Oktoberfest – no Ticket needed

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On any Euro trip bucket list is a trip to the famed Oktoberfest. Seasoned veterans of Germany’s fests know that Munich is just one of the many city’s in Germany who throw this annual fest. You can stop into nearly any major town and join the ranks of beer tables, wenches and schnitzel – but none of course are as crazy and famed as Munich.

If you have started to look into going you’ll quickly realize that to actually have a seat at the table and a place to stay, much of your planning needs to have been done at least a year out. Fear not! I have been to Munich’s Oktoberfest twice, with no prior planning and was able to easily get into a tent with having a ticket ahead of time. Here are the tips you need to follow to ensure you do.

GETTING INTO A TENT WITH NO TICKET

To guarantee a seat you do have to have a ticket, which get snapped up early BUT there are open seats which often have some of the better locations — you just have to show up early enough to grab them.

  1. Go early – 1100-1200 when everything first opens
  2. Pick any tent – they are all awesome (maybe pick the tent with your favorite beer as that is what you will be drinking all night)
  3. Avoid going on opening weekend or weekends in general (don’t worry, any day of the week is still a party)
  4. Be prepared to stick it out for a few hours until the party gets warmed up. (We brought cards until the band goes on about 2pm when things start going)

I have been to Oktoberfest twice and both times we were easily able to get into a tent with no ticket. In fact, we ditched the tickets we did have for the better seats we were able to get.

FINDING A PLACE TO STAY

This can also be problematic when hordes of tourists come in over this festive time period. Choosing a non-weekend will help with this one, also try Airbnb or couchsurfing. Expect prices to be higher than normal, but don’t feel the need to stay near the Oktoberfest site. With the great public transportation in Munich, opt for a farther out hotel than is walking distance to the bahnhof and you are golden.

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WHAT TO WEAR

Do drop money on a dirndl and/or lederhosen. Even if Germany is just day 1 of 20 days backpacking Europe, you will find a future use for them, even if its Halloween the next year. I regret not just dropping money to buy them at my first fest; literally everyone is in traditional gear, get one too to fit in as part of the crowd.

A genuine leather, highly quality dirndl and/or lederhosen will run you close to $300, but there are cheaper options you can pick-up in town for closer to $100. Grabbing one in Munich is the easiest option as everyone will selling them. I personally, rented a costume from a party store for $20…not the best costume in the crowd but it was the cheapest option.

Oktoberfest (like any drink fest) is what you make it. You can sing late into the evening, dancing on tables, with a massive hangover the next day, or you can keep it to 1-2 steins and still remember that German you talked to the night before.  The people you go with and meet will make or break the party no matter the tent.

Enjoy Oktoberfest, prost!

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Exploring the regal charm of Loire Valley

A region set on the banks of the Loire river southwest of Paris, Loire valley has long been adored by the likes of Leonardo di Vinci, King Louis XI through XVI and now revered by modern tourists looking for a glimpse into this regal past. Loire valley is also an expansive wine region with many mini-wine appellations to explore. With so much to do in this 100 mile region, it can be hard to pair down priority must sees.

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We had 4 days in this stunning region, but that is not nearly enough time. At a minimum a week is required to enjoy this beautiful part of France, but if you, like me, has limited money and time – below is how we decided to hit all the ‘must sees’ of the region without rushing through what should be a relaxing trip in the sun.

First things first, lets prioritize what you must see, do and taste. Top experiences include: biking from châteaux to châteaux, wine tasting in one of the many small vineyards and visiting the grand homes of people richer than me.

Now, how to do all of these things in 4 days? Here’s how we did it.

Where to stay

Choosing where to stay is extremely difficult. Many sites recommend starting on one side of the valley (near Angers) and stay at another location on the other end (near Orleans) to be able to close to all the attractions. With limited time, however, this is simply not possible.

Wanting to bike, wine and château we chose to stay in Montlois-sur-Loire – if you want to do all of these things as well, I highly recommend choosing a location somewhere between Tours and Blois. This allows you to be within biking distance of Amboise, Vouvray, Chenonceau château (for the ambitious) and 30 min driving distance to Villandry, Tours, Blois and Chambord.

