Category Archives: Europe

Guide to the Castles of Scotland

A visit to Scotland will surely include a trip to a castle, or perhaps many castles. Scotland is home to hundreds of medieval structures, some still inhabited and maintained by generational families, others lying in ruins overlooking the colorful Highlands. Only a handful of castles are famous. Those are of course worth visiting, but trips to the lesser-known, hidden and hard-to-get-to castles can be equally, if not more, intriguing. Perhaps it’s the concealed location of the former that adds to their mysterious nature.

If you find yourself planning a trip to Scotland but want to stay off the tourist trail, don’t skip castles. Plenty of isolated architectural gems exist that will keep you free of the crowds.

Some of the castles can only be toured from the outside, while others offer guided, audio-assisted and self-led tours. Don’t forget to check out the gardens and trails! Spoil yourself with a cup of tea and a cranberry goat cheese sandwich in one of the castle cafes.

For those of you doing a fair amount of sight-seeing throughout Scotland’s historic districts, I recommend purchasing an Explorer Pass. You can choose one of two types depending on the length of your stay. It ended up saving me some pounds!

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Undoubtedly the most famous castle in Scotland, this ancient landmark also lies in the capital. It is remarkable even from a distance, perched like a butterfly overlooking the city. Many of Edinburgh’s attractions are dog-eared as World Heritage sites and, not surprisingly, Edinburgh Castle is included in this list.

Craigievar Castle

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Inland to the west of Aberdeen city, Craigievar Castle lies in Alford within Aberdeenshire. The 17th-century pink turreted castle with Baronial architecture is reminiscent of fairytales. Rumor has it the castle is the inspiration for the famed Disney castle.

Dunnottar Castle

Balancing in partial ruins atop a cliff on the North Sea, Dunnottar Castle is a gorgeous juxtaposition of an ancient man-made edifice and Mother Nature. Manicured gardens comb the crumbled stone structures. If you’re patient, you might be lucky enough to spot seals in the waters below. You can even follow a steep and rickety path to the shore for a closer, sea level glimpse. This 13th-century building sits on the Stonehaven peninsula.

Crathes Castle

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With shapely topiary and popping colors, the gardens of Crathes Castle transport you into the story of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Another turreted castle, this 16th-century construction lies nearby the River Dee outside of Banchory, Aberdeenshire.

Drum Castle

In Drumoark near Banchory in Aberdeenshire, the inside of Drum Castle is exquisitely decorated along with a garden storage room showing the servants’ quarters. Original parts of the castle date back to the 13th century. Woodland trails surround the property for visitors to enjoy. When the garden is in bloom, it embraces a bright rainbow of colors including a section of historic roses.

Scotland is a beautiful country–one of my favorite destinations so far. Not only is the archictecture impressive but so is the landscape; add to that the delicious food and the friendly people and you can’t not fall in love with Scotland.

 

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German Spätzle Recipe

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Making spätzle, or spaetzle in English, has become a Christmas tradition with the Venzel sisters due to our growing family with an Austrian brother-in-law. The dish is so special that you have to own a spaetzle maker to properly cook it. You can purchase one that resembles a cheese grater with a sliding attachment or you can go all out with the antique, ready-for-a-feast model like ours that transports you back to the old days of churning butter.

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The classic spaetzle-maker cooking device. It fits nicely into a large pot!

This recipe is not vegan-friendly (it’s not even healthy, I won’t lie), so I have not been able to partake in the spaetzle consumption of late, but at least I can enjoy the festive, cultural cooking that surrounds the ordeal. And, apparently, vegan spaetzle recipes do exist, so fear thee not if you have a soft spot for German food but are committed to veganism.

In my cheese aficionado family, we sprinkle an assortment of grated cheeses (from parmesan to mozzarella) on top, maybe with a dash of parsley, and then put it in the smoker for added flavuh flav. It does kick butt this way, so if you have access to a smoker, go the whole ten yards.

Ingredients:

1 c all-purpose flour, 1/4 c milk, 2 eggs, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp ground nutmeg, 2 Tbsp butter or vegan substitute, dash of pepper

Serves: 5 people

Directions:

  1. Boil about 1 gallon of water in the biggest pot you can find.
  2. Mix all the dough ingredients together.
  3. For the cheese grater looking spaetzle maker: slide the dough through the slots over the boiling water, letting them plop right in. For the butter churning looking spaetzle maker: ladle one scoop of dough at a time into the spaetzle maker, turning quickly and rapidly. If you don’t move quickly, the dough will clump in the holes and clog your process. This spaetzle maker should fit comfortably over your large pot.
  4. Using a spoon with a drain, scoop out the dumplings after the one ladle-full of dough has been pushed through the holes into the pot of boiling water. They should solidify almost instantly, and you should scoop them out quickly so they don’t overcook. You have to work fast here, people! It keeps things lively!
  5. Transfer the dumplings to a large baking or serving dish.
  6. Add toppings and maybe stick in the smoker for a couple hours.
  7. Serve, eat, enjoy!

