Since many family and friends have been asking about our honeymoon, I thought I'd capture some of the stories while they're still fresh in my mind.
"Wait a minute, Jeremy, didn't you get married almost two years ago?" you ask. Yes, you are correct. We got married November 4, 2016, and were planning to go on our honeymoon the following summer (2017), but for various reasons that didn't end up working out. So, we gave it another shot for summer 2018. On a related note, special thanks to Chris at Skads Travel for all her work making our trip come to fruition. She did a great job!
"Now wait just another minute, Jeremy, what do you mean 'travel agency'? Those still exist?" Yes, they do, as a matter of fact! Knowing that I too easily fall into the trap of "analysis paralysis," I advocated early on in our planning that I wanted to work with a travel agent who could find flights and activities for us, rather than needing to do all the research myself; I knew myself well enough to know that if I dove into all that research, I would have ended up pretty grumpy about the trip, and I wanted to enjoy myself instead. Working with Chris was great: we gave her a list of cities we wanted to visit, some rough travel dates, then she found us flights and hotels and activities, gave us some simple eye-doctor-style choices ("one or two", "two or three"), and off we went.
"Now hold on just a —" Nope, enough interrogation for the moment, on to the stories!
We started our European odyssey on Saturday, July 28, heading to the airport for an evening/overnight flight from MSP to Edinburgh, via Amsterdam. While going through TSA my stuffed animal monkey (Becca) was frisked by an agent who suspected her of smuggling contraband. We had a good chuckle about this and the agent was even friendly enough to pose for a photo with Becca.
For our first flight, I'd learned our seats were to be right in front of the lavatories (due to airline changing the plane and us losing the original seat selection Chris had made for us), but this turned out to be a blessing in disguise. There wasn't a smell (my biggest concern), nor was the traffic to/from the lavatories loud or distracting. Most importantly, we were actually able to recline our seats (I thought we'd be butted up right against the wall, but fortunately that wasn't the case), and even better, could do so without any guilt of inconveniencing the people seated behind us. It was like we had our own little "nook" in the plane.
After a short layover in Amsterdam, we arrived in Edinburgh and took a bus to our hotel (about a half hour ride, and it dropped us conveniently less than two blocks from the hotel, for a fraction of the price of a private transport or taxi). Our room was small, which made sense since we were in the center of town where I imagine space is at a premium, but since we basically were only in the room at night, the lack of space wasn't a big deal.
Some highlights of Edinburgh:
Down the block from our hotel were a plethora of gift shops peddling Scottish-branded touristy things, but most importantly: shortbread :) I even found some gluten-free shortbread for Alissa. We also discovered vegetarian haggis (which we did NOT purchase, but found amusing nonetheless).
During our hop-on/hop-off bus tour of the city, we passed by the Elephant House (where the Harry Potter books were "born"), briefly toured the science museum (sadly it closed shortly after we arrived), saw preparations being made for the Military Tattoo, took a short hike up one of the nearby hills, and saw countless posters advertising upcoming theatricals (the most interesting title I remember was "Famous Puppet Death Scenes").
Our third day in Scotland saw us hopping on an early morning bus ride into the highlands toward Loch Ness. All told it was a 13-hour trip, with stops every couple hours to stretch our legs and purchase food/drink. Our driver/tour guide taught us about Scottish history on the way, which was made more interesting for the fact we were actually driving through some of the areas where the battles he was describing had been fought. Sadly we did not see Nessie while we were out on the Loch; since I know 99% of people who visit do actually see her, I was a bit disappointed that she'd decided to sleep all day when we were there. However, the highlight of the trip for me was seeing the scenic hills/mountains of the Scottish highlands, which I remembered with great fondness from my high school trip to the UK.
That final evening as we walked back to our hotel, we encountered a trio of buskers called The Spinning Blowfish, and watched their bagpipe + electric guitar + drums performance for a little bit.
The following morning we packed ourselves off for Amsterdam, and took the underground from the airport to our hotel (our hotel was built OVER the train station, so from our room [10th or 11th floor] we could see the trains coming and going). It was about a one block walk from the train station exit to our hotel entrance, and in that one block we were nearly run over by the bike traffic. Oh my goodness the bikes. Take the ratio of bikes and cars in Minneapolis, flip those numbers, and that's how many bikes Amsterdam has - they're everywhere, they rule the roads, and they show no mercy. (and just like in Minneapolis, stop signs don't mean a thing to bikers).