Note: I also looked at the towns of Chinon and Saumur. For cabernet franc lovers, Chinon can be tempting however it is a bit out of the way for seeing the main châteaus. Biking to anywhere relevant can be tough from these locations if you are trying to see as much as possible and keep sites to day trips 

Within walking distance of its own local winery, right on the bike path and with stunning views overlooking the Loire river, I highly recommend staying where we stayed – in a renovated 19th century château.

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Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes

7 Rue de Bondesir, 37270 Montlouis-sur-Loire, France

How to get around

To see the most without relying on tour buses – rent a car. There is public transportation available from the major towns of Tours (best one if you want to stay in a city), Orleans & Angers but getting to the château’s without hoping on a tour bus will be difficult. If you want to avoid driving then staying in Tours or Blois will allow you to easily book trips to the main sites as well as local bike hire. Many accommodations also provide free bike use (ours did).

We drove or biked to nearby towns, châteaus and small vineyards, but did elect to hire a professional for our half day wine tour from Tours to Chinon. We drove to Tours (for ease of purchasing wine) but we could have easily  biked from Montlouis.

What to do

Wine tasting was at the top of my list. I had a grand idea to bike from vineyard to vineyard, which is easily done on your own without booking a tour. Check out the wine route.

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But again, with limited time (and the desire to buy multiple cases) we opted for a half day tour through viator – Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. Cheaper than the $150pp individualized tours, it was informative but did not cover as much of the wine region as I would have preferred. If you are a wino, splurge on a personalized wine trip. If not, go with viator as it is a good overview and great way to see Chinon.

Château’s was the next item on my list – but there are so many! With entrance fees at each one and over 13 to choose from, we limited our trips to Villandry, Chambord & Chenonceau. Reviews add that Amboise and Blois are also worth seeing, but I do have to say that after 1 or 2…we were good on the life of the rich and dead. Out of those three, I enjoyed Villandry the most for its stunning gardens, pictured below.

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Your sample 4 day itinerary

Smoosh all this recommended stuff together and you have a great mix of wine, food and exploration.

Day 1: Get there + Chambord  – stay at charming Chateau de Bondesir – Chambres d’hôtes and have dinner at La Cave (walking distance from Bondesir)

Day 2: Villandry in the morning, Chinon small group wine tasting from Tours. in the afternoon

Day 3: Cycle from Montlouis sur loire to Amboise, explore the château and cycle back. Make it back before 6pm and go to the local Cave des producteurs for Chenin blanc and sparking wine then move on to nearby town of Vouvary for more wine tasting.

Note on cycling the region: It is easily done. Paths are well marked and take you through country roads or bike only paths. Just visit the local tourist office for directions and a map – there is no need to book a paid tour, it is well made for tourists unfamiliar with the region

Day 4: Round out your wondrous trip with the finale of all châteausChenonceau and then head on home!

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Happy travels!

 

