Where my Christmas?

December was a busy month so I wanted to share an update about where I spent the holidays!

The last week of school before Christmas vacation was a pretty slow week. Attendance was low as many students (and teachers as well unfortunately) decided to begin their breaks early. But the students who were there kept asking me, “Miss S, where my Christmas?” Here in Liberia that’s a way of asking “where’s my Christmas present” or “what’d you get me for Christmas?” As the holidays got closer I heard more and more people around town jokingly asking each other that. So when my students asked me, I’d point to the blackboard and tell them I brought their Christmas notes!

School closed for the Christmas break the Friday before Christmas and I spent the weekend in my community. As I wouldn’t be there on Christmas day, my friend made me my Christmas meal a few days early: Liberian barbecue and a cabbage salad. The barbecue was delicious: chicken and cow meat in a sauce made of country peanut butter and, of course, Liberian peppeh (peppers). And the salad was a treat as finding any fresh vegetables (besides cucumbers when they’re in season) is not easy in my town!

Liberian barbecue and cabbage salad

On Christmas Eve, I headed into Monrovia to spend a few days with some fellow PC volunteers. I was bummed to miss Christmas at site, when all the children would be running around in their fine new Christmas clothes playing with balloons and noise makers–though I’d already heard plenty of noise makers in the weeks leading up to the holidays!

What’s usually a quick trip into the capital was a bit crazier than usual: from my community into town, I first take a car to an area called red light and get a different car from there into town. Red Light is a big parking hub where you can get taxis to many different parts of the country. It’s also a huge market and being the day before Christmas it was packed–like the equivalent of going to the mall on Christmas Eve! On top of that craziness, I was in a car with not only 7 human passengers, but 7 goats in the trunk along with my suitcase!

Goats in the trunk of the taxi!

After the trip into Monrovia, I was able to spend a couple relaxing days there with Peace Corps friends. We went out to dinner on Christmas Eve at one of the fancy hotels in town, where we took bluffing photos in front of the Christmas tree! And we spent Christmas day hanging out by the pool.

Then the day after Christmas, I headed to the airport to catch my flight… I met my mom in Rome for a week! It was a great trip: we visited the Colosseum and Roman Forum, took a tour of the Vatican and saw the Pantheon and Trevi Fountain.

We took a couple of day trips to see the ruins at Pompeii and Ostia Antica.

One of my favorite things we did was taking a cooking class where we learned to make homemade pasta–it was delicious! Plus, of course, we ate plenty of pizza and more pasta, drank some wine and got gelato even though it was wintertime!

After a great trip, I’m back in Liberia and have been getting back into the routine of things at school, as we’re getting close to the end of the first semester!

Making Belgian Chocolates in Brussels, Belgium

During our week long trip in Belgium, we knew we had to enjoy some famous Belgian chocolates! After a little searching online we found a Belgian chocolate making workshop for 35 euros each. We signed up before our trip to reserve our spots in the class. At 11 am on the day of the workshop, we met our guide, Effie, on the Grand Place just outside the tourist office. Effie then led our group of 22 a few streets away into a building nearby. We split into groups of 2-3 people each with a crockpot of molten chocolate!

In the class we made two different types of chocolates: pralines (hard crisp chocolate on the outside and a soft ganache filling inside) and mendiants (hard chocolate discs with nuts or dried fruits on top). We started the class by tempering our chocolate. Tempering the chocolate is a process to make it smooth and glossy for the shells of our pralines and it is achieved by heating and cooling the chocolate in a specific sequence. We cooled our chocolate from 50 degrees Celsius, down to 33 degrees then back up to 35 degrees. Now our chocolate was all set to start making the shiny shells of our pralines!

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Armed with our molds a spoon and a spatula, one by one we prepped the top layer of our pralines. Praying for perfection we each carefully poured the molten chocolate filling our molds. Since we wanted to leave room for the ganache filling we poured most of the chocolate back into the crockpot hoping for a thin shell. We placed our molds into the freezer to set and moved on to making some mendiants!

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The mendiants were much simpler and almost impossible to ruin. The first step was spooning a thin layer of chocolate on our own wax papers in any shape you wanted to try. Not as easy as it sounds: after attempting a K, I ended up sticking with simple ovals! Next we had an assortment of nuts and dried fruits to chose from to garnish our mendiants. When we put them in the freezer to cool it was neat to see the fun shapes other people attempted!