Some highlights of Amsterdam:
The Anne Frank house. (You have to buy tickets months in advance, and our amazing travel agent did just that) This was my reason for wanting to visit Amsterdam, having not too long ago read the book and seen the movie. I think we spent just shy of two hours walking through the house. It feels wrong to say we "enjoyed" it, so the best description I can offer of seeing the rooms, experiencing the space where these families lived, is that it was "very moving." Though I generally avoid writing political commentary, walking through Anne Frank's story does challenge me to wonder about the parallels between the rise of Nazi xenophobia and our current political climate.
After leaving the Anne Frank house, we grabbed lunch and hopped onto a hop-on/hop-off boat tour; unbeknownst to ignorant-me until we arrived, Amsterdam is full of canals! While our boat took us around the city, we became stuck in the middle of - wait for it - a boat traffic jam. For half an hour. We never did know for sure what happened (since they were speaking in Dutch, and we couldn't see what was going on) but as best we can tell, a boat's engine broke down with the boat blocking traffic, and for whatever reason the emergency responders weren't allowed to board it to help (I thought I overheard someone saying if they boarded then the owners would be charged for services, but I'm not sure I understood correctly). After semi-serious jokes from other impatient passengers asking why we couldn't just disembark by climbing over the other boats parked next to us, finally the broken-down boat got a tow and traffic began flowing again. I cannot say I was wow-ed by Dutch efficiency.
We escaped the don't-hop-off-boat and at some point did a hop-on bus tour, followed by meandering the streets on a scavenger hunt for dinner. We examined menus at a fancy-looking (read: expensive-looking) restaurant as the hostess tried convincing us to eat there; I wasn't thrilled with the menu so we kept walking, but after walking away and checking out other restaurants, I came to realize I liked that first one the best, and most importantly they had some Alissa-friendly food options. Reminding myself this was our honeymoon and it would be okay to splurge on a dinner here and there, I suggested we return. This became a precedent for my behavior toward at least two other dinners/restaurants later on in our trip (Jeremy says "no", Jeremy decides he was wrong, we both go back to the first place and eat yummy food). Anyway, if you find yourself visiting Amsterdam, we can both highly recommend the Seasons Restaurant. Oh, and I also impressed Alissa with my Norwegian language skillz when I said "thanks" and "have a good day" to the Norwegians sitting next to us, as I had to ask one of them to move so I could get out from our table.
Post-dinner we wandered around trying to find a juicery I'd spotted the night before, but by the time we found it (silly me hadn't written down a name or address) it was already closed. Oh well. We got a good walk in, at least!
We arrived in Hamburg the next day, and our hotel was (as my Grandma would've said) "very deluxe." Our room was huge, and included a full kitchen (sink, dishwasher, microwave, fridge, pots/pans/dishes). They also heard it was our honeymoon, so they left some bubbly wine and cookies for us :) And downstairs in the breakfast nook they had 24/7 coffee/tea available. After settling in, we took a walk through a nearby park and found a tapas restaurant for dinner ("tapas", Alissa taught me, are small plates of shareables, so you get several and eat family-style).
The highlight of Hamburg:
The reason we added Hamburg to our itinerary was to visit Miniatur Wunderland, the world's largest model train exhibition. I highly encourage you to spend a couple minutes glancing at their website to get an idea, because this place is so much more than model trains - city after city after city constructed in HO-scale, with tens of thousands of painted miniature figurines, autonomously driving cars+trucks, a fully-functional miniature airport, a 30,000 liter tank of water with boats, and so on. Every 15 minutes, the lights throughout the building fade through sunset to night, and miniature LEDs turn on in the cities (especially striking in the Las Vegas display). In one town, there is a "fire" a few times per hour, for which a half dozen fire trucks peel out of their fire station with lights flashing and sirens blaring. In Pompeii, the volcano erupts every 15-20 minutes and "lava" flows down the side. The Alps in Switzerland cover two floors, floor to ceiling. And throughout, there are hundreds of push-buttons visitors can use to trigger scenes, like a road worker using a jackhammer, or an amusement park ride, or a chocolate factory that dispenses a real piece of chocolate to eat.
There are also some fun easter eggs: for instance while I watched the planes take off and land at the miniature airport, the Millennium Falcon came in for a landing and taxied to a gate, and a few minutes later, the space shuttle Enterprise also landed and was greeted by half a dozen firetrucks on the runway. In a different area, there was a button simply labeled "Banana", which lit up a small cave in which were some Minions, complete with cave-paintings of more minions.
