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Jan 31, 2014

6 Reasons To Visit Germany's Rheingau Region

An idyllic valley nestled between the Taunus hills and Rhine River, the Rheingau Region holds a sunny place in the hearts of wine lovers all across the globe. Not only is the Rheingau known for its delicious wines and proximity to large cities like Frankfurt and Cologne, it's also renowned for its stunning views, numerous hiking and biking trails, castles, and rich trade history. I feel so fortunate to have been able to live in Wiesbaden, Germany's "gateway of the Rheingau" for the last 3 years. Since moving here, D and I have grown to love and appreciate all the wonderful sights, tastes, and activities this region has to offer tourists and locals alike. With every visitor that rolls through Haus Coté, we love introducing the splendor of the Rhine…so allow me to share 6 reasons why you should plan a trip to visit this beautiful wine-lovers paradise:

The Wine

You can't come to Germany and not try the wine. You just can't! The best place to enjoy a glass of Germany's most coveted Riesling is the Rheingau Region. The Rheingau has a long tradition of wine-making, having just about every town and village along the Rhine River as home to a dozens of award-winning wineries. Known as the birthplace of Spätlese, each winery in the Rheingau produces their own wonderful array of dry to sweet and even super sweet wines (Eis wines) all for enjoying with traditional German dishes or light meat and cheese platters. The main wine grape varieties produced in the Rheingau are Riesling (this region proudly produces about 78% Riesling wine varieties) and Pinot Noir (Spätbugunder-red), but you'll also be able to find Müller-Thurgau (cross between Riesling and Madeleine Royal grapes), and Dornfelder (red) grapes. This wine region really has something for every wine lovers palate. Some of my favorite wineries in this region? Kaspar Herek in Oestrich-Winkel, Theo Kreis in Hallgarten, and Egert Winery in Hattenheim. Go forth and drink, my friends!

The Castles & History

Another one of my favorite things about the Rheingau Region…the CASTLES! There are dozens of castles towering over the Rhine River that are just dying to be explored. Some have been renovated and are still fully intact (like Burg Rheinstein) while others, like Burg Rheinfels and Erhenfels, are in ruins. Many of the Rheingau castles you can still visit and wander their grounds, while others have been turned into restaurants and hotels for guests to enjoy history in another fun way. Click here to see a map of castles along the Rhine River.

The Festivals

Germans love a good festival and the Rheingau Region hosts some pretty fabulous ones throughout the year. But the best festivals, the ones that draw in thousands of locals and tourists alike, are typically held in the summertime and are centered around the region's best attribute…WINE! During the summer months, you can enjoy the Rheingau Musik Festival, the Rheingau Gourmet & Wine Festival, and my personal favorite the Rheingauer Weinwoch held in Wiesbaden every August. The internationally known Wiesbaden Winefest (as it's known to us American folk abroad) spans 10 days and hosts over 100 different wineries from all around the Rheingau wine growing region. You can hop from tent to tent and sample Germany's best Rieslings and munch on local culinary delights while enjoying live music and the beautiful scenery of the Wiesbaden Marktplatz. In addition to these larger festivals, various villages along the Rhine River also host individual wine festivals throughout the summer and fall months. For a complete calendar of Rheingau events in 2014…you can click here (in German, but just pop it into Google Translate).

The Rhein Aflame

Speaking of fabulous festivals…every year from May to September, the Rheingau hosts the Rhein in Flammen (Rhine in Flames), one of Germany's most spectacular displays of lights and fireworks. The Rhine Aflame happens along the most scenic stretches of the Rhine River-from Rüdesheim to Bonn, Spay to Koblenz- and accompanies numerous festivals and celebrations in Rheingau towns. You can either enjoy the firework displays from various points along the Rhine River bed or hop aboard an illuminated party boat and be a part of the sailing processional that triggers each firework show along the river. We experienced this tradition firsthand last summer and I have to say, it's one of the most memorable events we've been to in Germany. It's romantic and absolutely unforgettable…a feast of the senses the whole family can enjoy!

The Incredible Views

There is no shortage of incredible, awe-inspiring views around the Rheingau region. From driving village to village along the Rhine River to enjoying a birds-eye view atop any one of the region's Seilbahns (chair lifts/funiculars), you can experience many different perspectives of this beautiful area of Germany. Might I suggest chair lift ride up to the Niederwald Monument in Rüdesheim? Or taking in the views from the balcony of Rheinstein castle? How about a quiet dinner among the vineyards at Schloss Johannisburg? No matter where you go or what you do in the Rheingau region, prepare to experience some of the most stunning vistas in all of Germany.

