Monday, December 29, 2014

Christmas in Karlovy Vary

Here is my tale of spending Christmas in a castle. You heard me right. Christmas. In. A. Castle. 

After the fiasco of Thanksgiving and my being sick, I was bound and determined to go somewhere and do something at Christmas. There were three major reasons I wanted to travel for Christmas. One, traveling is awesome. Period. Two, we have time off and a few free days which could potentially allow us to go somewhere a bit farther away or deserving more time. Three, having Christmas with just the two of us away from our family can be a bit dull. We spent the first two years at home over Christmas, and by Christmas afternoon we were looking at each other going "now what?". The presents are open, we have watched endless amounts of TV and movies, and we don't know what else to do. Although it is nice to be lazy and relax, staying at home can get a little boring. Last year we traveled for Christmas and it was fun, so we decided to give it another try this year.

The challenge of finding a place to go for Christmas is finding a place which will have things (restaurants, attractions) open during Christmas and a place which has some sort of "entertainment" to fill a day on Christmas Day. I was set on trying to use our time to go somewhere new and somewhere farther away. Enter Karlovy Vary. We went to the Czech Republic once back in 2012 to Prague. We enjoyed Prague, but we haven't been back. It is a long drive, which is the main reason we haven't been back. I looked into some options for the Czech Republic and found Karlovy Vary. I did some research into the area and found an amazing hotel for us. Idea sold. Karlovy Vary for Christmas. 

Karlovy Vary is known for being an old spa town. When I hear the word "spa" I think of massages, facials, waxing - a very typical American view. In Karlovy Vary they have many spas which revolve around the idea of building a custom "treatment plan" for your ailments which centers around treatments such as massage, reflexology, oxygen therapy, herbal baths, and treatments of this nature. Their view of a spa is of a place of healing and treatment rather than luxury and pampering (although their spas include this as well). The town has natural hot springs, and the water of these springs is said to have natural healing properties, and is incorporated into the spa treatments. Karlovy Vary is also well known for crystal production and shopping. It sounded like an interesting place to explore.

Many of the hotels in the area have their own "in house" spa facility. My plan was to find a hotel with a "spa" that would be open over Christmas for us to relax, and then we could explore the town after Christmas. Ya'll... I struck hotel gold. In my searching, I found a hotel outside of town, but it had spa facilities. When I looked more into the property I discovered it was a renovated castle. Yes. A castle. Where do I sign up?

I am happy to say with our entire holiday there was only one minor hiccup. When I was planning the dates of our hotel stay, I asked Josh if he had Christmas Eve, the 24th, off. He told me he did. I figured we would leave on the morning of the 24th and would arrive at our hotel sometime in the late afternoon. As it turns out, Josh can't keep his dates straight, or we got our wires crossed, and he had to work on the 24th (such is the life of the military). He got off work around 2, and we were on the road at 3. Not exactly what I had planned, but I had booked our first night for the 24th, so we were getting to our hotel come hell or high water. It is about a six hour drive to Karlovy Vary, and we divided the drive in half. I took the first half allowing Josh to eat a late lunch/early dinner in the car. Let's just say I was pushing to see how fast the diesel engine in my car could go... We pulled into a truck stop right before the Czech border around 8 PM to buy the road pass you need to drive in the Czech. At this point we hadn't eaten dinner. I had thought (originally) that we would eat at the hotel, but then when our time frame changed, I thought we would find something (a restaurant or McDonalds or something) at a rest stop along the drive. Turns out everything is closed on Christmas Eve. Everything. We pulled off to check at a few different places along the way. Finally at 8 PM we bought gas station pre-packaged sandwiches... because there was nothing else. Not exactly what I had in mind. It kind of makes me laugh to think we ate our pathetic Christmas Eve dinner alone, in our dark car somewhere near the Czech border. But. We made it to our hotel shortly after that with no issues.

And what a hotel it was. Although it has been renovated and is, in many ways, modern, the designer of the hotel put a lot of effort into having old world touches. I don't need to describe this, I should just show you.

We got settled into our room and called it a night. By the time we got our luggage inside it was around 10 PM. The next morning was Christmas morning. After breakfast we went back to our room to open up our presents (yes, I packed them with us). We watched some TV, and then decided to go check out the hotel's spa area. There was a a traditional Czech spa, but there was also a pool area which had a pool, steam room, sauna, hot tub,  and Turkish bath area. We spent a good part of the afternoon in the pool area making a path between the steam room, sauna, hot tub, and pool. After we were thoroughly water logged, we went back to our room to relax and drink some wine. To be a bit productive with our day, we decided to take a walk outside the hotel and explore the hotel grounds. It was a mild, somewhat sunny day outside. The area around the hotel was beautiful. Later in the afternoon we returned to the pool, and then had a nice dinner at the hotel. It was an awesome Christmas day spent relaxing.

 The next morning after breakfast, we drove into Karlovy Vary intent on exploring the town. I was surprised to see many people out walking around the day after Christmas, and while some shops were closed, there were plenty open for business. There are many areas throughout Karlovy Vary which have spigots where you can collect the natural spring water - which is known for its healing properties. There are souvenir stands near these areas selling small cups with a built-in straw for sipping the water. Out of curiosity, Josh collected some water in his water bottle. I thought it tasted like warm, flat, mineral water. Not bad, but not good either. I didn't exactly feel "healed" either. Ha ha. I was content to just walk around Karlovy Vary - it is a beautiful place.