No matter how cool I thought Wunderland was going to be from the photos and videos (seriously, check out this 5-minute promotional video), it far exceeded any and all expectations I had. I was utterly blown away. We spent six hours there, which was more than enough time for Alissa, and not nearly enough time for me (though I will admit a certain feeling of "awesomeness fatigue" set in after a while - it takes energy to keep being amazed over and over and over). I would love to go back and spend about two solid days there to admire everything.
For more photos, check out this Facebook album I created of only Miniatur Wunderland photos (which represents approximately a full third of all photos I took on our honeymoon).
Our hotel in Nice was two blocks from the beach and had plenty of restaurants nearby. Our first night for dinner I ate escargot (for the fourth time in my life, so I knew I'd find it tasty). And our third night (in another instance of "find a restaurant, walk away, walk back and have yummy food") I had... a pizza. In my defense, we were very close to Italy so it was very very good pizza. And I was ready for some comfort food by this point in the trip.
Some highlights of Nice:
Our first full day we took a day trip to Monaco; our driver picked us up in front of our hotel (and he was so happy with us for being outside on time for him - I guess we were a rarity), and along with another family we rode a couple hours over beautifully scenic hills. On the way we stopped at a hillside touristy-town where we walked up and down hilly steps/stairs, ate some delicious eggplant for lunch at a restaurant near the top of the hill, and got somewhat lost in the maze of ups and downs of steps on our way back to the van. Once in Monaco a short drive later, we had two one-hour blocks of free-time to walk and explore different parts of the city/country, before heading back to Nice.
I forget if it was on the way to or from Monaco, but along the way one of those directions we stopped to tour the Fragonard perfumery. To my surprise, this was one of my absolute highlights of the trip, in particular the perfume
tasting sniffing, because it was remarkably similar to sniffing wine as part of a wine tasting (of which Alissa and I have been taking lessons from my aunt and uncle). I had never in my life thought I'd get excited about perfume, but, it was really fun trying to pick out the individual flavors smells in each of the samples; also, fun fact: to cleanse the nose's palette(?) between samples, we sniffed coffee. Who knew?
The following day, similar to other cities, we did a hop-on/off tour in Nice itself, which included dipping our toes into the Mediterranean sea. This didn't last long, as the beach was made of rocks and was rather uncomfortable on the feet!
We flew to Barcelona on what we discovered is officially (possibly actually) the worst airline in the world. When we checked in for our Vueling flight and Alissa asked why the flight was delayed (mechanical issue? weather? something else?), the ticketing agent literally said "On-time doesn't exist with Vueling." Later reading online reviews of the airline was... amusing.
In any case, we did eventually arrive safely in Barcelona, which I think ended up being my favorite city that we visited. (Miniatur Wunderland was my favorite attraction, but Barcelona as a whole was my favorite city). What I appreciated most about it was the streets - Barcelona was a planned city with square blocks and straight streets, sidewalks wide enough for 10 people abreast, and reasonable traffic signals that didn't try to get you run over by cars or bikes (like was the case in, say, Amsterdam). And, though I don't have specific evidence to back this up, Barcelona felt like there was so much more to do (whereas some of the other cities I felt like, "we've done enough now.")
I've often been asked if we saw any Gaudí architecture, to which I reply, "yes, we saw a lot of gaudy architecture" (I wasn't a Gaudí fan; sorry).
Some highlights of Barcelona:
This hotel also was "very deluxe," with sparkling wine waiting for us in the room, our own patio/porch area, and a VERY nice breakfast buffet (all the hotels had great breakfast buffets; this one just went far above and beyond).
We ate a lot of tapas in Barcelona, as there were so many great restaurants near our hotel. The hop-on/off was also quite enjoyable, and we once again got a chance to visit the beach and dip our toes in the sea, followed by a delicious sea-side lunch (immediately before the skies opened up with a thunderstorm! Thank goodness the hop-on bus came quickly).
My favorite activity was a day trip to a nearby vineyard where we learned about their wine-making process; I may not be recalling all the numbers correctly, but it went something like this: their oldest grape vines are 200 years old; early in the grape-growing season, they choose to pick and discard like 80% of the grapes from the vines, so that the remaining grapes get all the nutrients; they hand-harvest their grapes and again discard a high percentage of imperfect bundles. In the end, they produce only about 30,000 bottles per annum, and I learned that winemaking is definitely more of a passion/art than a money-making business. We got to ride through the vineyards then tour the machinery room and aging rooms, filled with huge barrels of their different wines. Finally we concluded with a wine-tasting of four of their wines.
