More Like Suxembourg

On our recent trip to Paris, where Kaitie and I had both been multiple times, we decided to throw in a new country and take a day trip to Luxembourg. A mere two-hour train ride away, why not throw away our Saturday on a jaunt to Europe’s tax haven? I did a modicum of research to find out the city didn’t have much to offer, but we figured we could play it by ear.  I mean, they have a main square and an Old Town—what more could one possibly want?

Not wanting to throw away any of the day, we awoke incredibly early, still buzzing from the phenomenal meal we’d just had at A La Biche au Bois.  We left Nina’s aptly-named pup Lux and made our way to the train station.  As it turns out, spending a day on the couch with Lux would’ve been leagues more exciting than spending it in her non-namesake city.

The Best Lux

We were blessed, in the Place d’Armes (main square) with the most exciting of all city events—a flea market full of expensive shit that only someone with lots of money and little travel experience could love.  We ate at Café Francais, which was decidedly anti-breakfast: they put down cloth table runners, found out we were interested in eating breakfast, and then removed the cloth and gave us paper placemats. After talking about my “terrorist beard” and spilling food on my coat, our server largely ignored us. Which was fine, because I didn’t want to have to talk to him about the strange salad that came with my omelet—greens, corn, ranch dressing, and a tomato that was almost crunchy.  I could imagine the chef proclaiming, “This is what they eat in America! Just give it to them!”

The weird salad that somehow ended up on my coat

After our breakfast, which would set the scene for the rest of our day, we eventually made it into the Old Town portion of the city, which would be impressive if (1) you’d never seen a hill before, (2) you’d never seen anything old before, or (3) you’d never seen moving water before.  Luxembourg doesn’t have anything that any other city doesn’t have, and every other city’s is better in every way.  Going to Luxembourg for site-seeing is like taking your cousin to prom: sure, you get to go, but what’s the fucking point?  We couldn’t find one.

Holy shit, a building

At the very least, we had Um Dierfgen to look forward to.  Open 11:30am to 10pm, the restaurant is just off the main square and serves up many of Luxembourg’s traditional dishes.  While Luxembourg may be a real Kraft Single of a city, at least I’d get to say I’d had some local dishes that aren’t widely available, like their national dish of Judd mat Gaardebounen (smoked pork, beans, and potatoes with bacon), or maybe even the horse steak on their menu.  I didn’t care that it was a little more expensive than it should be, if anything was going to save this trip for me, it would be food.

But, of course, fuck me for trying, because despite being full of drinking locals, we were told the restaurant wasn’t serving food.  Why should it? And why should it say anything about off-hours on its website? Ah, Luxembourg, that most Medium Place of cities. We ended up settling on a bar called Urban with typical bar food for anywhere in the world.  At least I got a local beer.  By that time, though, we were hungry and fed up and just wanted to be done with this place.

Holy shit, a chicken sandwich

We swung into a store to grab some drinks for the train ride home, where we found €5 on the ground, which was the best part of visiting Luxembourg (though it still owes me money for the train tickets). Luckily we were able to resurrect our day with dinner at Zeyer in Paris and some pre-bed wine at Nina’s.  And, of course, hanging out with the real Lux, and forever more the only Lux I officially recognize.

All other Luxes can eat shit

Food and Memories in Paris

I remember a lot of food from our first trip to Paris in 2009, but I don’t remember anything as vividly as our dinner at A La Biche au Bois.  I remember eating at Le Timbre and having a delicious mushroom soup, but nothing else about the experience.  I remember eating our first escargot, but not where. I remember strolling through an outdoor market and getting baguette and my first taste of real goat cheese and falling in love. 

But when it comes to A La Biche au Bois, I remember sitting at the end of a longish booth; I remember how deeply flavored the coq au vin was; I remember the beat-up orange pots the coq au vin was delivered in; I remember the incredible cheese course; I remember the people sitting next to us giving us half their mashed potatoes because they were so good we couldn’t miss out on them—and they were; I remember being incredibly full but my girlfriend at the time, LeeAnne, forcing herself to finish the chocolate mousse because it was that good; I remember she couldn’t button her coat after dinner; I remember getting crepes on the way back to our hotel anyway.

I’ve been thinking about A La Biche au Bois and their coq au vin for 11 years now.

Over the summer, when my sister and some friends and I went to follow the Tour de France, I extended our trip by a day in order to be in Paris on a night they were open and finally go back to Biche au Bois.  We were arriving for our trip on July 20; I called for a reservation a few weeks in advance to find they, like much of the city, would be starting to take a month-long sabbatical starting—you guessed it—the day we arrived.  I think the lady on the phone could sense my disappointment, as she offered to let me join them on their holiday.

Champagne to start the evening in celebration

Luckily for my now-girlfriend Kaitie and I, our friend Nina moved to Paris in January to study, and we could justify a trip with a free place to stay.  I usually don’t go back to a place twice, let along three times—and especially less than a year after the previous visit—but the stars were aligning for us to justify the trip. I made a reservation for Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day, remembering LeeAnne and I had first been to Paris thanks to a long Valentine’s weekend flight-and-hotel deal. I don’t remember which day we went to Biche au Bois, but my return could very well be 11 years to the day from the first time I was there.

As we made our way to the metro from Nina’s apartment, my excitement turned slightly to nerves.  2009 was a long time ago, and I knew nowhere near as much about food as I do now.  What if I had completely misjudged the food, and it really wasn’t that good? I had suggested the restaurant to Nina when she had visited Paris in 2017, so in addition to talking up the meal to myself for 11 years, I had been talking it up to her for almost three.  I had been talking it up to Kaitie for, I’m sure, as long as I’d known her.  What if I was giving up a quick, easy answer to any future “what would be your last meal” hypotheticals?

We walked in and, despite appearing smaller that I remembered, nothing had changed.  Coat rack immediately on the left, long booth where I had sat the first time on the right. We were seated in the very front of the restaurant at the window, and chatted up by the host/owner who had chatted us up 11 years ago.  I had worried that they might have a special menu for Valentine’s Day, because why not once again destroy my dreams of eating here, but they only had a few additions.  We looked over the menu and decided to start our celebration of my triumphant return with some champagne, and Nina ordered us a bottle of wine as well.