When I was researching things to do in Karlovy Vary, I found something I knew both Josh and I would enjoy. I had read a book - The Bloodletters Daughter by Linda Lafferty (I highly recommend it) - which talked about a small town in the Czech Republic back in the 1600s. In this book the main character's family owns a "bar" where men come in to soak in large beer barrel tubs and drink beer. I had a picture of this in my mind... In my research I found a place in Karlovy Vary that is a beer "spa" - basically taken straight from the book I read. You can rent out a room for an hour at a time. There are two "barrels" (which are really small hot tubs decorated to look like a barrel), and you are charged for the number of people and the number of barrels you use. During your hour of time you can soak in the tubs, help yourself to unlimited beer, or rest/relax on a straw bed. I wanted to see this because of my book. I knew Josh would be game for the idea of unlimited beer and soaking in a beer tub. I made a reservation for us the day after Christmas. After walking around Karlovy Vary and eating a late lunch, we found the beer spa.

The interior was smaller than I thought it would - it is a small little room. A woman prepared our "barrels" for us - she filled them with hot water, hops, a glass of beer (yes, she just poured a big mug of dark beer into the water) and some other herbs. She turned on the jets to the tub, and then told us she would knock on the door when our hour was up. Josh and I hopped into our tubs and poured ourselves a beer. I have to say, my idea of hot water and the European idea of hot water are two different things. When we have gone places with a hot tub, the temperature is always lower than I would like and I find myself getting chilled. This is how I felt about my hops soak - I was wishing it was warmer. But, the experience was neat. Josh enjoyed himself immensely and helped himself repeatedly to the beer. I enjoyed myself, though I have to say, my skin smelled a bit odd when we were done. Or maybe I don't like the idea of hops perfume.

After our lovely beer bath, we slowly made our way back to the car. Even though we had already had a bath, we went back to the hotel to spend time in the steam room/sauna and relax further. It was the perfect end to the day.

The next morning we went back in Karlovy Vary intent on doing some shopping. Karlovy Vary is known for crystal, and you can find crystal in almost every store. Crystal wine glasses, decanters, chandeliers. Crystal everywhere. I knew there was a lot of crystal and that Karlovy Vary was a hub for shopping, but I didn't realize how much shopping there would be. Another reason Karlovy Vary is known for shopping is the currency exchange rate makes crystal much more affordable. Josh and I were interested in possibly buying ourselves some crystal, but I wanted to do some research to find out what I was looking for and what I needed to know about crystal. Armed with some internet research, we went shopping. We ended up finding a set of wine glasses, brandy sniffers, champagne flutes, and two decanters. Oh... and a chandelier. Uh. yeah. Well. You know what they say. When in Rome. Right now the chandelier is sitting in its box where it will stay for the next few years until we move into our "forever" home. But, for the price we paid... I am happy to let it sit and wait.

We went back to our hotel and spent more time in the pool/spa area. I feel the time I spent in the sauna/steam room helped clearing the last of the junk out of my lungs. I made an appointment at the spa to have a foot reflexology massage. It was heaven. It really rolled all the things I loved into one perfect day - shopping, Josh, food, wine, relaxation, massage. Sigh.

The next morning we got up and packed to make our way home. We knew there would be traffic out on the road, and we didn't want to get stuck somewhere along the way behind an accident. Our drive home was uneventful. We had a wonderful Christmas to ourselves. Karlovy Vary was a beautiful treasure of a town. Our hotel was a dream come true. We had a fantastic time bonding and relaxing, recapping our year together, and talking about the year to come.

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pre Christmas Chaos

After I "ruined" Thanksgiving, we plowed into the month of December. December always seems to be a busy month - getting ready for the holidays decorating, shopping, wrapping, shipping... Due to the pneumonia, I wasn't up for doing much for the first part of December. Well, really the whole month. Normally I am trying to convince Josh to go to as many Christmas markets as possible. This year I just didn't feel up to it. I really wanted to try to get out to see some markets we haven't been do, but at the end of the week I just wanted to lay on the couch or sleep. The cold air wasn't exactly kind to my lungs either. I didn't enjoy spending time outside, and well, Christmas markets are outdoors. The worst part of recovering from pneumonia? The lingering cough. Every time I started laughing I would choke and start coughing. I laugh a lot, so that meant a lot of coughing... and from a few weeks of coughing my stomach/chest muscles were tired and sore. Coughing hurt.

However. We did get to one Christmas market in December, and it was a new one for us. St. Wendel is located closer to where I work, and I have been told by many people it is a cute market to go to. We have missed it every year do to being busy or being gone when the market it is up. This year we managed to make our way there for a Saturday. I can see why this market it a favorite for some people - the town of St. Wendel is small with narrow, winding pedestrian streets. It was a nice Saturday afternoon.

A minor fiasco in our preparing for Christmas...
I must first say in the time we have lived overseas, we have been very lucky with shipping things. Although sometimes things take more time than I would like, we have always gotten the things we have ordered, and our recipients have gotten packages we sent. It seems in the past few months we have had some bad luck. I sent off a package to a girlfriend in October full of books and candy. It never arrived. It was lost. It seems to have disappeared into thin air. Frustrating. It's not really about the things I sent (they weren't that big of a deal), it is the principle. Then, we had some issues with packages my parents sent. My mom always spoils us, and she sent us four boxes the first week of December. Two boxes got to us right away. One box showed up two weeks later (right before Christmas) and it had been destroyed. The base post office stated they recieved it damaged. The box and all of the contents had major water damage, so at some point in time the box sat outside in the weather. This will give you a good idea...

The final box had issues getting to us and we got it sometime after the New Year. It is frustrating to have that happen. I really don't care about the presents that got ruined or the fact that I didn't get things on time. I am upset that my mom was so upset by it. The entire situation is frustrating.

But. I wasn't going to let my pneumonia or packages ruin my plans for Christmas.