Norway in a Nutshell

Not many know that one of the worlds most expensive places to live and travel also used to be one of the poorest in Europe just 50 years ago. The rough terrain, small population and northern cold location also meant that much of the country has preserved many of its traditional ways of living as well as its natural beauty.
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One of the best ways to see Norway in all its beauty is to do the Norway in a Nutshell trip from Oslo to Bergen. It encompasses the best parts of Norway including boat trips through the majestic Sognefjord,  UNESCO world heritage Flåm Railway and concludes in Bergen the second largest city in Norway and also a good way to hop out of the country or onto your next destination.
Depending on the season, there are many ways to customize this classic route without doing the set organized tours although either option will cost you about the same. We chose to make our own itinerary, which is easily done, to allow a bit more time in the famous Fjord country (most tours will complete the nutshell in a day or so).
We started our trip out in Oslo. A modern, relatively small city it encompasses all the smooth design and modernity that one would expect from a Nordic country. The highlights included the Oslo Opera house, designed by famous Norwegian architect Snøhetta, National Museum which holds “the Scream” by Edvard Munch along with a number of national art treasurers and Holmenkollen Ski Museum and tower a unique shrine to the sport of skiing.
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Leg 1 Oslo —> Myrdal
The train from Oslo to Myrdal takes about 5hours. To complete the nutshell journey in a day you will need to take one of the first trains out. Tickets are easily booked online via NSB website
Leg 2 Myrdal –> Flåm
This is the part where the journey gets interesting. You can easily purchase tickets from Myrdal to Flåm at the train station. During the summer months trains leave regularly and the process is built for non-Nordic tourists. Details on schedules can be found at the flamsbana website.
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Leg 3 Flåm –> Gudvangen —> Voss
This is where you need to take a pause and take in the beauty.
If you are trying to complete the journey in a day, you can easily hope off the Flamsbana and walk into the tourist office to purchase ferry tickets to continue on your journey. Ferry times can be found here. There is also a speed boat option that can take you from Flåm straight to Bergen (the end of the journey) with some key stops along the way. Using this route you skip the bus and train end of the journey and get to your final destination much quicker. Note that it only runs in the summer months.
The bus ticket from Gudvangen to Voss can be purchased right as you enter. This is a well trotted tourist route so it is easily seen across the street once you exit the ferry.
Where to stay on your Nutshell route
If you have a bit more time, I recommend an overnight stay in either Balestrand or Undredal rather than the overly touristy town of Flåm. These small villages are only accessible via ferry and have limited transportation schedules depending on the season. If you go in winter/off-season, then it may be difficult to access these remote parts of the fjord, but you will also miss the hoards of tourists that infiltrate the countryside June-July-August.
With limited ferry options, we traveled in January and spent 2 nights in Flåm (a ghost town in this time of year) at Flam Marina & Apartments.  I splurged on a room that faced the Sognefjord and do not regret a second of it.
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There are a few other options in the town. We were very limited on where we could stay – if traveling in winter, start 1 Feb rather than January as you will have more options. But no matter where you stay, it is all within eyesight of the pristine waters of Sognefjord – you really cant go wrong.
Fretheim – This would have been my choice had it been open when we were visiting. It is an old farmhouse converted into an inn
Kviknes hotel – Upscale accommodation in Balestrand. Sunning scenery in the middle of the Fjord
What to do on your Nutshell route
Although tours are limited in this time of year, we were able to secure a snowshoeing trek through Fjord Safari. Our local guide, Steve, was absolutely amazing – down to earth with an incredible insight into how the locals live since he was one himself. As 1 of 80 inhabitants in the municipality of Aurland, he and his family continue on a century long tradition of goat herding and cheese making. Owning 30K+ acres of mountain landscape, the boundaries between Steve and his neighbors are kept only by the flow of the water. If it flows to the right it is the neighbors land, to the left was his. As we trekked up and down the snowy hillside, he told us stories of how he took his children up into plumbing-less cabins and skied with them down the mountainside. Every year he takes his herd to graze in summer starting in about June, lets them loose and then corrals them up again around September.
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In this part of the world, goats out number people. Only about 1750 people call this place home. It is especially known for a special kind of cheese, called “Brunost” or Brown Cheese, which is made from the whey usually discarded in the curdling, cheese making process. They prepare it by baking the whey cheese until it caramelizes creating a rather sweet taste that is distinctly different from normal goat cheese.
Climbing up the stunning mountainside, I wondered to myself if I could ever live as the locals do. Where everyone literally knows everyone, your 2nd & 3rd cousins are your neighbors. The local school only goes up to grade 9 and has a grand total of 60 children, combined in all the grades. It is definitely not made for a young adult, but a perfect world to bring up younger children. It is probably good that there isn’t a High School in the town as by that age I am sure the teens would become restless and wreck havoc on the perfect peaceful town.
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After adventuring through natures play ground, you can continue on to Bergen via the ferry –> bus –> and then back on the NSB national train from Voss –> Bergen or take the speed boat option mentioned above. If done in a day, the whole journey from Oslo to Bergen can be completed in around 12 hours.
Whatever your route, whichever your favorite stop enjoy this gorgeous, UNESCO world heritage country!
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Western Europe

I am married to a Scot, have lived two years in Northern England and lived three years in Belgium. Although I would not say that Europe has been the most ‘life changing’ place to live, it is certainly one of the best in terms of quality of life. Relatively inexpensive and easily traversed for a fellow western traveler, it is where I would recommend to start your worldly venture – although I encourage you to not stop there.

A place little thought of by many western travelers (Americans), although it is growing with our British cousins, is Eastern Europe. If you are looking for something that is a bit off the beaten path, but still within the continent I encourage you to try the former Yugoslavian countries in addition to your classic Croatia, Hungry and Czech Republic. You can read about some of these adventures here.