I can’t quite remember what we started with in 2009—nothing I’ve eaten before that first coq au vin matters anymore—but I will remember our first course from this year.  Kaitie ordered a ravioli salad, which came with a poached egg perched atop and covered in pickled red onion.  I had a special of the day, which was two poached eggs in a mushroom sauce—a deep, earthy, umami dressing that gave off the pure taste of mushrooms; and once the perfectly-poached eggs were broken and the yolk mixed with the sauce, we couldn’t get to the baguette on our table fast enough.  I think we went through a second round of baguette for Nina’s order of escargot, which weren’t only hiding in shells filled with perfect buttery parsley sauce, but were also sitting in pools of it.  We knew a lot was coming and we shouldn’t fill up on bread, but the food in France makes that an exceptionally difficult principle to stick to.

Next, the main course. On the strength of my recommendation and years of guarantees, we all ordered the coq au vin.  The pieces of chicken, cooked tender and floating in the dark sauce with potatoes, came out in the same battered and chipped orange pots I remembered.  And that’s not where the memories stopped—as I spooned a portion of chicken, potatoes, and sauce onto my plate, the smell was immediately familiar, despite not having smelled it in over ten years (and only having attempted to make it at home twice).

I am also happy to confirm the coq au vin at Biche au Bois will remain my last meal candidate.  The chicken fell off the bone, the potatoes were creamy, bits of bacon and mushrooms were a pleasant surprise when they came up, and I couldn’t get enough of the thick, meaty sauce.  When we ran out of baguette (our third serving, I believe), I resorted to spooning sauce from the pot directly to my mouth. It was thick enough that the spoon left a line in the bottom of the pot before it slowly filled in. I could not have been happier.

After we had finished with the coq au vin, we were presented with the cheese course: a large plate of cheese that you can take as much or as little from as you desire.  How much better could life be at this moment, transitioning from one of the best dishes I’ve ever eaten to the promise of, should I so choose, unlimited cheese? While Nina and Kaitie were a little more discerning with their selection in order to save room for dessert, I asked for a piece of each cheese on the plate. And ate them with more baguette.

Finally, on to dessert. We had to decide which we were each getting, and briefly considered some sorbet to cleanse our palates, but then gave up on that idea. Nina ended up ordering the daily special apple tarte, and I went with the house opera cake.  We had looked up opera cake to see that it was a cake of layered almond sponge cake soaked in coffee syrup and layered with ganache and coffee buttercream, which sounds incredible. The Biche au Bois version, however, was more along the lines of a traditional chocolate cake, though gooey in the middle, and sitting on a pool of crème anglaise. As a non-chocolate person, it was a little too chocolatey for me, which is a surprise, because I had convinced Kaitie to order the chocolate mousse with Grand Marnier, and I couldn’t stop eating it. The slight orange flavor countered the deep chocolate flavor, as did the fact that the mousse was so light and fluffy it was like eating a chocolate-flavored cloud. As someone who has hated chocolate his entire life, I was as surprised as anyone to not be able to stop eating this.

In addition to the food being just as good as I remembered—and in some (chocolate) cases, even better—the price hasn’t changed much either.  Even with the glasses of champagne, a bottle of wine, and the extra supplement for the escargot, the entire meal for three ran us about €150. This was as reasonable a price for the quality food we got as I’ve ever had.

I know I can eat at the upper boundaries of gastronomy in France, and especially Paris; the French, afterall, practically invented cooking.  But it is this kind of food—the homey, slow-cooked dishes that are somehow comfort food even though they have no ties to your childhood. Coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, onion soup—these are what I crave in Paris.  This is what I go there for.  And these are the memories I will always keep of Paris, no matter how long it takes me to get back.

Le Tour Detour

We all woke up early, around 6am, and packed everything we’d need: the meat, cheese, bread, and snacks we’d bought the night before, as well as a selection of beer we’d carried with us from Belgium.  The day, Thursday, July 25, was the highlight of our Tour de France trip: the mountain stage.  We’d get to the highlight of the stage, the Col du Galibier, early enough to make our way up and stake out a prime viewing spot where we’d wait for the whole to-do of the Tour to go by. It was only a 30-minute drive from our AirBNB.

The Galibier and surrounding area from our spot.

We had to park about a kilometer away from the start of the mountain, but we eventually made it to a great spot where we could see any oncoming action for quite a while—we were there to get our money’s worth.  On our way up, we switched on and off who carried our cooler full of goodies and stopped occasionally to rest and to cheer on the hordes of amateur cyclists trying to conquer the Galibier. It looked like some of them really needed the extra motivation.

Not a bad view from our parking spot

We set up our camp around 8:30 or 9am and began our long wait in the sun.  The Tour de France caravan wouldn’t arrive until about 2pm, and the riders themselves between 4-4:30pm.

Le Tour

The team buses coming through amazed me at what good drivers these guys were—I would later find out that I’d never be able to take a bus around some of these mountain passes. The caravan was the same thing: it would have terrified me to drive those huge, unwieldy parade floats around some of the curves on the mountain.  But it did give us our last chance to pick up some cheap souvenirs and trinkets and get us excited for the cyclists that would be coming through shortly.

The television helicopter in front of us

Eventually, we heard the television helicopters in the distance and got ready. We had gone for a walk earlier and saw we were very close to the sign that signified 25km to the finish line, so keeping track of where they were on the Tour de France app got us even more excited as we counted down—40km, then 35, then 30. A helicopter appeared, and we could see the breakaway group on the winding road beneath us. We watched it snake its way through the crowd-lined road, and as the four or five riders were on the portion of road right below us, we saw Nairo Quintana put on a burst of speed and leave the others behind. We got into position to wait for the leaders to round a bend.

A poorly-zoomed picture of the breakaway, right before Nairo makes his move

I always thought I would take the opportunity to be one of those guys who ran beside the riders, but Nairo positively flew by us, followed by Romain Bardet and the rest of the leaders.  We cheered them on, and chatted excitedly while waiting for the peloton.  Once the main group was by us, we waited for the grupetto, or the back end of the race.  A car coming up announced that the group behind him contained fan favorite Peter Sagan, and we all cheered him on as he went by.  As someone who cycles (poorly), it still amazed me how fast even the stragglers were going up this mountain.