The Outdoor Activities

In addition to riding the various chair lifts and funiculars along the Rhine River, there are many other outdoor activities at your disposal when visiting the Rheingau. One of my favorite Rhine adventures was the day we got to pick grapes for a batch of wine at a local winery. It was back-breaking work, but the beautiful views and overflowing glasses of Riesling made it all worthwhile. Grape picking not your thing? Perhaps you'd enjoy a hike along the Rheinsteig, a 320 km trail that links Bonn, Koblenz, and Wiesbaden together amongst many vineyards, forests, and breathtaking views on the Rhine River. These trails can be quite steep and narrow, but they were designed to create a journey into nature that's unparalleled to any other region throughout Germany. The Rhine Castle trail  also offers wonderful views as well as opportunities to enjoy Germany's rich history while strolling from castle to castle. Looking for a more leisurely outdoor activity? Taking a Rhine River Cruise might just be your speed. You can hop aboard the KD Rhine at various stops along the river and enjoy a day of sailing from village to village. You can choose to get off the boat and explore German towns like Rüdesheim or Assmannshausen, or you can stay on board, enjoy a glass of wine, and relax as the castles and vineyards pass you by.

As if this wasn't already evident enough from my previous points, the best reason to visit the Germany's Rheingau region is might be just because it's absolutely gorgeous. You can WWII sight-see in Berlin, walk the medieval wall in Rothenburg, but nothing can compare to sipping wine and taking in all of nature's splendor as you wander the villages and vineyards of the Rhine River. Spend a day or spend a week, but don't miss out on experiencing one of Germany's best kept regions.

Jan 29, 2014

Exploring Marrakech: Mosques, Tombs, and Souks

With only 5 hours to experience the wonders of Marrakech, we set out on foot (and occasionally on bus) to some of the city's most popular sights. Our tour guide was absolutely wonderful…divulging as much history and culture as he could feed our excited minds. Here's a quick rundown of the main sights we visited during our Marrakech experience:

Koutoubia Mosque & Gardens: Known as the largest mosque in Marrakech, Koutoubia stands as a prominent historic landmark among its lush gardens and expansive plaza areas. Its Moorish minaret towers an impressive 253 feet above the surrounding palm trees. Koutoubia (meaning 'booksellers') earned its name from the 100 booksellers that clustered themselves around its base in the 12th century. At the top of the minaret, there are 4 copper orbs. Legend has it that these orbs were formerly made of solid gold, and were only 3 orbs instead of 4. The 4th orb was said to have been donated to the mosque by the wife of Yaqub-al-Mansur as a penance for breaking her fast for 3 hours during Ramadan. The mosque is not currently open to non-muslims, but the plaza and surrounding gardens are worth a leisurely stroll.

Menara Gardens & Pavilion: As working farm and garden, Menara Pavilion is famed for its beautiful olive groves, reflecting pool, and Atlas Mountains backdrop. It's the perfect spot for a quiet walk or a picnic along the water. You can experience some great views from the balcony of the menzeh, the centerpiece of the reflecting pool. Just outside the pavilion entrance, you can catch a camel ride (although we opted to keep our feet firmly planted on Moroccan soil that day). Free admission. 

Bahia Palace: With a name meaning "brilliance," it was easy to see why Bahia Palace is such a popular landmark in Marrakech. Inlaid woodwork ceilings, sunburst zellige tiling, colorful stained glass windows…this palace is a perfect example of beautiful Moroccan architecture and design. While only 8 out of the palace's 150+ rooms are open to the public, you can still visit the opulent harem once home to Bou Ahmed's 4 wives and 24 concubines. The courtyards (which are still used to receive foreign dignitaries) are also quite idyllic and charming. This was one of our favorite attractions in Marrakech! Admission fee is 10 Dirhams (equals roughly €2).

Saadian Tombs & Kasbah Mosque: Only recently discovered in 1917, the Saadian Tombs (within the right corner of the Kasbah Mosque) have become a popular tourist attraction because of their colorful tile decoration, Arabic script, and elaborate carvings. One interior mausoleum is home to the tombs of 60+ members of the Saadi Dynasty, while the garden area is laid with over 100 more princes and members of the royal household. Lines can get long, so prepare for a wait! Admission fee: 10 Dirhams (roughly €2).

