Monday, June 29, 2009

Enjoying the new place.

Clearly, we're not the only ones.

Riley could sit back there on his chain ALL DAY LONG.

Not only is there excellent sleeping-in-the-grass to be had, but the people/bird/other dog watching is top notch. Our backyard actually backs up to at least 6 other homes, so he sits back there for hours on end spying on the neighbors.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Jessica's European Favorites: Holland, Part 1

After 3 full and enjoyable days in Paris, we boarded a train for Amsterdam. I've wanted to visit The Netherlands since I was very young, having heard quite a bit about it from family and friends. We've talked about taking a trip there since I was about 6.

Well, 19 years later, we made it. And after having visited once, I can't wait to go back. I fell in love with the canals, the cute little towns, and the skinny houses. People in shops and restaurants looked a lot like your standard Grand Rapids, MI stock - tall, blond, and freckled. We fit right in.

So, what did I enjoy about Holland? Hm... how to narrow it down...

Well, there were the bikes.

Dutch people are nuts about their bikes. They're everywhere, all the time. THE preferred form of transportation. And if you have kids? Just load 'em on. My mom called this one "the minivan":
You can fit two kids in the front cart, and one in the seat on back.

If I lived there, I'd want something like this:

And outside Centraal Station, there's this structure. A parking garage. A BICYCLE parking garage.

And I definitely fell in love with dutch houses. The tall, the skinny, and the quaint.

Especially fun if they're on canals.

Ahh... beautiful.

I want one. And I'd put a little box in front for wooden shoes.

Some of them are a teensy bit crooked. Like this guy on the left:
Hi, buddy.

Aren't the gables cute? Some peaked, some bell-shaped, some stair-stepped.

If you're ever traveling to The Netherlands, I recommend staying in a central place and taking day trips into the countryside. We rented a little flat near the train station and had a blast exploring a bunch of Dutch towns. One that I really liked was Haarlem.

This was the main square, anchored by the massive town church:
The streets were pretty and the shopping was good.

One of the reasons I've always wanted to visit Holland was that it is the place where my family comes from. My dad's family immigrated a year or so before he was born, so Dutch culture, memories, and food were a significant part of family parties growing up. We made sure to include some "family history tour" stops on our itinerary.

We saw (and LOVED) the small town where my Opa grew up - Brielle.

You know, I loved it so much I think it deserves a post of its own, even though Josh already covered it. Stay tuned.

Anyway, we really enjoyed the history part of the visit. Opa grew up on this street - how darling is it?

Later that day we drove down to Drimmelen, a little town where my grandparents lived before they moved to the U.S. Several of my aunts and uncles were born there, and Opa worked as a water policeman on the nearby canals.

We went to this little cafe and my dad started chatting it up with a few old men. A couple of them actually remembered my family from back in the '50s.
All of us Witte children were told of the jail cell that was a part of my grandparents' house. Since Opa was a policeman, it must have been handy to have nearby. I believe it was usually reserved for the town drunk, but my clever grandparents also used it as an excellent place for "time out."

Well, this was the house with the jail cell:
And here is where they lived before that:

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Jessica's European Favorites: FRANCE

Josh already got the chance to elaborate on some of his favorite moments from our European travels, and now it is my turn! I'll save you all from any repeats, but instead just add a few highlights of my own. Unlike my husband's list, I don't have a set number and they're not in any particular order. We're different like that.

The first stop, after landing in Brussels, was Paris. We met my parents on the way there at the train station, and my brother was already waiting for us at our Parisian hotel.

We didn't skip a beat once we all got in, but instead promptly headed out on our adventure. First stop?

The Eiffel Tower.

I KNOW it is cliché. I know it is. But I did love it - the big park around it, the hubbub of tourists, the masses or iron bars stretching up into the sky, and of course the hoards of street vendors selling mini versions on key chains. Okay, maybe not the pushy vendors. And since it was pretty much the first stop, it was the ultimate "We're Heeeeeere!" moment for all of us.

We went back at night. It was stunning.

Directly after stepping under the tower, we stumbled upon another favorite:


Here we are enjoying the first of many crepes for each of us. Bananas, chocolate, and whipped cream, was the topping combination most enjoyed by my family.