Nairo on his way to the stage win
Peter Sagan struggles on the Galibier

Rain

As the final riders were going by, the sky began to darken. We put on our rain gear, and there was a light sprinkling rain for part of our descent back to the car.  Nothing too bad, but we could see some intermittent lightning back in the direction of our AirBNB. Taking different routes down, we all met up back at the rental car, where we pulled out and got in line to head back home.

The line of cars barely moved, but it did move.  Every once in a while, an emergency vehicle flew by in the opposite lane, and we figured there had been some fender-benders in the rain and rush to get home. We made it back to La Grave, a small town about halfway between Les Deux Alpes, where we were staying, and the Col du Galibier when we noticed the line of cars only seemed to be moving when a car came back our way.  Then we noticed cars in our line starting to turn around.  Uh oh.

Campers at the Galibier. They were probably fine.

We turned around and pulled into the first open parking lot we saw and headed into a hostel/restaurant called Gite Le Rocher in order to sit down, use the WiFi, and get some food.  They had a prix fixe menu of vegetable soup, goat, and a dessert, but at this point I was getting too nervous to take pictures of my food (a first).  We were originally told by the hippie-looking woman in charge that the roads would be closed for about three hours due to a landslide caused by the rain.  When Beth had her husband back home get online and check (the WiFi turned out to be bunk in the restaurant), he found that the roads being closed for three DAYS was a generous assumption.

We realized, now nearing 9pm, we would have no other option but to take a detour back to our AirBNB. It was starting to get dark, we were all tired from an entire day spent sitting in the sun and drinking, and I was the only one on the car’s insurance, so it would be up to me to take the four-hour detour over the Galibier, over the Col du Glandon, and back to Les Deux Alpes.  Did I mention I’m afraid of heights?  We got ourselves psyched up and walked back to the car, where we realized the building we had parked by had become a temporary shelter for people who had cycled from the area of Les Deux Alpes to the stage and couldn’t get back.  It was a huge inconvenience for us, but at least we had the means to drive over the mountains in the dark—these people were completely stranded.

King of the Mountain

We threw on some podcasts—I wanted something my brain would have to pay attention to, rather than zoning out to music—and headed back the way we’d come.  The line of cars at the base of the Col du Galibier was long and slow-moving, and by this point it was pure nighttime. We eventually made it to the base of the mountain, and my nerves kicked in. If I’d had my own car, which is smaller and something I’m more familiar with, I would have been a lot more relaxed, but I was convinced the SUV we had was going to roll off the edge of the mountain any minute as we climbed higher and higher.

Our original route home.
The detour (without traffic)

I didn’t care about the people behind me who probably wanted to drive faster, and I only moved from the center of the lane when there was oncoming traffic (and once almost not quickly enough, as we were almost hit head-on by someone coming around a sharp bend). Beth and Kelly, both manning phones for directions, kept me braced on when a particularly sharp bend was coming up and what I had to expect, while Ray fell asleep in the back seat—after he made sure to point out how steep one of the climbs we were coming up to was.

Luckily, the Galibier has a tunnel cut through about three quarters of the way up, so we were able to skip going over the peak of the mountain.  This, and the fact that it was so dark we couldn’t see the drop-offs next to us, are probably the only things that kept me from a full-on nervous breakdown on the ride. After the tunnel was a downhill portion leading into the town of Valloire, which gave us an up-close view of the Tour route that we wouldn’t have otherwise received. I could have done without it.

When we explored more of the Galibier, I didn’t realize I would eventually be driving these roads

Whenever there was room, I moved over and let all the antsy drivers behind us pass me, but if we were going up or downhill, I didn’t care how mad they got, I wasn’t getting close to the edges.  If one of you was behind me, sorry not sorry.

After two climbs and two descents, we were back on the highway for a portion, and then once again ascending to Les Deux Alpes. We rolled into the area of our AirBNB and found the last parking spot around 2:30 in the morning, almost immediately before a car behind us pulled in, no doubt in the same situation.

If the buses could do it, I could do it.

It took a while to get to sleep, because my adrenaline was going full blast and my nerves were on edge.  On our way back to La Grave, sitting in traffic, I had nodded off once or twice due to being so exhausted, but on the haul back I’m not sure I closed my eyes once—I knew it was up to me to get everyone home safe, and I knew I had to stay awake and stay calm.  As much as I wanted to panic (and, at some points, full on cry), panic wasn’t an option. We got back into our room, cracked a beer, and calmed down.  What had been a memorable day of watching the Tour de France became one of those unforgettable days of a trip where things go just wrong enough to make it exciting, but not so wrong as to ruin everything.  Had we ridden bikes from our room to the Galibier, I may be singing a different tune, but as it stood we had the ability to get back safely. And the day went a long way to reinforce one of my favorite sayings: it’s always an adventure.

Beth and I, before the dread of driving sets in, but not before the sunburn does.

Six Places to Drink Beer in Brussels

We only had a weekend in Brussels; a quick stop on our way to the Tour de France with one goal and one goal only: drink as much beer as we could.  Nowhere in the world has better beer than Belgium, and Brussels is the place to go for the lion’s share of it.  And the people of Brussels are clearly proud of it, because it’s everywhere.  I hold Philadelphia up on a pretty high pedestal as far as beer selection and availability goes, but when we stopped into a small organic café for breakfast and they had a beer list that could rival any bar in Philly, I knew this was a special place for the beer drinker.

As you can imagine, it’s not hard to find beer in Brussels.  It’s not hard to find exceptional beer.  But you can’t go everywhere (our livers wouldn’t allow it), so here is a whittling down of our six favorite places to grab a beer in Brussels.