But wait there's more! After wine tasting #1, we went basically across the street to their other facility where they make Cava (sparkling wine from this particular region of Catalonia/Spain), had a whole 'nother tour of their wine-making and aging process (underground tunnels filled to the brim with wine bottles), followed by a tasting of four sparkling wines. At both this tasting and the earlier one we had great conversations with our table mates (there were about 16 people in our tour bus, and then four per table at the tastings). Having gone past the lunch hour with only nuts and crackers to nibble, by the end of this second tasting we were both a little tipsy; fortunately that's why we had a bus driver :)
Less than a month prior to our trip, there were some major Greece fires (say it out loud, it's punny) 20 miles from our hotel in downtown Athens, so we were worried those might impact our travels; Fortunately, they were contained/put out/over/dealt with by the time we landed.
For the first time on our trip we took a taxi instead of public transit to get to our hotel (the Dorian Inn), which was a slightly hair-raising adventure owing to our driver's intimate relationship with the center lines on the road. As we were planning our trip, I'd had no strong opinions about hotels other than this one, because it was where I'd stayed on a high school trip to Athens many years ago, and it had a rooftop pool and restaurant with a view of the Acropolis. What I hadn't realized until we neared the hotel, was that the neighborhood has gone downhill since 2001 (or perhaps was never a great neighborhood to begin with, and I'd just been oblivious as a teenager). This opinion was first confirmed in our taxi: as I watched our approach on my GPS and was saying to Alissa "we're just a block or two away now", I had also noticed the streets outside were looking a little... rough; simultaneously, the driver locked the doors. Great sign. Later, Alissa checked our guidebook and learned that it actually recommended avoiding this particular neighborhood altogether, or at least after dark. Well, bummer. The hotel, though, was a very solid three-to-four stars, clean, another great breakfast buffet, and delicious food at the rooftop restaurant.
Some highlights of Athens:
Our first night we walked to a neaby Bulgarian restaurant that was well-reviewed on Yelp, and learned that just because Google Maps labels a road as "yellow" (aka a more major road), that isn't necessarily true; we walked through some sketchy alley-roads on our way there, so we took a different route back. What saddened me the most about Athens is just how run-down the city feels, graffiti everywhere, sidewalks crumbling in some places, it was just very sad. But, the food at the Bulgarian restaurant was indeed very very good and worth the walk.
The next morning we rose early to catch our all-day island-hopping cruise, which was a true delight. We visited three islands, got to walk around and see touristy things; on one of the islands Alissa started petting a cat and was quickly accosted by several more cats wanting love and attention. Apparently public cats are a thing in Greece, where entire communities own the cats instead of individual families, so I don't think any of these were ferrel.
Arriving back at our hotel, we ate dinner on the roof and enjoyed a beautiful view of the Parthenon all lit up at night.
Speaking of the Parthenon, the following day we actually got to visit it! (and Alissa tired quickly of my constant refrain "They say of the Acropolis where the Parthenon is..."; I got quite a chuckle when our next day's hop-on/off tour bus mentioned the "no straight lines" bit and Alissa just glared at me :) What a tremendous view of the city from up there, too.
We ate dinner at a small place called "Vegan Nation" which had vegan+gluten-free foods that were quite tasty. And back at the hotel took turns enjoying a massaging chair near the business center. A couple times we visited the rooftop pool, too, which was surprisingly cold (given the exceptionally hot air temperatures while we were there!) and it took a while to acclimate into the water.
Our last day in Athens we purchased a hop-on/off bus ticket and set off around town, seeing all the things, and taking a stop at the Acropolis Museum. We ate some gelato in the hot afternoon sun, then later in the evening went out for dinner and a wine tasting with a local tour guide (it was just him and us, so we had a great conversation and learned so much about current Geek culture).
When we got back to the hotel, we napped for a few hours, before waking around 2 a.m. (yep, you read that right) to do our final pack and meet our airport taxi.
Our first flight (Athens to Amsterdam) was delayed, significantly enough that we worried we might miss our connection. When going through immigration (out-igration?) in Amsterdam, I asked the traffic director if we could get into the "short connections" line even though our connection time was technically 10 minutes too long, and fortunately they waved us right into the fast lane, so we had no issue getting to our gate by the time they started boarding.
We slept and watched movies and held hands, sad to see our honeymoon be over.
My parents picked us up at the airport, and when we arrived home we found Luke and Daisy had printed a sign saying "welcome home from your Bunnymoon"; and on our bed, Pooh had a welcome home balloon and a sign that read, "welcome home from your hunnymoon".