Continuing on with touristy clichés (get used to it – these destinations are popular for a reason!) is my next pick:

Notre Dame

This ornate Gothic cathedral is impressively huge, impressively old, and impressively beautiful. I learned that it took over 180 years to complete, beginning in 1163. 1163?!? It is a whole lot of massive, especially when you remember they were using pretty basic tools the whole time.
Josh, Ben, and I climbed up to the top. Well worth the effort.
Holy cow high up. Can you imagine a church today embarking on such a project? I can hear it now..

Well, we want to start a building project. It will cost an obscene amount of money. No one will live to see it complete. In fact, our children's children might see it, if they live a long life.
Also pretty at night.

And what is a trip to Paris without experiencing some...


We only made it to the Louvre and the Orsay and barely scratched the surface at those places. However, we definitely enjoyed witnessing some masterpieces. Of the two museums, my favorite was the Orsay, which is known for housing an extensive impressionist collection. I have a soft spot for Degas and Manet, and got to see works of art by both of them while there.

Ben was once nicknamed "Rembrandt" by our Opa. Upon seeing the artist's self portrait, I can actually see a resemblance. I think it is mostly in the hair.
I started singing "One Day More" and other Les Mis favorites while walking past this beauty.

One day to a new beginning. Raise the flag of freedom high.
Venus de Milo, rockin' out the size 18.
Winged Victory, which dates back to the third century B.C.

These poor dames without arms. Really.
Gotta love a crazy dutchman.

Moving on.

I found that when you see the major sights in Paris, you end up seeing a lot of its famous river:

The Siene.

Up and down the river are impressive statues, buildings, and parks. We took a cruise down it one night and marveled at the beauty of the city at night.

Rounding out my list were these:

The Gardens at Versailles

We visited the palace, too, but it wasn't nearly as cool. Opulent? Yes. Over-the-top? Yes. Built by pleasure-loving Louis XIV in the 1600's, it struck me that there was no wonder why the common frenchmen revolted a hundred years later. I'd be pissed if my tax dollars went to that kind of overindulgence, too.

The gardens were absolutely over-the-top as well, but more interesting and fun to explore. Josh told us that with the French, gardening is all about perspective. That was why the main lawn sloped just so and the pathways were made from crisp, straight lines. Josh's architecture degree was put to similar use throughout the trip.

It was especially fun when the fountains came on.

They tried, but they didn't quite get there.
The number of pools, statues, and fountains was pretty overwhelming. Perfectly trimmed bushes everywhere. Flowers in extremely neat rows. Criss-cross patterns of paths. Very cool. I swear we walked for miles around that place, and were drop dead tired when we made it to lunch. Worth it.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

DIY Project #1 of 32453

Does this table and chair set look familiar to any of our IU friends?

It should, because it used to belong in Lora and Patrick's home in Bloomington. Except then the table top and chair seats were wood, and everything else was painted sage green.

We bought it from Lora and Patrick last weekend, and then Josh sanded it down and painted it black to match our bar stools. He did a really nice job!

Used table and chairs: $50
Paint: $15
Total: $65

(Cheap) new table set we had our eye on: $400

DIY Savings: $335

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Summer Lovin'

We love this guy and use him all the time during the summer months! Isn't he cute?

I have to admit that we're not experts. Our go-to grill outs tend to include a lot of hot dogs, and the occasional hamburger. I have also mastered the art of potatoes grilled in aluminum foil. Yep, pretty basic.

Last week I decided to get fancy with things, after being quite inspired by Short Stop's post on shish kabobs.

They didn't disappoint. The marinade is JUST terrific.

MMM... come to mama.

Now that I have confidence that we can tackle more complex grilling projects, I need some more recipes!

Any ideas?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Europe: Josh's Top Ten (4 of 4)

1. Ancient Rome

With my interests in both history and architecture, I was anticipating this sight more than any other that we would see on the trip. For whatever reason, I have always been fascinated by the classical civilizations (and Rome in particular), and it was great to finally be able to see the area that I’ve been studying on some level for more than a decade. For the purposes of this post, I’m defining Ancient Rome as the Forum(s), the Palatine Hill, and the Colosseum.

For those that aren’t incredibly familiar with the area, the Forum was the main public square of Rome throughout both the republican and imperial period. The ancient Via Sacra (Sacred Way) is the central axis of the Forum, and it is lined with the ruins of the vast temples, administrative buildings, and triumphal arches that served as the heart of Roman society for a thousand years.