Affligem

Having outdoor seating on the pedestrian-only Boulevard Anspech makes for a wonderful night, especially when it’s low-70s and breezy.  We stopped here for our first beer(s) and couldn’t have been happier. Our server was very knowledgeable about the local beers and pointed us to a few local breweries we hadn’t heard of (which were unfortunately closed that weekend).  Beer highlight: their beer of the month was also Lindeman’s Faro, a beer we’d never tried but become a running theme throughout our vacation: a tart lambic brewed with brown sugar. Refreshingly sweet and tart. Boulevard Anspach 81

Delirium Café

Part of the Delirium Village cul de sac of eight bars, when I asked my friend if Delirium Café was super touristy or a place we should definitely check out, he just said, “Yes.” I would recommend going on an off-hour; our first attempt on a weekend night found the place overflowing with people.  But for good reason: the downstairs café has over 2,000 beers on offer (most by the bottle) with a massive magazine “menu” to browse. The café itself is decorated with branded beer trays from all kinds of breweries, and the stairs leading down are lined with old Delirium bottles.  Definitely a cool place to spend a few hours. Beer highlight: Delirium Red. While Delirum Tremens has become somewhat old hat, I could have had multiple glasses of this kriek (cherry) version. Impasse de la Fidélité 4

Au Bon Vieux Temps

Down a small alley off one of the main touristy pedestrian areas is this little bar, tucked in a back corner.  The inside is everything you’d want an old-world bar to be: stained glass windows, carved wood paneling, and plenty of mugs and trinkets that look like they’ve been there since the bar opened.  We grabbed a spot at the bar and ordered the highlight of the menu: Westvleteren 12, consistently rated one of the best beers in the world.  Our bartender apologized for only having two Westvleteren glasses for the four we’d ordered, so she gave them to the ladies.  Well worth the stop, even though we were drinking a 10% beer first thing in the morning. Impasse Saint-Nicolas 8/4

Moeder Lambic

There are two Moeder Lambic outposts in Brussels, but the newer on is closer to the downtown/Grand Place area and a little more accessible if you’re walking.  Like everywhere, it had a great beer list (and was where we had our first Cantillons of the trip—more on that later), along with some good-looking food.  We opted for meat and cheese boards, because we’re fancy, and drank our fill. Beer highlight: Tilquin Mure, a tart but refreshingly fruity gueuze brewed with blackberries. Place Fontainas 8

Poechenellekelder

While the name Poechenellekelder may be hard to say, the bar is not hard to find.  Right across the street from Manneken Pis, you can grab a drink and do some sight-seeing at the same time.  There is plenty of seating at this quirky bar, whether outside in their courtyard, inside, or upstairs.  The entire bar is filled with weird little dolls, trinkets, and photos to peruse while you drink some of the freshest Taras Boulba you’ll ever have. Beer highlight: a bottle of Cantillon Nath, a rhubard beer that none of us had ever heard of but all thoroughly enjoyed. Rue du Chêne 5

Cantillon

Finally: the cornerstone of our trip to Brussels.  Opened in 1900, Cantillon is one of the most sought-after breweries in the world and, for my money, the best. No one makes a better lambic, and we put them to the test by spending hours in their surprisingly modern tasting room.  We ended up splitting four bottles and some additional glasses before we went down to raid the small gift shop, and it was the highlight of our time in the city.  It’s a bit of a walk from the city center (about 2km) but well worth the trip.  Beer highlights: all of them.  Fou Foune (an apricot lambic), 2016 Lou Pepe Kriek, Vigneronne (brewed with muscat grapes and aged in oak barrels), 2015 Lou Pepe Framboise (raspberry), and Rosé de Gambrinus (another raspberry lambic). Rue Gheude 56

If you’re a fan of beer, it’s no secret that Brussels should be your Mecca.  And while a focused strategy will definitely improve the amount and quality of beer you will be able to sample, you could really walk into almost anywhere to find a top-shelf beer list.  But whether you go to these places or not, drink as much as you can (safely), and drink as local as you can.  And don’t miss Cantillon.

Tips for following the Tour de France

A few years ago, having friends who were into cycling, I had some time to kill before a beer event and decided to check out the first stage of the Tour de France. While I wasn’t sure of the rules or what exactly was going on, I loved it. This was in 2013, and as the peloton raced to the finish, the Orica-GreenEdge team bus got stuck in the finish line banner. What was going to happen? Would the cyclists have to go around it? Would it be able to move in time? Then there was a crash! Combine the excitement of the finish with the soothing and informative commentary of Phil Liggett and Paul Sherwen, and I was immediately hooked.

It took a few years, but this year I was finally able to go and spectate live with my sister and two of our friends.  We planned on seeing parts of four stages (though that didn’t exactly pan out) over seven days.  While I was happy to take the reins, the logistics took a fair bit of planning.  If you are a fan of cycling and one day want to see the Tour live for yourself—and I very much recommend it—I’ve put together some tips to hopefully help you along the way.  Allez!

One of the Haribo cars during the caravan

Rent a car

As an American, I generally assume you can get anywhere in Europe by train.  While this is mostly true, many of the small towns or mountain passes the Tour winds up in will not be.  We had four days between two large cities, so we rented a car to hit the stops we wanted between the two and took trains the rest of the way—but the car was absolutely necessary.

AirBNB

If you want to be up close and personal, your best chances for accommodation are through AirBNB.  As the Tour starts and ends in many small towns, and there are an incredible amount of people associated with the daily running of the race, most hotels will be booked solid before the route is even announced.  If you don’t mind booking in another town and making your way to the start/finish, that’s fine, but we were able to get AirBNBs within 500 meters of two stage starts.

Don’t try to do too much

If you want to see the start of a stage, chances are you won’t be able to see the finish—and vice versa.  Waiting for the roads to re-open, getting out of the city, and being lucky if the roads are still open when you get to the end of the next stage (and there’s parking) is a very, very slim chance.  Instead, pick one or the other and take your time enjoying the atmosphere.  We lucked out at our first stage, in Nimes, that the end just happened to be about a kilometer from the start—one of the reasons we picked the stage.

The view from the Col du Galibier, with spectators lining the road

Know the route

The route for the Tour will come out in October (with the race being in July), which will give you plenty of time to book accommodation.  Be sure to do it wisely.  For example, we wanted to see a mountain stage on the Col du Galibier this year.  We stayed in Les Deux Alpes, which is about 45 minutes west of the mountain—but the race was coming in from the east.  With the roads the race is on being closed hours in advance—and sometimes days—we wanted to make sure we weren’t inadvertently closed off from the stage. 

