anything I'd seen before - round little pebbles that are almost as fine as grains of rice that clung to every wet surface. It didn't bother us though and we happily played in the sand (until the waves came which were not so happily greeted by L).


We didn't brave the surf, but used the days to lounge by the pool and beach, battling jet lag and enjoying that start of vacation feel. Our little bungalow hidden amongst gardens was perfect to retreat from the sun and give L free reign to run around inspecting shells and taking in all the new creatures we showed her like geckos and creepy crawlies.



Once the haze wore off, we knew it was time to head north but wanted to get in one local site first. I'd heard of Ulu Watu and its famous sunset views, but our planning was a bit off (or non-existant if I'm being truthful....) so instead we found ourselves there at 11am. With the sun beating down on us, I can see the appeal of the evening, but the views were pretty spectacular any time of day. After years away from Texas, we aren't quite as heat resistant as we used to be, so Paul decided to grab a chance to retreat to the shade with L where she captured the attention of everyone going through - I left her smiling and running around on a table while other tourists looked on and encouraged her silly (and adorable) antics.



I wandered hoping to see more of the temple, but was disappointed to find that the temple itself isn't open to visitors. Instead, I wandered the grounds, heading further away from the temple for views, then back up taking in the monkeys that thrive on stealing everything from bananas to sunglasses from unsuspecting visitors. If you're looking for a cultural experience, I don't think this is it, but it certainly has some pretty beautiful vistas.


And so sweaty but happy, we piled into the taxi to head to our next Bali adventure in Ubud. Stay tuned for more scenary, food and of course Bali baby.