Marrakech Souks: The souks of Marrakech reminded much of the bazaars of Istanbul…cheap knick-knacks, pashminas, pottery, lamps, carpets, teas/spices…the whole market nine yards. These kinds of markets are always worth a visit to experience the sights and sounds typical of a bustling hub of trade and tourism. You can find souks, both large and small, around almost every corner in Marrakech, so make sure to shop around the best prices on whatever you may buy. It's important to keep an open mind when experiencing cultural scenes like souks, but also be aware of your surroundings and avoid pushy vendors. Haggling is expected, but remember to be respectful. And of course, watch out for items that are "Made in China."

Jemaa el-Fna Square: This large square in the heart of Marrakech Medina quarter (Old city) is quite popular among tourists and locals alike. Within this square, you can find a myriad of street performers, teens walking around with apes on chains, snake charmers, food carts, juice vendors, magicians, handicraft peddlers, and Berber musicians. Needless to say, this place is quite the spectacle. On one side of the square, you can also find the entrance to a popular souk. I have to admit, I was a bit afraid to snap photos here. If any street vendor or performer saw you with a camera pointed in their direction, they immediately propositioned you for money. If you denied their request (as I watched many tourists do), the street performers got upset and often times, a bit aggressive. We were warned about this before entering the square, so I was armed with spare change just in case. The most fascinating sight to see? The snake charmers. We stood as far away as possible (because let's face it, snakes are terrifying), but close enough to watch as men held them above the shoulders of brave tourists and coaxed them to stillness with music. Mind boggling. This square is also where I purchased some really cute harem pants (for my fashion inclined sister) and some fun souvenirs for my own collection. 

Miss any of my previous posts on Marrakech? You can catch up on them here & here!

Jan 27, 2014

A Meal in Marrakech

After a long, but fascinating drive from Casablanca, we arrived in Marrakech just in time for lunch. Instead of diving right into sight-seeing, our tour guide led our cruise group to a restaurant within the Medina, a UNESCO World Heritage center and famed historic district of Marrakech. Upon arriving to the restaurant, we knew we were in for a treat. Situated just a few steps from Jemaa el Fna square, from the outside, this restaurant looked rough...but as soon as we walked through the threshold, the colorful zellige tile work, Berber carpets, and smell of tajine delights excited our senses. 

After our arrival was announced by the drums and singing of an Atlas Berber group, we were sat at large, round tables surrounded by pillows covered in lush fabrics. While the name of the restaurant absolutely excapes me, the atmosphere was perfectly Moroccan. The tables were already set, mounds of fresh bread and bottles of Moroccan wine ready for the sipping. Just as soon as we started passing the wine around the table, a man dressed in a traditional kaftan came and allowed us to wash our hands in a Moroccan hand-washing basin. This was a tradition I wasn't expecting, but so loved participating in! Shortly after, our waiter scurried over with a family-style plate of seasoned vegetables and typical Moroccan salads. Like clockwork, once the vegetable plate was cleaned, an overflowing platter of couscous and squash was rushed to our dining space. D and I were like ravenous animals…the wine, the veggies, and the couscous were deliciously filling…and we hadn't even gotten to the meat course yet! 

As the Atlas Berber group continued to play, a Moroccan belly dancer popped out from behind one of the arches and danced her way around the restaurant, stopping only to shake her hips in front of the most blushing bachelors. The whole room was alive with music and clapping, laughing and clanging of glasses…everyone enjoying their lunch with a show. While the belly dancer worked the room, a tagine filled with chicken marinated in olives, onions, and herbed oil was placed in front of us. I'm not usually a fan of chicken on the bone, but the meat was so juicy and flavorful, I hardly noticed the bone! It was hands down the best part of our meal. Our last course was a bowl full of freshly-picked mandarines, perfectly sweet and a wonderful end to our traditional Moroccan meal.

While this restaurant was obviously geared to attract the tourists (you could purchase photos of yourself with the belly dancers and of your hand washing experience), we still enjoyed every darn second of our lunch there. We felt like we got a good taste the local cuisine and a fun peek into some of the traditions that go along with dining the Moroccan way. With our bellies and cameras full, we made our way out to the streets of Marrakech to start exploring. Stay tuned for more from Morocco!
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