Make a day of it (and be prepared to do a lot of walking)

The riders weren’t scheduled to get to the Col du Galibier until around 4:30, but we were there around 8am—and we still had to park about a kilometer away from the base of the mountain.  We made it to the spot we wanted on the mountain by around 10am, which gave us six hours to hang out, enjoy the atmosphere, and dig in to our cooler full of beer, meat, and cheese.  We spent a lot of time cheering on all the amateur riders taking advantage of the road closure to ride up the mountain.  Being there early also guarantees you the opportunity to see the caravan, a 45-minute parade of decorated sponsor’s cars throwing out all kinds of swag.  It comes through about two hours before the riders on every stage, so this is your best chance to get some freebie souvenirs.

Go near the end of the Tour

The first week is generally for the sprinters, without much reason for the peloton to slow down. So, unless you want to see a group of cyclists fly by you at 50km/h, there isn’t much reason to be around. We specifically went for a mountain stage to have a better chance at seeing the riders, even though they went past faster than I could ever imagine going on some of those climbs.

The peloton whizzes past on the Champs Elysees

Don’t expect much from the final stage

Don’t get me wrong—the party atmosphere along the Champs Elysees is amazing.  However, the caravan is done giving away freebies (they just drive by and wave) and while the peloton goes by eight times, they’re getting faster almost every time, so it’s mostly a blur each time.  Walking up and down the Champs, though, is a great way to get some good food, any merch you were missing, some sponsor freebies along the road, and (actually reasonably priced) beer.  And while spectating the final loops on the Champs isn’t going to get you much in the way of the race, I would absolutely recommend being there for the party.

Gorgeous bikes outside the Movistar bus

Stage starts are the best for rider sightings

After the stage, the riders are (understandably) tired and ready to get back on the team bus and back to the hotel.  Before the stage, though, the buses are lined up and riders may come out to greet fans.  They will, eventually, have to make their way out of the bus and to the start line (where they physically sign in before each stage), so if you want to see someone specific, parking yourself outside the team bus before the start is your best bet.

Enjoy the cities

Finally, be sure to enjoy the cities you most likely wouldn’t otherwise find yourself in.  On any given trip to France, there’s no chance I would have gone to Nimes or Les Deux Alpes, and chances aren’t good I would have ever even heard of Albertville.  But they all had their own charm and beauty, and we enjoyed each stage.  Many of the smaller towns also have celebrations or specials the night before of the night of the Tour. Expore!

Our balcony view of Les Deux Alpes

Hopefully this will make things a tad easier to plan your trip to see Le Tour.  There’s a lot of good (and sometimes more specific) information on DC Rainmaker’s blog, which I read a few times while planning our trip. I’m also always up for answering any questions or just talking about the Tour (and travel), so feel free to ask below or shoot me an email.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 3

Check out the beginning of our weekend here: Day 1, Day 2

We got up early on our final full day in Iceland, as there was still much to see.  After more instant coffee and granola bars, as well as taking advantage of the bathroom facilities at our campground, we headed off on yet another dreary day to see as much as we could.

geysir-1
The smoking grounds around Geysir

The first of those stops was the Geysir Hot Spring Area to see the spot of the world’s most famous geyser (and, indeed, where all geysers got their name).  The original Geysir is currently dormant, but also in the park is Stokkur, a geyser that erupts every few minutes and can reach 30 meters in the air.  We saw this go off a few times and walked around the area, carefully noting the signs that warned not to touch the boiling geothermal water bubbling up from the ground.  Due to the overcast morning, as well as the early hour, we almost had the entire park to ourselves.

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Arch Rock: Gatklettur

After plenty more driving around with a few quick stops to see various interesting things along the road, we arrived at the Snæfellsnes Peninsula.  A first stop to lunch up at Arnarstapi Guesthouse Restaurant (an overcooked and overpriced burger) gave us the perfect start to a quick walk to Gatklettur, or Arch Rock.  Gatklettur is a natural arch eroded into a cliff. The arch itself is impressive, and the area as a whole was beautiful, even in the overcast day.  Tons of green leading to a rocky shore, with small outcrops of yet-to-be-eroded rock dotting the ocean and steep cliffs leading to them.

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More of Arnastapi.  Photo by Beth Blinebury

A quick drive over to the small fishing village of Hellnar to see more sites—more rocky beaches and cliffs that could have been right out of Middle Earth.  If it weren’t for all the people milling around, one could easily imagine being in a different time, or a different place altogether.  And outside of Reykjavik, Iceland as a whole gave off that impression.

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The coastline near Hellnar

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The tide comes in at Hellnar

One of our last stops of the day was one of the most packed, due to the limited parking area and popularity: Kirkjufell, or Church Mountain, and the accompanying waterfall Kirkjufellsfoss. Despite clouds hiding the tip of the mountain, both it and the waterfall were extremely picturesque, especially when captured together, when they become one of the most photographed areas in Iceland.  It’s not hard to see why.

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Kirkjufell towers over Kirkjufellsfoss

For the night, we hit a camping area outside of Borgarnes, a small town about an hour from Reykjavik.  We parked and walked into town, looking for a nicer place for our final dinner.  A local suggested the Borgarnes Settlement Center, and even drove us down the road to get there.  We shared some thick-cut bread with incredibly creamy butter topped with black volcanic salt, and then shared an appetizer of smoked lamb atop rye bread “from Geiri, the local baker” with horseradish, pickled red onion, and arugula. We also shared a traditional Icelandic lamb soup loaded with vegetables.  For my main course I had a burger—I was craving one at this point and the one for lunch hadn’t really done me any favors.  This one was much better, but I keep learning more and more not to order a burger outside of America.

By now it was dark and we made our way back to the camp, stopping briefly at a market in town to see if we could get a few extra beers, but all they had was non-alcoholic.  Back at the van, we set up for bed, getting into our pajamas and letting the evening wind down.  Right before bed, I decided I didn’t feel like walking all the way to the campground bathroom, so I went behind the van to pee.  As LeeAnne admonished me, I looked up—probably rolling my eyes—to find the Northern Lights dancing faintly above us.  It wasn’t the best time of year to see them, and it certainly wasn’t something any of us expected, but it was such a magical way to end our trip.  Even as the lights moved away and grew more and more faint, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

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Yes, it’s blurry, but we were excited as hell.  Who cares, we saw it in real life.  Photo by Beth Blinebury.