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After we set our mendiants aside to cool, the class came together to make the ganache filling. A few volunteers, myself included, made our the filling from scratch! Mixing milk chocolate, dark chocolate, cream and honey we created our ganache. We filled piping bags to pass around and everyone took turns adding ganache to their cooled shells. We left a little room for a bottom layer of hard chocolate adding this layer much like we did the first. After the last layer was applied our pralines joined our mendiants in the freezer for one final cool down.

While we waited for our chocolates to set, we used the leftover dark chocolate to make some delicious hot chocolate for while we waited! Each person got their own little chocolate box to put their chocolates in once they cooled. Overall the workshop lasted about 2.5 hours and we walked away with over 30 chocolates each! This chocolate making workshop was definitely a highlight of our trip and none of our chocolates made it back home, they were too delicious to save!

One Week in Denmark: A Copenhagen Based Itinerary

In the fall I was lucky enough to stay in Copenhagen, Denmark for an entire week. There were so many things I wanted to do during my time in Denmark, but here is what I was able to fit in to just one week:

Day One: Arrive in Copenhagen

Full of jetlag, I arrived in Copenhagen in the morning and decided to simply explore the city and enjoy the atmosphere without any particular destinations in mind. I window shopped on the pedestrian street, Stroget and visited the tourist information center for maps to plan out the rest of my week. After mingling in the hostel, I was off to bed early to be well rested for my first of three day trips!

Day Two: Day Trip to Frederiksborg Castle in Hillerod

After a 45 minute train ride I arrived in Hillerod, and made my way towards Frederiksborg Castle. While the skies were clear, I decided to explore the baroque style gardens before visiting the interior of the castle which houses Denmark’s National History Museum. Read all about my day trip here!

Day 3: Day Trip to Roskilde

Since I purchased a 24 hour train pass the day before, I figured I might as well do a second day trip 25 minutes away to Roskilde. The UNESCO World Hertitage Site the Roskilde Cathedral is located in Roskilde. It holds the world record for most royals buried in a single church. Roskilde is also home to the Viking Museum. The indoor/outdoor museum houses 5 salvaged original Viking ships plus many Viking ship recreations tethered on the docks.

Day 4: Explore Copenhagen

For my first full day in the city center, I spent the morning exploring Nyhavn, walking down “Pusher Street” in the free town of Christiania, visiting the Church of our Savior and observing the exterior of Christianborg Palace. After a quick lunch break my new friend and I headed to the Guinness Book of World Records Museum and the Hans Christian Anderson Museum to round out our afternoon.

Since I visited in October, I was just in time for the Halloween themed reopening of Tivoli Garden‘s! We spent the evening traveling around the world, riding rides,  and enjoying the Halloween festivities.

Day 5: Carlsberg Brewery and more exploring in Copenhagen

To begin my day I headed out on a short bus ride with my new friend to Carlsberg Brewery! There we saw a history of Denmark’s beer brewing companies, the Guinness World Record holding largest beer collection, and tasted some delicious brews in the Carlsberg tasting room. Last but not least we took a horse drawn carriage ride through the picturesque streets of Valby!

 

Once we arrived back in Copenhagen’s city center we visited the Marble Church and the royal residence Amelianberg Palace. After the changing of the guards, we made our way towards the famous Little Mermaid statue. Just around the corner, we ended our day exploring the 16th century star shaped fortress called Kastellet or the Citadel.

Day 6: Visit the Kings Garden and the Botanical Garden

After a quick breakfast, I headed out to explore the King’s Garden, just outside the Rosenborg Castle. Designed by King Christian IV in 1606, it is Denmark’s oldest national palace garden.

Just up the road lies the Botanical Garden, a part of Denmark’s Natural History Museum. The garden is arranged by types of plants that live in each biome. Overall there are over 13,000 species of plants!

Day 7: Day trip to see Kronberg Castle and the Louisiana Modern Art Museum

For my last full day in Denmark I decided to embark on one final day trip to see Kronborg Castle otherwise known as Hamlet’s Castle located a 40 minute train ride away from the city center in Helsinger. The renaissance castle is considered the setting for William Shakespeare’s famous tragedy, “Hamlet.” Luckily when I visited there was a Renaissance Fair going on! Read all about it here!  On the way back to the city center I stopped in Humlebaek to visit the Louisiana Museum on Modern Art. The museum features both indoor and outdoor exhibits of all mediums.