This recipe was modified from homemade concoctions and allrecipes.com.

Visit the Gorges in Austria

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Visiting Burggrabenklamm, Salzburg in the winter. A short but treacherous hike that has been made more accessible as of Spring 2015.

The next time you find yourself frolicking the Austrian countryside, come summer or winter, be sure to make a stop at the many natural gorges meandering through the country. “Klamms,” the German word for gorges, can be found in abundance in the nine states of Austria. Some are more popular, like the Kaiserklamm and Tiefenbachklamm in Tirol (also spelled Tyrol), while others are lesser known and more difficult to find or access, such as the Burggrabenklamm at the base of the Alps in Salzburg.

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Hiking Tiefenbachklamm and enjoying the fresh, cold mountain water during the Austrian summer. Photos by B. Venzel.

With winter temperatures in Austria hovering around freezing, gorge trekking can be a frigid affair. But the entire hike through the canyon is filled with glistening sheets of ice and long, pointed icicles frozen in time.

In the summer, the air climbs to 80 degrees Fahrenheit, ideal for jumping into the rushing river gorge to cool off after a hike. Be sure to bring a sack lunch, too, as you’ll want to stay with your feet dipped in the water for more than just a brief moment.

German Glühwein Recipe and a Glimpse of Austria

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Gluhwein, or its virgin cousin wassail, is a warm and citrusy holiday drink hailing from German-speaking countries.

A mulled wine, glühwein—spelled out gluvine for Americans—is a warm treat in Germany and Austria, commonly guzzled on the slopes post-skiing. Whereas Americans typically grab beers at the ski lodge, Europeans sit back with some body-warming glühwein in the Alps.

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Family skiing in the Austrian Alps (plus brother-in-law’s sister)!

My family first discovered this treat on our vacation in Austria one Christmas. (This trip was also my downhill skiing debut where I fell off the T-bar and followed that up with a humorous attempt to right myself… But the Alps aren’t a bad place for the first-timer experience!)

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This is typical of my skiing skills.

The cold doesn’t keep Austrians from enjoying the beauty of their country, and, in fact, they make the most of the natural landscape and culture come snow or sun. I discovered this on my return to Austria two summers ago when my sister married an Austrian in a small, meaningful, picturesque wedding.

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The sisters reunited in Alpach, Austria in the summer of 2014 for the older sister’s (middle) wedding to our Austrian brother-in-law.

This winter, the sisters continued with a new family Christmas tradition, reuniting in the cold weather (Salt Lake City last year, Seattle this year). We carried on some Austrian traditions inspired by our entertaining Austrian brother-in-law, making glühwein and spätzle. (Look for a spätzle recipe coming soon!)

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The three sisters along Wolfgangsee Lake during the Austrian winter, circa 2007-08.

(Unabashed Disclaimer: Admittedly, I’ve never had this German drink because I don’t consume alcohol, but I have had its virgin counterpart, wassail, made with apple cider instead of wine. And the wassail, I indulge in cupfuls. I will attest to the delicious smell that wafts through the kitchen when we make glühwein, so it must be good. Drink responsibly, friends.)

Ingredients:

1 bottle red wine,* 1 orange, 3/4 c sugar, 3/4 c water, 1 cinnamon stick, 10 cloves

Serves: 2-4ish?

Directions:

  1. Boil the water, sugar and cinnamon in a saucepan then reduce heat to a simmer.
  2. Cut the orange in half and squeeze juice into water. Now poke the cloves into the orange peel and place the halves into the saucepan with the liquid. (This keeps the cloves from disintegrating and you having to drain the liquid with a cheesecloth. Hurray for efficiency!)
  3. Simmer for about 30 minutes until the liquid is thick and syrup-like.
  4. Pour in the bottle of wine* and heat on low until just before simmer.
  5. Remove the orange halves.
  6. Pour, drink, enjoy!**

*Replace with apple cider if making non-alcoholic wassail. (“Here we come a-wassailing among the leaves so green!” Yes, those are the original words. The more you know…)

**Serve in mugs. Cold glass will break! This ain’t your regular wine-tasting rodeo.

Remembering World Atrocities

The Paris attacks have left people questioning if we are on the brink of WWIII. Attacks like these leave civilians wanting to scream and shout, “Why can’t we all just get along?”

On September 11, 2015, I reflected on some of our world’s most current tragedies. There are far too many more that exist.