In our few short days in Iceland, I saw and did just about everything I had come to do.  Other than a few places that were out of reach for us (I’d love to check out Dimmuborgir) and some things I really didn’t want to do (go to any kind of geothermal spa or eat hákarl), I really couldn’t have asked for much more.  Well, I would have liked to run into Bjork.  But I’ll save that for next time.

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The view from the campground in Borgarnes. Not a bad place to fall asleep or wake up.

Cover image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.  If you need a website, check her out.

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 2

How did we get on a glacier? Check out the recap of day one here.

On Sunday morning, we awoke in the van to a much better day than it had been a night: the rain had moved out and, while it was a bit chilly at the campground, the overcast clouds were not threatening any more rain. We had some granola bars for breakfast and some G7 instant coffees (which we had discovered in Vietnam and are the best instant coffee I’ve ever had) and walked across the campground to the Mountain Guides HQ.

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Climbing on a glacier. Photo courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

After being fitted for harnesses and helmets and crampons, we drove a few minutes away to the base of Skaftafellsjökull, a glacier tongue coming off of Iceland’s largest icecap, Vatnajökull. It’s also the filming location of the ice planet in Interstellar, which isn’t hard to imagine: once you’ve walked a small ways into the glacier, it’s easy to think you’re on another planet.

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Atop a ridge.

The hike we chose was four hours, and was luckily the best weather we had our entire trip.  The sun was out (somewhat) and there wasn’t even the threat of rain.  I think at one point I even got warm enough to unzip my jacket.  We had an intermediate hike, which included being tied off to ropes on the side of the mountain and walking next to some pretty intense-looking cravasses, and even walking down into one.  Being obsessed with Everest, it was a fun experience to be tied to ropes, all geared up and walking around in crampons.

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Walking next to a large cravasse. Fear of heights: activated.

The glacier hike was definitely the highlight of our trip, and I would suggest it—even this particular one—to anyone visiting Iceland.  Our guide was excellent, the hike was more than just a meandering, easy-going sightseeing jaunt, and we got to walk around on top of (and inside) a fucking glacier.  Incredible.

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Exploring an ice cave in the glacier. We assumed it was one of Bjork’s homes.

Afterwards, we stopped by the incredibly conveniently-placed Glacier Goodies food truck right between the campgrounds and the Mountain Guides offices.  Starving from our expedition, I got a cup of lobster bisque (delicious) and an order of fish and chips (pretty good).  I did, however, miscalculate the exchange rate and what I thought was $5 US was actually closer to $50.  Oops.

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After lunch, we took some surprisingly warm showers at the campground (which were added to our camping fee for just a few dollars) and moved on to make our way through more of Iceland.  We stopped at Drangshlíð, a massive rock in the middle of a field with small houses erected around and, it seems, inside part of the rock.  The houses were worn down and covered in moss, and have elven folklore attached to them.  Once again, walking around in the area, with no one else around, seeing this quiet landscape during an overcast day, it was easy to imagine being part of some other world.  Much of Iceland can give you that impression.

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We made a few more random stops to get out, stretch our legs, and take in the endless landscape of overcast green—Andy had become particularly enamored with the local moss—and then found the Skjol Campgrounds.  As we were setting up our van for the night, it began to rain pretty heavily, but the inside of the van stayed dry.  We ended up eating dinner in the small bar/restaurant at the campgrounds, having some overpriced pizza and Gull beers, but they both hit the spot.  We all fell asleep to the sound of rain on the van.

Can we top a glacier? Possibly, since day 3 has a surprise ending…

Long Weekend in Iceland: Day 1

We arrived at Keflavik early on Saturday morning, tired from a shitty, overly warm flight from Boston that had no air.  After we made our way through the maze that was the airport—mistakenly ending up in a departure area where we couldn’t even buy a coffee—we found our way out and stopped for “breakfast” in what amounted to an airport 7-11, and then we waited around until it was time to pick up our van.

We had decided to rent a van to camp around Iceland for the long Labor Day weekend, taking advantage of some flight deals and also going during a bit of an off-season.  This was also the first time LeeAnne and I had traveled with others, as our friends Beth and Andy were able to join us for the long weekend—somewhat of a feat, as convincing Beth to spend three nights in a camper van wasn’t the easiest thing to do.

When it was finally time, we hauled our stuff across the Keflavik parking lot to Go Iceland, the van rental company.  This included not only our bags, but also the case of beer and bottle of Laphroaig we’d picked up in Duty Free.  Since alcohol is so heavily taxed, it makes sense to stock up in the airport rather than buy it along the route (although we ended up doing both, because beer).

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Lunch of champions

Our first stop was a local grocery store Bonus to pick up food for the trip (everything is expensive in Iceland), and also to stop at an adjoining restaurant for sandwiches, pastries, and more coffee. After loading up, we headed out, admiring the constant countryside despite every minute being overcast and threatening rain (and often delivering).

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The group at Saljandsfoss

Other than needing to camp at Skaftafell campground, we had no plans for the day.  After some driving, we happened upon Seljandsfoss waterfall, which looked nice, so we hopped out to stretch our legs and take some pictures.  The weather was cool and cloudy—but still bright—which is ideal for me.  After a quick trip to the waterfall, we hopped back on the road until we came to the next one: Skogafoss.

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Climbing to the top of Skogafoss

As far as famous waterfalls in Iceland go, Skogafoss is right up there near the top of the list, thought the waterfall itself isn’t nearly as impressive as what’s behind it.  Even though it started to rain, we climbed the metal staircase next to the falls to get to the top.  What I expected to only be a view from the top turned out to be so much more: behind the falls, winding for what seemed like forever, was a beautiful path next to cliffs surrounding the river that lead to the falls.  Even with the rain, the area was magical: it felt like you could walk all day and around every bend would be a different view of something incredible to look at.  Being in the rain, not liking heights; none of it seemed to matter back there.

