Sunday, December 1, 2013

Holiday shopping in Leipzig

Leipzig's train station gets decked out for Christmas

Leipzig is an amazing city that finally seems to be getting the attention it deserves and, for holiday shopping, it is a great destination. From the train station promenade to the historic Specks Hof and Mädlerpassage to the artist shops at the Spinnerei, there is definitely something for everyone.

The city hosts some of Germany's best Christmas markets, too. Whether you're looking for hand-made wooden toys from the Erzgebirge region, souvenirs or just a warm cup of mulled cider, the markets provide a great assortment of goods and a warm dose of holiday cheer.

For local specialties, be sure to try the Leipziger Lerchen (Leipzig Lark), a pastry shaped like a bird nest with almonds and strawberry jam.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Hotel Review: The Dominican, Brussels

As the name and chanting heard throughout the hotel would indicate, the Dominican was once the site of a 15th century abbey. Located just behind the opera house La Monnaie and a short walk from the Grand Palace, this luxury hotel adds contemporary design to its layers of history - and a little cheek with its painting of a monk peeing in the lobby mens restroom. 
A chic lounge makes mingling easy and a fitness center and small sauna make sure you're in fit form, but the simple escape of the room provides the perfect atmosphere for relaxing with a hot bath and clearing the mind. This, along with reliable WiFi - not always a given, sadly - gave me everything I needed to do work during some free time.
After sleeping through my first wake-up call and my alarm, nearly missing my ride to the airport, I discovered that comfort can have its downside. After the fastest shower ever taken and grabbing my already packed bags, I was swiftly out the door, missing out on breakfast and the leaving what had to be one of the best night's sleep behind.

Rue Leopold / Leopoldstraat 9
1000 Brussels 

Monday, November 11, 2013

Armistace Day in Waregem, Flanders Field

It’s small, but no less poignant. The American cemetery for WWI at Flanders Fields in Waregem, Belgium is the final resting place for just over 300 soldiers, far fewer than those in France, but behind every headstone an entire family that had been devastated. And here, in a small corner of Flanders that saw so much senseless bloodshed, it is a sobering reminder of how many have been sacrificed. 

On a chilly November morning we gather for the Armistice Day ceremony. American ex-pats, some former military, and local Boy Scout troops gather as they do each year to show their respect to the fallen. During the 2014-2018 centenary of the Great War, Flanders Field will be the best place to take in stories, reflect on a generation lost, and ponder the pursuit of peace.


Thursday, August 29, 2013

Walk on the wild side at the new Haltia Finnish Nature Centre

After experiencing the magnificent Finnish summer, two things became very clear to me. The Finns are a beautiful, wonderfully mad bunch, and they have a special relationship with the natural world around them.

With somewhat limited time, I wanted to see some of Finland’s natural world, yet also remain close to Helsinki. As it turns out, that’s just what the new Haltia Finnish Nature Centre had in mind. 

Opened in May, the new Haltia Finnish Nature Center offers a chance to walk on the wild side in a ground-breaking ecologically friendly structure. No small feat in a land of more than 180,000 lakes, over 30 national parks and seemingly endless pristine coastline.

It was suggested that I take the train to Espoo and catch a bus to the centre. After a series of confusing signs and meeting the one person on the entire trip that didn’t know English (we managed with German, oddly enough), it’s safe to say the direct bus from Helsinki station would have been easier.

Arriving at Haltia, which lies at the edge of the Nuuksio Nature Park, I was immediately impressed. My guide, Aura, showed me around and gave me insight into not only the functionality of the centre, but also Finnish mythology. (In a “small world” moment, I’d later discover she had once visited my home state of Indiana.)

Architect Rainer Mahlamäki’s design, inspired by the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, is primarily made from wood along with some natural stone and grass on the roof. It utilizes solar and geothermal energy for heating and cooling, making it 75% energy self-sufficient for heating, 100% for cooling.