On my 2010 backpacking trip through Europe, I came across an impressive Holocaust memorial next to the Brandenburg Gate (see video above). Visitors to the monument are left to make their own conclusions as to the architect’s intent. As I walked among the concrete columns of varying sizes, I felt like I was in a mass grave. The memorial transported me back to a time, a tragedy, that occurred before my existence, but a world event that should never be forgotten.

We all wish for world peace. It is my wish that one day our world no longer experiences “events that should never be forgotten.”

By Air and Sea: Paragliding in Peru & Spain, Parasailing in Florida

Avid travelers see landscapes by foot, train and bus far more often than by air or sea. But maybe we should rethink that. Scenic boat rides and bird’s eye views really put the world in perspective.

My instructor prepares me for our tandem take-off paragliding in Bilbao, Spain.
My instructor prepares me for our tandem take-off paragliding in Bilbao, Spain.

In Peru this past May, my sister treated me to a birthday paragliding trip over a small mountain range south of Lima. This was my second time paragliding after a peaceful jump of a cliff face in the Bilbao region of Spain back in 2010. Both times were humbling—though my instructor did some acrobatics in Peru that left my stomach turning! In Spain, we paralleled the dynamic line of land and sea, dually unnerving and thrilling knowing you have nothing but the wind preventing you from dropping hundreds of feet into the cold dark waters below. A hawk joined us in flight over Bilbao while a pair of caracaras danced on their wings through the sky in Peru.

For another birthday a couple years ago, my best friend from the Florida Keys and I enjoyed a birthday parasailing trip out of Key West. This was another mix of tranquility and adrenaline rushes as we soared above greens and blues and dropped for quick dips into the chop below.

Parasailing over the Florida Keys is as beautiful as it is fun!
Parasailing over the Florida Keys is as beautiful as it is fun!

All of these experiences offered me a unique look at my surroundings. Completely immersed in nature, I was at one with the birds in the sky, towering over the foreboding ocean and steep, rocky terrain. If you have the opportunity to take in your travels from a different vantage point, I say do it. It’s one thing I’ve never regretted shelling out money for. You’ll undoubtedly test your courage, have some fun and, hopefully, encounter a fleeting, memorable state of nirvana.

It’s Not About Where You Go But What You Do When You Get There

The trip that made me reflect on how I travel was the exploration of my roots in Eastern Europe. Here I am learning about my ancestry in Budapest, Hungary.
The trip that made me reflect on how I travel was the exploration of my roots in Eastern Europe. Here I am learning about my ancestry in Budapest, Hungary.

For years, one goal has been on repeat in the back of my mind, an endless playlist of only one song: 30 under 30. I have had a goal to visit 30 countries by the time I turn 30. That gives me two-and-a-half years from today to hit 11 more foreign locales.

There is one big problem with this objective. It can be a hindrance to my adventures; it has made me want to pack up and move on to the next stop so I can put another mark on my checklist. What I need to do is rip out the earbuds to my internal iPod so I can live in the moment.

Many with a case of the wanderlust might disagree. Isn’t that the very definition of wanderlust, always wanting to be going places, always searching for new things? When has anyone every complained about setting a goal?

Traveling is a time for growth, a time when we get to know ourselves on the inside and out. Since I first stepped foot in an exotic land eight years ago, I’ve learned a great deal about why I travel: I travel for me and no one else.

Of course travel entails viewing impressive landscapes, eating questionable food and making new friends. But for me, the biggest draw of travel is culture. I am on a circuit of the unfamiliar, immersing myself in foreign languages and customs, undiscovered faces and societies. I am uncomfortable, and it isn’t until I achieve a level of comfort that I feel like I can leave a place behind. Travel is about more than just going somewhere; it is about learning and then doing.

I only recently came to the realization that traveling slowly is the right fit for me. I remember when it happened, popping into my head like a swift kick from a horse, snapping me off my conveyor belt and rooting me in the here and now. I was in Hungary, the beginning of a two-week vacation from work, and I was intent on exploring my ancestry. My father is straight up Hungarian while my mother’s side is a mix of the dissolved ethnicities of Yugoslavia and Bohemia. I only had fourteen days and a few hundred bucks to discover where I came from.

Time and a budget constrained me. Though these are not normally welcomed with open arms by the average wayfarer, they made me take pause.

Two weeks, I said aloud sitting on the bed of a hostel in Budapest. Remember your budget, I repeated as I scanned restaurant menus for authentic cuisine. It’s not enough, I heard myself saying while I learned about the war-ravaged history of this forgiving nation on a walking tour. It simply wasn’t enough.

And so instead of cramming the exploration of my ancestry—Hungary, the Czech Republic (ancient Bohemia) and all six present-day countries that make up historic Yugoslavia—into one limited trip, I said, Next time.

See, that’s the thing about wanderlust. There’s always a next time.

I’ve been to Europe three times now. Why can’t I make it once more?