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Behind Skogafoss

We eventually made our way down, soaked, as the rain let up.  We decided to stop into the adjacent restaurant at Hotel Skogafoss for some drinks and snacks as we waited to dry out.  I started with an Icelandic beer I loved, Lava, a smoked imperial stout from Olvisholt brewery.  Despite being able to get it in Philly (and for less money than in Iceland), I had to drink it in its home.  I also tried a Snorri No. 10 from Borg Brewery based solely on the fact that a friend has a cat named Snorri.

We continued on and happened upon Laufskálavarða, which was incredibly creepy at first glance.  Hundreds of small rock stacks line the field, looking a bit like something out of the Blair Witch Project.  A sign nearby says the area used to be a farm, but was wiped out in the first recorded eruption of the volcano Katla in 849. Now, travelers add a rock to a pile for good luck—and from the looks of things, there had been plenty of people with good luck.  The rock stacks went on in all directions.

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Laufskálavarða – silent, cloudy, a little creepy

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Amongst the rock piles

We finally pulled into Skaftafell campground as it was getting dark, converting the middle of the van to a small kitchen area with a table to have our dinner: bread with peanut butter, grapes, Gull beer, and Laphroaig.  The back end of the van then converted to a bed, with the top popping out to make a top bunk as well, so all four of us could sleep.  We tucked in for the night, exhausted from a full day, with more to come tomorrow.

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Cheers to a first day and a hearty van dinner

Note: The van from Go Iceland was really incredible, and included everything you could imagine.  Pillows, sleeping bags, a small electric stovetop, a refrigerator, cups and silverware and other camping gear, and 5 GB of wifi (which the four of us weren’t able to use up on our trip).  It made the trip so much more comfortable and enjoyable than I would have expected.

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Our two-bedroom home away from home (in the rain)

The featured image is courtesy of Beth Blinebury.

See how we fare on day two.

7 Places to Eat in Budapest

In between trying out as many Easter markets as we could, we fit in a surprising number of restaurants on our recent trip to Budapest.  And I could have eaten at many more—at the time my great-grandfather was born in Slovakia, it was the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so the food very closely mimics much of what I have been eating my entire life.  Especially the stuffed cabbage, which is a family favorite and something I tried at every opportunity in Budapest.  Among many, many other things.

1. Paprika Vendéglő

Being a short walk from Keleti, the main train station in Budapest, Paprika makes for a great first or last stop in the city. The corner restaurant doesn’t look like much from the outside, but inside is fashioned to look like an old country home, with cozy traditional Hungarian food to match.  This was our final meal in Budapest, so I’d already tried most of the local food and, with a train ride to Bratislava on the horizon, didn’t want to overdo it, so I only tried to goulash over spaetzel, which was delicious.  The place was packed, so be prepared to either wait or go during off-hours.  Dozsa Gyoergy ut 72, Budapest 1071

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2. Belvárosi Disznótoros

This one was care of Anthony Bourdain, and with a name that translates to “Downtown Pig Slaughter,” it’s not hard to see why.  One half of the counter is food that is ready to go and be plated up right away, the other half is a selection of marinated meats that they will cook to order—though you have to order from each counter separately, which can be confusing.  We stuck with the ready-to-go food and ate upstairs (where it was hard to find a seat), feasting on a pile of red cabbage, mashed potatoes, sausage, pickles, and a healthy schmear of mustard.  I opted for blood sausage, which was delicious, though like all Eastern European food, the meal was extremely heavy.  Be ready to nap afterwards. Király ut 1d, Budapest 1075

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3. Szimpla Kert

Budapest is known for its “ruin bars”—cheap drink spots that pop up in old, rundown spaces—and Szimpla Kert is the original and most well-known of them.  Tucked into the Jewish Quarter, the spot offers plenty of options for cheap beer and a relaxed place to hang out for a night.  There are food options (as well as a weekly farmer’s market), but the real draw here is the drinking.  Swing by with some friends—or to make some friends—before or after your meal. Kazinczy ut 14, Budapest 1075

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4. Hungarikum Bisztró

Another restaurant offering traditional Hungarian food in a quaint checkered-tablecloth setting, Hungarikum Bisztró was still well worth stopping by.  It felt almost as if we were eating in someone’s home.  I, of course, had the stuffed cabbage (and immediately fell in love with the Hungarians’ propensity for topping everything with incredible amounts of fresh sour cream), which turned out to be the best stuffed cabbage I’ve ever had.  We also tried the Hungarian spaetzel and sausage, braided pork loin with spaetzel and paprika sauce, and our first sample of langós—fried bread with various toppings—that had me searching it out at every opportunity afterwards.  Whether it’s because we had just come from a long wine tasting or because it really was that good, this was one of the best meals we had our entire time in Budapest. Steindl Imre ut 13, Budapest 1051

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5. Faust Wine Cellar

Located below the Hilton in the Buda Castle District, the stairs to this small wine cave lead through the remnants of a 13 century Dominican Cloister.  The atmosphere could not be better or more relaxed as one of the proprietors, Gabor, pours you Hungarian wine and explains the varietal and where you can find the region on a map.  I would strongly recommend going for the full tasting of 9 wines (which comes with water and small snacks), which also has the final option of a “call back” so you can re-taste your favorite.  Needless to say, these were all new wines to me and I learned quite a bit (and reinforced my love for the Hungarian sweet wine Tokaji). There are very few tables, so I would strongly recommend booking in advance, which you can do for 2pm or 5pm.  The 5pm booking is especially nice when you leave and walk out into the castle district at dusk, slightly buzzed, and take in the lighted beauty of the area. Hess András tér 1, Budapest 1014

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6. Café Ruszwurm

Also in the Buda Castle District, this small pastry shop seems to always be packed, so be ready to hang around and vulture a seat when someone gets up.  The wait is worth it, though, for some solid coffee and amazing pastry—especially Ruszwurm‘s cream cake.  The cream cake is a cooked egg cream mixed with vanilla and then cooled and mixed with whipped cream, making it one of the fluffiest, most delicious cakes I’ve ever had.  Cake isn’t even an apt description—more like “clouds between phyllo.” This is easily one of my fondest food memories from our trip, and should be considered a must-have.  We also tried the caramel cake, which was layers of caramel custard cream between layers of salty, chocolate sponge cake.  While fantastic, this was overshadowed by the cream cake. Szentháromság ut 7, Budapest 1014

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7. Great Market Hall

If you’re not quite sure what you want, swing by the Great Market Hall, where you’ll be able to get anything that catches your eye.  There are a bunch of touristy stands with knick-knacks and Budapest shirts, but there are also tons of food stalls, selling anything you would imagine a market would sell (and now may be a good time to pick up some paprika).  Upstairs there are some quality food stands, and a lot that feature langós with a variety of toppings to add on.  A great way to get a quick meal and also do some quality browsing and shopping. Vámház krt. 1-3, Budapest 1093

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Decisions, decisions.