Day 8: Fly home

This trip was especially different for me, I’ve very rarely visited one city for an extended period of time. I made very lose plans, then when I made a friend at the hostel I followed along seeing places she wanted to see! While I’m sure there is plenty more to see in and around Copenhagen, this is how I made the most of my time in Denmark!

Attending the Renaissance Fair at Kronborg Castle: A Day Trip from Copenhagen, Denmark

On my last full day in Copenhagen, I decided to venture out of the city center to Helsinger to visit Kronborg Castle, otherwise known as “Hamlet’s Castle”. It is theorized that William Shakespeare was inspired by the lavish banquets hosted by Danish King Frederik IV and Queen Sophie when writing his famous tragedy “Hamlet.”

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After a 40 minute train ride, I could see Kronborg Castle immediately after exiting the train station. On my short walk along the water towards the castle, I found a silver merman statue, similar to the Little Mermaid in Copenhagen, peering towards the ocean. Also along the waters edge were two cute, brightly colored light houses and the statue Herakles og Hydraen or Hercules and the Hydra.

Normally the castle grounds are free to explore in the winter, only the interior has a cost, but I quickly realized today was different. I had stumbled upon a Renaissance fair! There were people dressed in the Renaissance fashion of royalty, guards and common folk alike, plus tents lining the moat selling sweets and handmade items.

After looking at the day’s schedule, I decided to tour the inside of the castle first before attending any Renaissance fair events. While it definitely wasn’t as ornate as the Frederiksborg Castle I visited earlier in the week, the Kronborg castle stemmed from a simpler time period. Visitors were free to explore the bed chambers of King Frederik IV and Queen Sophie, see the King’s elaborately woven tapestry collection and walk through the expansive great hall where banquets were held.

Another feature of the castle itself was the “Casemates”, elaborate tunnels beneath the castle. I stumbled around the dark passages for around ten minutes before reaching the surface. After going underground, I next went to one of the highest points of the castle, the canon tower. After 145 steps up a winding staircase to the top, I could see views of the surrounding city as well as the courtyard below.

Next it was time for some Renaissance fair activities! First up was the “sea battle.” Two tiny row boats with Danish and Swedish soldiers “fought” in the castle moat. It was very much organized chaos but hilariously (possibly drunkenly) done. They even had miniature canons to “shoot” at each other! Kids and their families lined the moat taking in the spectacle.

Next up was the horseman and gentry training, where different weapons of the Renaissance period were demonstrated including the lance and the saber. To follow up what we just learned we got to watch a riding tournament. Although I couldn’t understand what anyone was saying as it was in Dannish, it looked to be another face off between Denmark and Sweden. Two champions from each side competed in various tests of skill such as speed, accuracy of a lance, and use of a saber by cutting apples all while still on horseback! In the end the tournament was won by popular vote so unsurprisingly Denmark took home the victory.

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Although my trip to Kronborg Castle was not exactly what I was expecting, the Renaissance fair added quite a bit of excitement! It was so fun to see the towering castle in a Renaissance setting. If you can, the Renaissance Fair at Kronberg Castle is definitely worth the visit!

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3 Parks to Visit in Copenhagen, Denmark

When you visit a bustling city center you wouldn’t be surprised to see busy shopping streets, and skyscrapers,  but it’s not a guarantee that there will be a quiet place to relax. During my week in Copenhagen, Denmark I found three outdoor spaces to explore all within walking distance from the city center and they were free! If you have the need to get away from the hustle and bustle, check out one of these three parks!

The King’s Garden:

Situated around Rosenborg Castle, the King’s Garden is Denmark’s oldest national palace garden. In 1606, King Christian IV designed the Renaissance style garden while the castle was being constructed. There are multiple areas to walk through including a rose garden, a fountain area, and a children’s play area.

 

The Botanical Garden:

Just a block away from the King’s Garden, the Botanical Garden is a part of Denmark’s Natural History Museum. The Botanical Garden is arranged in different sections each with a different type of plant. My favorite area was the rock garden where you could climb winding paths up a small hill displaying plants from mountainous regions. Overall there are over 13,000 species of plants in the garden. There are also greenhouses to explore but unfortunately they are closed on Mondays in the winter months.

 

Kastellet:

The last Copenhagen getaway is a well preserved star-shaped fortress commissioned back in 1662. Just around the corner from Copenhagen’s famous The Little Mermaid statue, Kastellet or “The Citadel” allows visitors to walk along its ramparts enjoying views of the city. There’s even a historic windmill up there! On ground level along cobblestone streets, there are picturesque 18th century barracks to wander through.