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Click on the links to the right to check out each story by country including recommended must do’s. For the latest trip intel on this awesome region steeped in history click here.

If you are looking for tips on dos and don’ts of a country you are looking at visiting please feel free to drop any questions in the comments box below.

Have fun exploring!!

 

Switzerland itinerary

DSC_0600Where to start in this land of sweeping natural beauty? With limited time and so many ‘must sees’, I relied heavily on top 10 recommendations. But even wading through that was difficult. See below for how we made the most of our 10 days in this stunning country.

Where to start?  Go in the summer and head to the alps

The Alps stretch over much of the country and there are various famous walks, and ski villages (winter is of course another key time to go). Trekking across the Alps is on my bucket list, but without a few weeks to explore it was difficult to pick a region to focus on. Out of all the areas to stay I recommend picking either  Grindelwald or Lauterbrunnen in the Bernese Oberland. More particularly, you should focus on the Jungfrau Region

Interlocken is a favorite among backpackers, but largely touristy. Grindelwald and Lauterbrunnen are the last two towns you can get to by car; the remaining movement must be done via public transport or foot. If you are looking for something more off the beaten track then Murren or Wengen are your go to places. We had a car (cheaper than taking the train, but not necessarily easier) so Lauterbrunnen was our first choice.

Schützenbach Backpackers & Camping  Schützenbach, Lauterbrunnen, 3822, Switzerland

*Cheap, clean and central this large ground is ideal for large groups. Check-in time is  limited so make sure you arrive within their window

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Day 1: Gondola up to Schilthorn, have a rest at Piz Gloria and hike back down

Have your Shaken Not Stirred Martini at the Piz Gloria, home of the 1969 Bond film Her Majesty’s Secret Service then walk it all off on the way down the mountain side. This trip can be done in a day. Recommend making reservations at the restaurant to guarantee placement; you will not regret the views.

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Day 2: Travel up to Jungfraujoch – Top of Europe

This leg for us was the most touristy and way overpriced, but at the same time a must do for anyone claiming to have visited the Swiss Alps.

Day 3+: Complete the classic First – Schynige Platte hike

If you choose any hike in the Bernese Oberland region, this is an absolute must. There are loads of ways to break the 10m hike down to something shorter, but the full walk is something not to be skipped. For all those that are as concerned as I am about reading confusing elevation, hiking maps fear not – all trails are well marked and extremely easy to follow. This region was made for tourists.

Note: Getting a train Travel Pass is absolutely worth it if you will be staying in the region for 3 days or more. It is only eligible for certain times of the year however, so a secondary option is to buy the 50% ticket which discounts your pricy train travel as well.

You could spend weeks in this region of Switzerland and still not get enough. The views are jaw dropping, the air is clear and the people wonderful. If you have time, plan at least a week in this area and do a few more extensive trips – maybe even an overnight in one of the well maintained huts along the alps. You will not regret it. If you are limited on time as I was, then hitting these top 3 will at least get you the experience of the alps.

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After the Alps, head to the Swiss Rivera with a key stop at Gruyere for some of the local delicacy as well as a taste of Switzerland’s national dish: fondue.

Day 4: Gruyere

If you have time I would stay at least 1 night in the town of Gruyere. Home to not only the famous cheese, but a gorgeous medieval town set on the hillside in the middle of sprawling green hills.

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Day 5: Montreux, Chillon Castle and wine

You can stay on many little towns and villages along Lake Geneva. We chose the biggest of the cities, Montreux. Famous for its immaculate promenade, I chose a hotel that had views of the lake, and was within walking distance of Chillon Castle. A must when staying here is to walk the promenade to this ancient castle set on the backdrop of the Alps.

Golf Hotel Rene Capt, Rue Bon Port 33-35, Montreux, 1820, Switzerland

If you can time your trip around July, the famous Montreux Jazz festival fills this Rivera town with life. Though it is not a stranger to famous artists; Queen famously made this town a home where they recorded a majority of their albums along with a number of other famous guest artists including David Bowie.

Swiss wine is less known than chocolate or cheese yet it can compete with its neighboring France and Germany for crisp whites. If you have time, explore the promenade and add a wine excursion to your list of Must Do’s.

Day 6: Geneva and CERN

More international than Swiss, Geneva is home to the UN and boasts CERN – a cutting edge laboratory famous for its discovery of the ‘God particle’. Those physics enthusiasts will want to take a tour of the facility, though book in advance as it fills up quickly.

