Cologne: Christmas Markets

Europe is miserable in the winter. There isn’t any point in denying it. Not only is it hats-and-gloves-and-scarves type of cold, but it is wet. It rains almost every. single. day. The days that aren’t rainy are cloudy. But every once in a while, you will get a sunny day. Then you’ll blink four times, and the sun is already sinking below the horizon. I can’t believe when we lived in the States that we ever complained about the days getting short in the winter. We had no idea how good we had it. If Stephen hadn’t gone outside during lunch time, he would have literally gone all day without seeing sunlight. When he woke up for work, it was dark. When he came home from work, it was dark. Winter is one long drudge, and everyone spends it grouchy, cold, wet, and Vitamin-D deficient.

But if you’re about to start feeling all sorry for them, don’t. In the middle of this miserable slog, the whole continent turns into one big Christmas festival. Since they don’t have Halloween or Thanksgiving to look forward to, they turn the best holiday of the entire year into basically a winter-long event. Lights and decorations start to come up in late October/early November and don’t come down until Twelfth Night. I was stocking up on Marks & Spencer Christmas puddings, brandy butter, and mince pies long before my friends on Facebook even started to complain about those people who start celebrating Christmas before Thanksgiving is over. Oops. Guilty as charged. I can’t even begin to tell you how bearable all of the Christmas lights, trees, cakes, pies, mulled wine, holly, and garland makes the long, dark winter. I almost found myself feeling happy that it was dark for most of the day; all the better for seeing the Christmas lights lining the streets! (Dark for most of the day- that doesn’t even make sense, does it?)

This is where the Christmas markets enter into the picture. It isn’t enough to have all sorts of decorations, lights, and speciality foods to celebrate the season. They go one step further. For the whole month of Advent, cities around Europe open up markets where you can buy decorations, winter clothing, tree ornaments, candles, and gifts and eat and drink to your heart’s content. We decided to go to Cologne’s.


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Leavesden: Harry Potter Studio Tour (with Christmas cheer!)

Being huge Harry Potter fans, we couldn’t wait to go to Leavesden to see the actual sets where they filmed the movies. After much deliberation, we decided to wait until the holiday season when the Great Hall and the Gryffndor common room would be decked out for the season, which turned out to be a good decision. All of the decorations really got us into the Christmas spirit. They even had a little interactive stand set up where you could see the different types of “snow” they used during filming. Evidently, there are different recipes for different used: snow that is good for snowballs, snow that is great for sprinkling on houses, snow that makes good footprints, etc. Who knew?

The interior sets were displayed in a few very large studios, and almost everything is much much smaller in real life than you would expect. It is amazing what camera angles can make you believe! There was also an outdoor courtyard area that houses a few of the vehicles, the Hogwarts bridge, Number 4 Privet Drive, the double decker bus, and the house in which Voldemort killed Harry’s parents. Below, you can find a small section of the gazillion photos that we took. Without further ado… Continue reading

Blenheim Palace

Before we moved to London, I compiled a list of my “must-see” sights in England. Blenheim was towards the top of the list. It is a very large estate made famous by its Capability Brown-designed parkland, grand palatial aspect, and association with both the Churchills and the Vanderbilts. The Churchills built it, and through an advantageous marriage with an American heiress, the Vanderbilt’s money saved it. Having never been to England before, I overlooked some pertinent information. Some places, like Blenheim, aren’t exactly convenient if you don’t have a car. After a journey that took twice as long as it would have if we had driven, we finally walked up to the gates.


And we kept walking. If you squint your eyes and tilt your head to the side and stare really hard, you might see the entrance at the end of that driveway.

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Since we were so close, I couldn’t go to Florence without also taking a quick side trip to Siena. I had fallen in love with the honey-colored buildings and striking town hall tower in pictures, but I had never dreamed I would one day have a chance to walk the streets myself.


Our first stop was Siena’s own Duomo.


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