 

If you are looking for a way to escape the city life within walking distance, head to one of these parks!

Visiting the Carlsberg Brewery: The Copenhagen ExBEERience

During my week in Copenhagen, I learned about the famous Carlsberg beers from another girl staying at my hostel. Carlsberg breweries were founded and are still located just outside of central Copenhagen but they export beer worldwide. My new friend had already made plans to go visit the brewery while she was there and I was more than happy to go along for the ride!

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We took the bus from outside Copenhagen Central Station to the town of Valby to get to the Carlsberg Brewery. Turns out there is a free shuttle you can take instead, find its pick up location here! After a short walk down the cobblestone streets we found the brewery entrance. Admittance into the brewery is 100 DKK (~17 USD or 70 DKK/$12 with a student ID) which includes either 2 free beers or a beer and a “free gift.” The gift is a pin with the company logo on it so unless you collect them you’ll probably opt for the second beer.

The first room you’ll enter houses the Guinness World Record largest collection of beer bottles. That day the exhibition had 16,919 bottles of beer from all all over Europe. The entire collection has 22,558 bottles in it!

Next came the museum which started with a history of beer in Denmark, not just the Carlsberg Brewery. J.C. Jacobsen opened his first brewery in 1847 (located where the museum is now!) and named it Carlsberg after his son Carl. Father and son eventually disagreed on how the family business should be run, creating two separate Carlsberg Breweries, Old and New Carlsberg. After J. C. Jacobsen’s death the companies combined forming the Carlsberg Brewery we have today.

After the museum you can explore the Sculpture Garden which includes a replica of the Little Mermaid statue in downtown Copenhagen. From the sculpture garden you enter the stables and can meet some of the brewery horses! Similar to the Anhauser Busch Clydesdales in the United States, the Carlsberg has their own team of Jutland horses. They switched to using only the Danish breed around 1930. The best part is they offer free horse drawn carriage rides through the quant, quiet streets of Valby!

After the carriage ride we headed to the brewhouse for our free beers, you can chose from a variety of Carlsberg beers.  Wanting to catch the next shuttle back we finished our beers quickly and headed out in search of the main entrance with the Elephant Gate, an entrance to the brewery grounds. One of Calrsberg’s signature beers is the Carlsberg Elephant which was first brewed in 1959. Although there was construction going on, the elephant statues were still worth a visit before catching the shuttle bus back to the city center. Overall the Carlsberg brewery had lots to offer and was a great way to spend our morning!

 

A Unique Spa Day at Terme Tettuccio in Montecatini, Italy

After a busy day in Pisa and Lucca, we rushed back to our home base in Montecatini to visit the local spa, Terme Tettuccio before it closed for the evening. Terme Tettuccio isn’t your typical spa, the main treatment is drinking (yes, drinking) thermal spring water. While they also offer the more typical spa enjoyments, their most popular treatment is the spring water from beneath Montecatini  which was known even in Roman times to have special therapeutic properties to treat many ails such as constipation, diabetes, high cholesterol, intestinal diseases and more!

We arrived at the massive romanesque building and couldn’t resist the opportunity to have a photo shoot out front! When we finally entered, we paid our 6 euro admission and received our drinking cups. We immediately found ourselves in a courtyard with small drinking fountains lining one side. There were faucets flowing to fill our cups and many people sitting around enjoying the day. We filled our cups and sat at a small round table to begin our tasting!

Together we cheers to our trip and our friendship then all took a big gulp! Big mistake, it tasted awful! Turns out the therapeutic properties come from the extra chloride, sulphate and sodium that naturally enriches the water. While it may be good for you physically, the taste definitely leaves something to be desired…

With some hesitation, we refilled our cups and set off to explore the grounds. The grounds were even bigger than we realized. We found an outdoor double staircase with a fountain underneath, statues, and more Roman style buildings. We ended our time near the entrance at a gorgeous fountain surrounded by pillars. Cups in hand we tried to get the perfect jumping photo, needless to say we succeeded.

While the water wasn’t delicious, this stop was still one of the highlights from the trip. The grounds were extensive and exquisite. The drinking experience was absolutely hilarious and became my favorite story from our week in Tuscany. If you find yourself near Montecatini its definitely worth the trip!