Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Highlights of Europe's Smallest Countries

Living in Europe has given us an amazing opportunity to not only explore some of the major European countries (France, Germany, Italy, Spain, etc.) but also some of its smaller, lesser known countries as well.

The first small country we visited was the Vatican City, back in May 2014. Vatican City is .44 square kilometers, or .17 square miles. It essentially contains St. Peter's Square and Basilica, along with the Vatican Museum and Gardens. It is considered the smallest country in the world both in terms of area and by population (somewhere around 800 people).  We were lucky enough to visit on a Wednesday, so we did get to see Pope Francis greet the people gathered in the Square before making our way to the Vatican Museums.

The second small country we visited was the country of Liechtenstein in June, 2014. We took a road trip from Switzerland to Austria and Germany, and on the way back to Zurich decided to take a short detour into Vaduz, the capital city of Liechtenstein. 

Liechtenstein is the 4th smallest country in Europe, by area, checking in at 160 square kms, or 62 square miles. Liechtenstein's claim to fame is that it has the lowest amount of external debt of any country in the world. That is likely because it is well situated in the Alps, which brings in tourism, and they also use the Swiss Franc as their currency, which is one of the strongest in the world. 

The highlight of our trip was definitely a 'train ride' tour of the city of Vaduz, where we were able to see the palace of the monarchs of the country, as well as the vineyards and views of the countryside.

In September 2014, we went to the second smallest country in Europe, which is Monaco. Monaco is 2 square kms or about .78 square miles. Monaco is of course home to one of the most famous casinos in the world, as well as one of the most famous Grand Prix races. Therefore, Monaco is also quite wealthy and boasts one of the lowest unemployment rates in the world. 

Surprisingly, the local residents of Monaco are prohibited by law from gambling in the Monte Carlo casino. Also prohibited are tourists who try to come in wearing open-toed shoes, hence the reason the picture is taken outside.

Finally, in January, we visited Luxembourg, which is MUCH larger than the other small countries we visited. Luxembourg measures a whopping 2586 square kilometers, or about 998 square miles. While this is still smaller than the smallest US state of Rhode Island, it felt huge compared to the other small countries we've visited. (Also, I swear when I was growing up I was told this was the smallest country in Europe - what lies!! It is the 7th smallest!) We spent the majority of our time in Luxembourg City, which is a very charming old-style European city. We enjoyed walking along the old city walls as well as exploring the city's town square and restaurants.

While collectively we probably only spent a total of 48 hours in these 4 countries, they are definitely worth a visit. The main thing is that they are surprisingly self sufficient, and therefore their residents enjoy an amazing quality of life. 

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Deep Freeze!

About a week ago, we spotted snow in London for the first time, and I have proof!

Ok, it was barely a dusting, and by mid-day it had disappeared. Two winters and counting, that's the extent of the snowfall London has received.

People almost universally complain about winter weather and Londoners are no exception. The past few weeks, temperatures have dipped below 32° a few times at night, which is colder than usual for this time of year. Almost everyone in my office would arrive and immediately whinge about how unbearably cold it was.

Coming from Chicago, I've always thought these conversations were amusing. If I were commuting this time of year in Chicago, I'd at least be wearing boots, a heavy coat, scarf, earmuffs, and gloves - gore-tex ones if it was super cold. In London, even on the coldest of days all you need is a coat and maybe a pair of gloves.

That's why I tell everyone that I think winter weather in London is fantastic. I walk to work, and I never have to worry about navigating piles of dirty slush water or slipping on ice. Perhaps I'll need an umbrella, but that's about it.

I'd love to see how the city would handle a few inches of snow. My guess is that the public transport would grind to a halt and all the one-liter diesel hatchbacks that people drive would be useless. Salt trucks are known as gritting lorries here, and I don't think there are very many of them to handle all the city roads.

In my mind the biggest downside of winter here is the absence of daylight. At 52°N latitude, London is farther north than Calgary, and in the darkest days of winter the sun sets before 4pm.

That isn't the best for tourists this time of year, as it's difficult to do any sightseeing in the dark. However in the months leading up to Christmas, London is at its most festive with many of the main streets illuminated by Christmas decorations. The city really does go all out for Christmas, making it one of the best times to visit.

So as much as people complain about it, winter here could be far worse!

Wednesday, February 4, 2015

Hot Cross Buns and Mince Pies - Festive UK Treats

Earlier today, one of my co-workers brought in hot cross buns. I've had hot cross buns before; you can find them year-round in the grocery store. They come in a variety of flavors, the most typical being a white based dough with spices (Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Ginger, Cloves, Allspice, etc.) and dried fruit (raisins, sultanas, currants). Other flavors include apple and cinnamon or orange and cranberry. What I didn't realize, because you can find them these days throughout the year, is that they are traditionally an Easter time treat.

I decided to look into this a little bit more, and there is some interesting history surrounding this pastry. Apparently during Elizabethan times, the sale of hot cross buns on days other than Good Friday, Christmas, or days of burials was forbidden. If you were caught with illegal buns, you had to give them all up and they would be used to feed the poor. I couldn't find a particularly good explanation as to why this was decreed. It may have been because the buns were thought to have religious significance, and given the turmoil between protestant and catholic religions at the time, it was better to just not have them around in order to avoid conflict.

There are many other superstitions surrounding the buns, which include using them for medicinal purposes, warding off evil spirits, and nailing them to the rafters of houses (or pubs). However, it does seem that some old habits die hard, and even though nowadays it is lawful to sell the buns year-round, they are still seen as an Easter treat.

My guess is that this is because a different type of treat dominates the Christmas season, and that is the mince pie. (They also fancy Christmas puddings here, but you see more mince pies in the grocery store.) Mince pies used to be made with actual meat in the 'mincemeat', along with the same types of spices used in hot cross buns. However, these days the 'mince' is made mostly of dried fruits, spices, and some brandy. Some recipes do call for lard to be used, which is the only meat product that goes into the pie.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the mince pie has a similar quirks surrounding it, such as it is bad luck to refuse one, you should only stir the mince in clockwise fashion while making them, and so on.

I suppose when you have a history as long as the UK does, a few oddities tend to show up in festive traditions. Who knows, maybe in 200 years' time, it will be bad luck to eat pumpkin pie without whipped cream on top.