Sunday, March 29, 2015

Thanksgiving and Christmas in Europe!

The holidays are difficult when you're separated from your family by an ocean.  It sucks to not take part in all of the family traditions, but we do realize we're lucky to live in Germany during the internet age and have the ability to FaceTime even if you have to take turns talking or you miss what the other person says (in case Apple is reading this).  If you can't go back home, take advantage of living in Europe and travel to a new place!  We chose Berlin and Rome for our holidays this past year. 
Thanksgiving - Berlin
We knew we'd be missing feasting on Turkey and all the side dishes you only eat once a year, so we decided to go to Berlin.  This city is filled with an amazing food scene run by expats.  I received most of my recommendations from my friend who has a mouth-watering travel and food blog called Leap.  Each day we soaked in a little bit of WWII history and stuffed our faces with amazing AMERICAN food!  Berlin was an important trip for us.  Berlin has an incredible amount of history from Hitler's reign to his fall to the communist rule of East Berlin.  At the time I was reading Killing Patton and had previously seen one of the best movies ever made, The Lives of Others.  Funny story - I was on a trans-Atlantic flight eight years ago and thought I was choosing a Freddy Prince Junior movie but accidentally chose The Lives of Others.  The subtitles should have been the first clue that it wasn't a Freddy movie.  After ten minutes, I was still confused where Freddy was, but I was hooked on an anything but funny-romance comedy. 
  1. If you're anything like me you waste a few hours of your life searching for the best hotels with the best rates on  I'm not saying I don't LOVE that site - it just gets a little frustrating at times.  So, for the first time ever we tried the "Secret Hot Rate" through Hotwire.  You just put your dates in and they bring up hotels and a tab with "Secret Hot Rate".  From there you're able to pick your location, price range, hotel star rating, cringe a little when you hit the submit button (this is non-refundable at this point), and voila you have a hotel!  We stayed in a 3 star hotel located across from a metro stop in Potsdamer Platz.  Suite Novotel Berlin Potsdamer Platz
  2. We enjoyed the Third Reich Tour.  We walked and bused around the city for three hours looking at historical sites and hearing about the rise and fall of the Third Reich. It's best to do this tour on one of your first days, so you can decide what to go back and see.  Oh, and if it's below freezing make sure to wear wool socks or Uggs NOT your cute walking heels. #frozentoes
  3. The Reichstag Dome is awesome and totally worth going up even in the middle of winter.  I'm not sure what they were thinking building an open dome in northern Germany where it is freezing 6 months out of the year.  Make sure to reserve tickets early and bring your passport because you will need it to get through security.  Book your free tickets ASAP to ensure you get tickets.
  4. We were able to snag really cheap train tickets by taking advantage of a great promotion Deutsche Bahn was running in November for their Bahn Card 25.  This card gives you 25% off all train tickets.  It normally costs 62 Euro for a year membership, but the special allowed you to buy a 3 month version of the card for 20 Euro and a friend would get it free. Check and see if they are running the special (fur mich / fur dich) before you buy and as always with any German subscription you must go in person and write a statement saying you want it to be shut off 6 weeks before they automatically renew your membership. 
  5. We also used the "Saver fare finder" tab to see the train times for the cheapest tickets.  It's only a 5 hour drive to Berlin, but it was nice to relax on the train instead of sit in a stau (German word for traffic jam) for once.  

    Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

    Brandenburg Gate

    Thanksgiving happy hour at The Bird!!!

    Inside the Reichstag Dome

    Blocks where the wall once stood downtown

    Did I mention that it was cold?
    The wall outside of the Topography of Terrors Museum

    Checkpoint Charlie
Christmas - Rome
We were a bit nervous about doing this trip because we were riddled with rumors that there would be nothing to eat, the crowds would be unbearable, and nothing would be open.  It was the complete opposite - We ate amazing food, had an unforgettable Christmas Eve Mass experience, saw Pope Francis, and were able to visit all of the sites in Rome! 
  1. First off, let's be real people, there's always a donor shop open - even on Christmas Eve in Rome.  
  2. If you want to be inside St. Peter's Basilica for Christmas Eve mass you must plan the summer before and mail in your free tickets request.  If you're last minute planners like us, then you will still have a holy experience in St. Peter's Square with 80,000 of your closest Catholics (Any SEC fans out there catch my reference?) and see Pope Francis on the jumbo-tron.  
  3. The "midnight" Christmas Eve mass in Rome starts at 9:30PM.  Our plane landed at 8:30 and we were so nervous we would miss it, but we arrived at 9:30PM with the masses and still got in!
  4. At 11:30AM on Christmas Day Pope Francis comes out to give his apostolic blessing "Urbi et Orbi."  Arrive at least a half hour early, so you can see him on the balcony. 
  5. The Basilica, Vatican, and most attractions are closed on Christmas Day, so take a walk to the Spanish Steps, the Trevi Fountain, or any other monument that's outside.  Plus Rome is gorgeous at Christmas with different lights on every street.  Many restaurants were open on Christmas Day (apparently not everyone in Rome is Christian - shocker, I know), so we still ate great pasta!   
  6. We stayed a few blocks from the Vatican at the ABC Bed and Breakfast Roma.  They can arrange for a driver to pick you up from the airport for a fee of 40 Euro.  Since we weren't pressed for time on the way home, we took a bus that leaves from the main train station back to the airport. 

It gave me goose bumps walking into St. Peter's Square on Christmas Eve

Pope Francis!

The Spanish Steps

The Colosseum

The Roman Forum

Michelangelo's La Pieta

The alter at St. Peter's Basilica
Christmas 2014
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