36 Hours in Copenhagen

Ahead of our whirlwind tour of Stockholm, we spent the first part of our long weekend in Copenhagen—another 36 or so hours of trying to fit in as much as we could in a short amount of time.  We’d found an AirBNB in the Vesterbro district central to pretty much everything—about two blocks from the train station and, more importantly, even closer to Mikkeller’s flagship pub.  Once again, though, we were jam-packed with things to do, but not having much downtime doesn’t really matter when you’re in such a cool city.

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There was a slight mix-up with the key to the apartment, so after we had to duck into the sex shop on the corner to use their wifi, we parked ourselves at Mikkeller for an hour or so to wait it out—and it’s amazing how quickly an hour of waiting can go by when you’re drinking some world-class beer.  The place is small and can get pretty packed, but there is plenty of outdoor seating to supplement.  The bartenders were very nice and knowledgeable, and the beer, of course, was tops. This should be a must for any trip to Copenhagen.

Meatpacking District

Close by is a rehabbed former meatpacking district, which now houses a small pedestrian area and numerous bars and restaurants.  We took our chances of walking up to Kødbyens Fiskebar—a seafood restaurant with numerous accolades and owned by a protégé of Noma’s René Redzepi.  For anyone not familiar with Noma, regularly listed as the world’s best restaurant, this is a pretty impressive claim—which is why it was surprising that we were seated outside almost immediately.  And the food did not disappoint—fresh fish (with the location of where the fish was caught) with preparations that seemed simple but were incredibly detailed.  We had brown crab with smoked cheese, burnt herbs, and salted green strawberries; seared mullet with baby corn, chanterelles, and chicken skin; and bleak roe with baby carrots, buckthorn, and quail egg—among other things.

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After a very fulfilling meal peppered with plenty of local beers, we headed across the way for a nightcap at War Pigs, a collaboration brewery between Mikkeller and lauded American brewery Three Floyds.  The place is also an American barbecue restaurant, but unfortunately we were too full to do anything but enjoy the intense beers on offer, which included a lingonberry Berliner weisse, a double IPA, and a triple black IPA.

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After this, we figured it would be a good idea to keep drinking, so we stopped at Bollyfood, an Indian restaurant with large carpeted pallets out front.  We stretched out on the pallets and ordered a few cheap Kingfisher beers to close out the night before stumbling back to our AirBNB.

Walking Tour

The next morning, we got up early to grab some coffee and catch a free walking tour.  Once again, the tour was excellent, with probably the best tour guide we’ve ever had.  The guy was quick, witty, and incredibly funny.  We saw the major sights, learned about Copenhagen and Denmark, and got a crash course on what hygge (pronounced hoo-gah) means—a major part of living in Denmark involves being “hyggely.”  I can’t stress enough what a great way these tours are to see a city, especially if you do it early and then can pick and choose what you’d like more facetime with.  Even once you give your guide a tip (it’s really not a free tour, nor should it be), the tours are a great value. After the tour, on our way back to the apartment, we walked down the famous pedestrian street Strøget and stopped by the flagship LEGO store—something I’d been dreaming of since I was six.

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We also stopped by the touristically crowded Nyhavn, the small shipping port with brightly colored houses that is as photogenic as it gets.  Pictures always turn out well, but be warned that it is probably the most tourist-heavy spot in the city, so it will always be crowded.

Paper Island/Reffen

We stopped for lunch at Copenhagen Street Food on Paper Island, a small island across a pedestrian bridge from the city which housed a warehouse full of 50+ street food vendors.  The place was incredibly popular and packed, but we were still able to walk around and make the very difficult decision of what to eat, which turned out to be some local loaded hot dogs.  Unfortunately, the lease for this place was only temporary and had to be closed down.  The same concept opened on a similar island a little farther from the city under the name Reffen.  If it is anything like the original, it will be well worth visiting—especially if you make a day of it.  The new island, Refshaleøen, is full of places to eat and shop and things to do.

Tivoli Gardens

For our final night in Denmark, we stopped by Tivoli Gardens, as it was only a few blocks from our apartment.  It is the second-oldest operating amusement park in the world, having opened in 1843, but doesn’t feel antiquated in any way.  There are modern roller coasters and rides, though on a much smaller scale than most places, and lots of green space to hang out.  We wandered around the grounds—we weren’t really there for any thrill rides—and happened upon one of the oddest sights of all our travels: a version of Cinderella set to Danish techno music.  It was weirdly amusing, but we stayed til the end.

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Smørrebrød

While in Denmark, a must-try is the Danish smørrebrød, which is a native open-faced sandwich on dark rye bread.  We stopped at popular local café Mad & Kaffe for one of our meals to try a variety of the sandwiches, and they were all excellent.  We had one piled high with avocado, one with chicken salad, another with fish and pickles, and a fourth that was heavy on the bacon.  We split them all, and I would definitely eat it again—if I had to compare it to the perceived hipster lifeblood avocado toast, I would say smørrebrød comes out ahead every time.

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It’s not hard to see why Copenhagen and Denmark consistently make it to the top of “happiest people” lists and the like—the city was incredibly friendly, walkable, and just all-around pleasant to be in.  Any city that places more emphasis on pedestrians and cyclists than it does motorists will always get a thumbs-up from me, and if you throw in excellent food and some top-notch beer, I’d be happy to go back.  And while the city can be expensive, the day-and-a-half we spent there will never be long enough.  I can’t wait to go back.