The link to mythology is a key component. The building resembles the Goldeneye Duck that, according to myth, laid an egg from which the whole universe was created. That egg occupies the main exhibition hall and houses an installation by Finnish artist Osmo Rauhala, whose swans playing a game of chess provides another theory of creation.

A large panoramic video installation covers much of one wall. Aura explained, “If you go to a certain spot at a certain time of year, this is what you’re gonna see”, noting the absence of dramatic soundtracks or cute animal scenes. “So we don’t promise bears and those kind of things”.

Technology is an important part of Haltia, with an interactive floor map taking center stage. Children were asked what they’d most like to see in such a centre, which explains the bear’s den and video waterfall they can walk behind. There’s even a restaurant serving local, organic Finnish cuisine.

Of course, the best part lies outside of the centre. After an inspiring exhibition I walked right out into the park. I dipped my fingers in the cool lake and took to one of the smaller hiking trails to get up close and personal with Finland’s wild side.

No, I didn’t wander deep (it’s quite massive after all), nor did I see any of the famed Siberian Flying Squirrels. But, what I did experience was the simple joy of the outdoors and a blossoming love of this incredible country, amazed that it was possible to get lost in the wildness so close to the capital.

And, as I took out my iPhone to snap a few Instagram shots, I understood how nature and technology could work in harmony to create a lasting experience in the wild that could be shared with others.

Saturday, August 31st marks the first ever nationwide Finnish Nature Day, with primary festivities being held at Haltia.


Sunday, August 4, 2013

A night on the Bothnian Sea: The Kylmäpihlaja Lighthouse

Wild, rugged beauty is not in short supply in Finland. In fact, you’d be hard pressed not to find it. Such is the case along the west coast near Rauma, where the Kylmäpihlaja lighthouse stands on a small, picturesque island on the open sea surrounded by crashing waves and angry birds.

Like most things in Finland, the lighthouse isn’t particularly old. It was built in 1952 and originally housed 12 men who guided ships through the archipelago to port in Rauma. Technology has made that job obsolete, but the beacon remains and it serves as a small hotel and restaurant, a great place to enjoy fresh whitefish and magnificent sea views.

The island is relatively young as well; it had risen from the ocean only about 800 years ago as a part of post-glacial rebound, a process that still sees Finland’s landscape rise around 6 mm per year.

A July evening on the rocky island was cool and breezy to put it lightly, but the warmth of a fire and new friends, paired with the scent of smoked salmon and salty air, made it feel like the perfect Nordic summer night. It was like everything you needed in the world at that moment was right there.

Though the not-quite-Midnight Sun would only reach 11:30pm in this part of the country, the sunset across the Bothnian Sea was no less stunning. After a long night began to wind down with a cup of tea, we were lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves and the simple joy of an uncompromising Finnish summer.

Click here to find it on a map!

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Nuuksio National Park, Espoo, Finland

Day #2 in Finland

After a visit to the new Haltia Finnish Nature Center, I took a short hike through Nuuksio National Park. Just 30 minutes away from Helsinki station, it's amazing how quickly you can break from the city and immerse yourself in nature in one of the largest parks in southern Finland. 

The park is massive and includes several lakes and ponds, birch and coniferous forest areas, as well as endangered plant and animal life, including the Siberian Flying Squirrel.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

A visit to medieval Nördlingen

View of the town hall and market in Nördlingen.

From the top of the landmark St.-Georgs-Kirche's "Daniel" tower you see pretty much everything within and outside of Nördlingen's medieval wall, one of few in Germany left intact. It's a fascinating little town where you can learn about the Middle Ages and, oddly enough, space. 

The town was built inside the "Rieskrater", the result of a meteorite 15 million years ago. As a result of the impact, a suevite rock (also known as “Schwabenstein” or Swabian rock) formed containing shocked quartz. This rock was used to build many of the notable buildings in town, including the St.-Georgs-Kirche.  More details can be found in the Rieskrater Museum.

My full story for German Life magazine is available online here.