To round out the trip, circle around the edge  of the country ending up in the gorgeous town of Lucerne

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Home of the best skiing/winter sports in the world, it is just as gorgeous in the summer months. Being in the Southern part of the country and close to Italy, I had to cut this city out though winter sports enthusiasts might not make the same call. I would say if you are short on time and looking for an Alpine adventure, Jungfrau is the most central location to base the remaining part of your trip

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Zurich vs. St. Gallen

We stayed in Zurich and hit the Lindt chocolate outlet along with a few guild festivals. Unless you are in love with cities, I would skip Zurich and stay instead in the ancient town of St. Gallen. Close to the German/Lichtenstein border the ancient town is significantly less expensive and is steeped in history. From there you can bounce to Rhine Falls , the largest waterfall in Europe. Though anyone who has marveled at the likes of Niagara or Victoria falls might want to skip this modest show of nature.

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Lucerne

If you make it to the Bernese Oberland, Lucerene is an easy addition to your trip. Boasting a series of cable car musts it is also another ancient city steeped in history. Take the paddle boat ride through the lake, explore the nine towers of Lucerne, and learn about how the order of the guild used to run the country (and in some cases still does).

 

No matter where you choose to go in this gorgeous country you cannot go wrong. Put on your hiking boots, bring your cash and breath the fresh Alpine air!

 

 

Viva Ibiza

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There are times in your life when you are slowly approaching an age when you shouldn’t really be seen doing certain things anymore (at least not by American standards). Partying all night in Ibiza would be one of those said activities…so why not as a last stitch effort to grasp the last few hours of your youth, go there for your 30th birthday?! (not mine of course, I have a few years left before I am forced to be responsible)

Partying in Ibiza has an infamous reputation for being not only fun, but spring-break-style crazy. I can say we checked all the boxes: 1  – Partied VIP style @ Pacha night club – to David Guetta; 2 – Watch the sun come up whilst reveling at the night you just had; 3 – Day drank aboard a 20-something party boat; 4 – Nursed David Guetta hangovers poolside, margarita in hand

The verdict? As a now seasoned party goer of nearly a decade (ug that’s when you know you should switch to water), Ibiza is as crazy as you want it to be. As is so many ‘party’ type events, you really make the party along with the people you are with. We stayed in Playa d’en Bossa at one of the luxury resorts (highly recommend – all inclusive and reasonably priced), however, old town Ibiza is stunning and has a lot more character.

We were also afraid of being the ‘oldest’ people there, but by far we were not. Lots of topless Spanish families donned the beaches making certain areas of Ibiza feel more like a family friendly place than this drug induced hipster island. Another highlight was the hippie market, which boasted hand crafted items from artists all over the island.

Looking at an epic trip to the island of sin? (as my father loves to refer to it) Below are some helpful links/tips:

http://www.ibiza-spotlight.com/night/ibiza_virgins_i.html

– Do go VIP – like everything else, you get what you pay for

– Do explore old town

– Do dress to impress, this is Ibiza afterall

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Noma

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Home of Hans Christian Anderson, the concept of hygge (which needs to be exported to the rest of the world) and Noma (named the best restaurant in the world), Denmark is exactly as you would imagine it. Windy, modern and wholly socialist, the country has built its own island(s) of happiness through its socialist economic policies and community living environments.

Comparable to Amsterdam with its canal waterways, iconic colourful row houses and open look to society (look up the town of Christiania and/or freetown), the highlight of visiting Copenhagen was our trip to Noma. Foodies be jealous — we did in fact get a reservation at the place and planned our entire Denmark trip around it.

imageNote: You too can get a reservation. Check their website for the next openings. For us, openings for May began in Feb on a certain day at a certain time. The system works in the form of a lottery because so many people log on at the same time. Upon signing in, you are assigned a random number upon logging on and have to wait your turn before making the reservation. You must log in precisely when the reservation opens however, because all slots (lunch & dinner) are completely filled within a few hours.

The meal itself is not for the light hearted. The meal is a 17 to 20 course food experiment for your mouth; to quote my husband’s impression of the experience: “there were just too many new foods all happening at the same time.”