The Palatine Hill overlooks the Forum, and over time it evolved from simply the most desirable address for the Roman aristocracy to the seat of imperial power. While there are certainly gardens and other structures on the hill, a large portion of the hill is covered by the ruins of the massive imperial palace built by Domitian in the mid 1st century AD (in fact, the word palace is derived from the word Palatine).

The Colosseum is probably the most famous building in Rome, and this massive stadium, built over 1900 years ago, served as the entertainment centerpiece of the Roman Empire. The Colosseum boasts an intricate network of tunnels and a structure that allowed over 50,000 people the opportunity to see the often grotesque spectacles of the day. It was a true marvel of its time, and it remains impressive these many years later.

The Forum was the highlight for me. It was so incredible to see things like the mound of earth where Julius Caesar was cremated, the rostrum (speaker’s platform) that Mark Antony used to eulogize him, the triumphal arches that celebrated important military victories, and the delicate, curved façade of the Temple of Vesta, but I was most pleasantly surprised by our visit to the Palatine Hill. I pretty much knew what to expect from both the Forum and the Colosseum, but the splendor of Domitian’s Palace was incredible. In particular, the personal stadium enclosed in the walls and the immense patio that looked out over the Circus Maximus were impressive even in their current state.

All in all, it was just such a pleasure to experience this area, and gain a better understanding for all the history that took place in this very location.

The Emperor's personal stadium at Palatine Hill

The Temple of Vesta

A view of the Forum from Palatine Hill:

Monday, June 15, 2009

Europe: Josh's Top Ten (3 of 4)

3. The Jordaan

While the party town nature of Amsterdam makes it somewhere that I would never want to live, the charm and beauty of the Jordaan made it my absolute favorite neighborhood on this trip.

This segment of the city was built on and between four major canals that served to expand the city beyond the historical center during the “Golden Age” of the 16th and 17th Centuries. The area is now an upscale, but lively, community that abounds in charm is a pleasure to walk.

The main attraction of this area may very well be the canals, but the beautifully gabled row houses and the atmosphere created by all the cafes and bicycling locals give the area a unique quality that would be difficult to duplicate anywhere else.

The area is certainly not devoid of tourists (the Anne Frank House and Canal Tours bring a lot of people to the area), but the Jordaan still feels predominantly authentic, and it was a wonderful base for our time in the Netherlands. We spent the majority of our days in the Netherlands traveling to other towns, but it was always nice to come back to the Jordaan at night and find a café or just stroll along the canals and soak it all in.

The row houses were extremely picturesque - tall, thin, and sporting different types of gables.  There were also several house boats docked along the canals. 

The canals at night were especially pretty.

2. The Cinque Terre

The Cinque Terre (“five lands”, in Italian) is a collection of five cities built on a mountainous and rocky segment of land on the shores of the Ligurian Sea just south of Genoa. These cities were once quite remote, and they still can’t be accessed by car. There is a train that runs between the towns, and footpaths (some more difficult than others, as we found out) now connect the entire area. This area was the birthplace of pesto sauce, and it featured heavily on the menus of the seaside restaurants that we enjoyed over the two days we stayed in the Cinque Terre.

When we scheduled the Cinque Terre for our last stop on the trip, we knew that we would probably be exhausted from travelling and would welcome a place to enjoy beautiful scenery and get some rest before we headed back home. Well, we did get to experience some incredible scenery, but rest wasn’t exactly in the cards.

When we arrived on the train with our massive backpacks, we stopped at a local shop to ask where we could find our hotel, and we were greeted with a laugh and a simple point toward the ceiling. He told us to turn around the corner and take the stairs up to the top. When we turned the corner, we understood why he was laughing. The stairway was incredibly steep and seemed to go on forever (to add insult to injury, the portion that we could see turned out to be about a third of the total stairway). There are other stories that I could tell that involve a copious amount of stairs, but they probably only serve to make my wife angry with me again, so I will leave those for another time.

The area was insanely beautiful however, and probably the most beautiful stretch of sea coastline that I’ve ever seen. The footpaths afforded spectacular views, and the quaint nature of the towns and the nice people that we met provided a really nice setting for the end of our trip.

The stairs.  They were especially intense with backpacks on.

We stayed in this town, called Manarola:

Not a bad place to stop for a snack.
The view from our balcony:

The views from our hikes were pretty incredible.