Each couse is presented as a piece of artwork (of course) along with impeccable service (of course) and as much liquid as you can consume. Not one minute was your glass empty that it was being filled again; if you opt for the wine pairing along with the 17 courses (which why not when you are already dropping $300 per person on the meal), you get an unlimited supply of wine.  As you drink with the course, they refill. Both the meal and the wine pairings are a set price, so we attempted to get our moneys worth throughout the meal.

If you are curious (and/or a foodie) below is what they are serving this month:

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Fermented Wild plums and wild beach roses
Experience: Yummy; tart, light

Oland wheat and virgin butter (fancy name for amazing bread and butter)

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Asparagus, berries and seaweed
Experience: Light, bland

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The first shoots of the season with scallop marinade
Experience: YUM! I have no idea how they did this but most of leaves tasted like steak (maybe misplaced with charcoaled scallop marinade); don’t let the lettuce look fool you some of these were shallow fried and A-mazing

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Curdled milk and the first garlic of 2015
Experience: What’s not to like about cheese & garlic?

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Grilled onion with onion preserves
Experience: It looks like an onion, it tastes like an onion (with spices) – but the presentation was so pretty I almost didn’t want to eat it

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Sweet Shrimps wrapped in ramson leaves
Experience: Meh. light, shrimpy

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Mahogany clam and grains
Experience: This one was seriously awesome not because of the taste, but because of how old the clam was. This type of clam can age to be nearly 200 years old (they stop reproducing after 20-30 years); the one we had the pleasure of eating was nearly 100 years old

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New Danish potatoes and lovage
Experience: The best part about this dish was eating it with a branch. Pictured above is my husband, confused and just wanting a pizza and beer

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Monkfish liver
Experience: Well its liver. Rich, fishy – also served frozen, which I thought was interesting. Around this time my girlfriend and I got up for a bathroom break and were politely asked to try this course first, then go to the bathroom as it was meant to be eaten frozen/chilled and they didn’t want it to melt! (they take every course seriously)

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White asparagus, blackcurrent leaves and barley
Experience: A nice light change from the heavier monkfish liver; nothing spectacular in taste to note

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Lobster and nasturtium
Experience: While I enjoy lobster, it was surprisingly plain – would have liked some butter!

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Male and female lumpfish with whole milk
Experience: Rich! Very rich, but a good contrast to the lighter tasting lobster in the course prior

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Vegetable flower
Experience: Honestly, not only one of the prettiest things we ate, but one of the tastiest (and don’t let the word ‘vegetable’ fool you nothing in that flower tasted like a vegetable, more like a candy). I loved this one as well; what they tell you at the restaurant is that it is also coated with an ant paste – yum!

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Roasted bone marrow
Experience: Rich, fatty and delicious. The way you ate this dish was similar to a wrap; you scooped out the contents, put it in the vegetable leaf, put the lemon, vinegar sauce over it and ate. Basically it was amazing because it had the charcoaled taste of steak (can you tell I like steak?) with buttery fat and tart lemon. Yum.

Berries and greens soaked in a vinegar for one year

Experience: I admire the preparation this course; I actually didnt realise that this was classified as a separate course, so there is no picture, but not overly yummy…think vinigar berries; more to clear the palate

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Rhubarb and sheep milk yogurt
Experience: Similar to a sorbet; creamy, fresh and fruity

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Forest flavours, chocolate and egg liquer
Experience: OK what they mean by forest flavours, is one of the deserts is actually moss dipped in chocolate, which you then dip in a ‘cream fresh’. Yummy. I am a chocolate person so I didnt mind the moss part since i got chocolate with it the egg liquer, I thought, would be similar to spiked egg nog but not so much. It seems that most of the courses were much healthier than I anticipated (or maybe usd to when dining out). It was good, but I think I was missing my half & half.

Wine pairings:

2013 Weiss 6
Franz Strohmeier
St. Stefan- Weststeiermark
*Surprisingly cloudy

2013 Le Brin de Chevre
Le Clos du Tue-Boeuf
Touraine-Loire

2013 Cuvee Marguerite
Domaine Matassa
Calce – Rousillion

2012 Non-Tradition
Christian Tschida
Illmitz-Burgenland

2013 Madloba
Domaine des Miquette
St. Joseph – Northern Rhone

2012 Noselut
Anthony Tortul
Somewhere in southern France
* Made in the traditional way using clay barrels