Saturday, December 3, 2011

Celebrating Sara Karolina Koller

Today we celebrate Sara.  She graced our lives 2 years ago and is the sweetest little angel ever!  We love her cheerfulness - still always smiling - and her courage.  Here's a look back:

First Special Moments
Had daddy wrapped around her finger from the start :-)


Merry Christmas!

We looked back at some pictures that we took in the summer of 2010 recently, which was right around the time when we moved to Switzerland. Sara was still a baby at the time, barely 10 months old, still partially on formula and in many other ways still like a baby.

First Birthday!

Looking at her now, 15 or so months later, she has grown and developed so much. In the past year and a half, she has developed her own personality - as sweet as can be. She is definitely an outgoing and friendly being, a fearless climber and acrobat, a fun child filled with laughter and joy and the greatest blessing a daughter and sister could be to us. Today, December 3rd, 2011, we are celebrating her 2nd birthday in Charlotte with family and some of our closest friends.

Waiting for cake is so hard!

She's such a little princess!

Friday, December 2, 2011

England - Awesome Vacation Destination

September was great. Grandma came to visit from Charlotte, and as you know from our last blog, both April and the kids had a blast while she was here. Thank you so much, Grandma. We loved having you here! After Andy came back from Chicago, it was time to say goodbye to Grandma and get ready for our next big adventure: Vacation time!

After dropping off Grandma at the airport, we packed up the car and headed north. First leg: 560 km / 350 miles; First stop: Ur-oma's house (Great-Grandma's house). Since it is a rather long ride all the way to England, we decided to break the trip up into several legs, to make it easier on the kids (and ourselves of course). Plus, since it wasn't too far out of the way, it definitely made sense to take the opportunity to stop by Ur-oma's house and spend some time there as well. The kids absolutely loved it there. Jonas can be picky with food, but for some reason he loves Ur-oma's cooking and eats like a champ at her house. He even mentioned one time to Ur-oma that "we don't have such good food at our house"... (which of course isn't true, April's cooking is really excellent. She's become quite the chef since we moved to Europe!!) but Jonas made Ur-oma's day when he told her that!

We said goodbye very early Saturday morning, as we had to head out to make the ferry in Calais. The next leg from Plein, Germany to Calais, France, led us through Belgium and then along the North Sea shore from Oostende/Belgium to Calais France, which was probably around another 500km (300 miles). We were booked for the Ferry at 3pm, but made it there early. I guess nobody is really travelling early Saturday mornings so the roads even round Brussels were clear. Luckily the ferries at that time of the year are not at full capacity, so they let us go on the next ferry after we arrived at the port, which carved over 2 hours out of our estimated travel time.

The ferry ride was awesome. We started off in style, that is in the food court with some fish and chips! And before we knew it we could see the famous white cliffs of Dover! Time to get downstairs to the car and head on out... let's see how this driving on left side works! Various friends from the UK and elsewhere had equipped us with plenty of tips, and to be prepared that during the first two days there would be a scare here and there. And boy, were they right! It took about two days and a few very close encounters, but then we had it figured out and from there on out it was easy, actually fun! Andy thoroughly enjoyed driving on English roads, especially the small, narrow country roads.

After we landed in Dover, it was only a short drive to Ashford, Kent. We stayed in Ashford for 2 days to explore Kent before heading on to the "West Country" that following Monday. They had a restaurant next to the hotel in Ashford called "Beefeater", and it was such a delicious dining experience! It was almost like back home in the US: the menu was in English, the wait staff was friendly and the food was awesome! Perfect end of the day.

The next day we drove to Leeds castle.


As you can see in the pictures, it is a beautiful castle with huge surrounding grounds that include a large maze (yes, we needed help getting out of it), a grotto and, best of all for our little brave knight, a huge castle playground, the "Knight's Realm"! Combined with the warm and sunny weather it made for a perfect day!

The next day we ventured to the place Jonas had been looking forward to for quite a bit: Ashdown Forest, or in other words, Pooh`s Hundred Acre Woods. We hiked past Roo's sand-pit, and on to a viewpoint, where we met a very nice local couple who knew all about Winnie the Pooh and where the places are that inspired the story. We hiked on from there too the heffalump trap and then on to Eeyore's dark and gloomy place. After that it was a short drive and a little hike until we got to Poohsticks Bridge.

We ended our excursion in Piglet's Tea Room in Pooh's Corner with our first Cream Tea of the trip (which was to become our favorite breakfast, morning and afternoon snack from then on out...). Cream tea is basically tea served with a scone (plain scone or fruit scone) and clotted cream (which is sweet and with a consistency somewhere between whipped cream and butter.) Needless to say, Jonas developed into a tea-drinking English gentleman.  We absolutely loved it!

The next day (Monday) we packed up the car again and headed West. Our route took us south of London and through Somerset to the county of Dorset. In Somerset our route took us past Stonehenge, which we visited right then. The perfect sunny weather and the approaching evening hour created an atmosphere perfectly fitting this mystical site. And it made for some good pictures as well.

We arrived in Shaftesbury, the closest "market town" to the village where our first cottage was located. We grabbed dinner at KFC and proceeded to the cottage. It was out in the country and not easy to find at first, especially since it was night time by the time we got there. The cottage itself was lovely (after conducting an initial shock-and-awe campaign in every room terminating various spiders and mosquitoes that had intruded - our host had left the windows open during the day). It was spacious, had a fireplace and fully-equipped kitchen, each of our kids had their own room, and we felt right at home.

The cottage was just outside of the village of Marnhull, which is a quaint small village with an inviting old fashioned pub, "The Crown Inn," that serves local Ales and excellent food. (Andy became quite a fan of English Ale on this trip).

During our time in Dorset we visited several castles, which we won't detail but will let the pictures speak for themselves.


We also discovered one of our now most favorite places, the small town of Shaftesbury in Dorset. It is a beautiful medieval town, located on a hill with stunning views, nice pubs, our now favorite cafe "Turnbulls" and April's all time favorite bakery in England, "Indulge".

We visited the Jurassic coast one day and looked for fossils on the beach. Jonas was a little disappointed that he didn't find a fossil, but then again, we think that he was looking for a whole dinosaur, and the fossils there are more of the kinds of Trilobite and other small critters and plants. But even those eluded us at the beach, so Jonas and Andy went looking for a store and simply purchased a small fossil for a pound or two. That seemed to be the more pragmatic approach at that point, and locating an appropriate store should almost count as much as finding a fossil, right?

On another day-trip we went to Portsmouth and Winchester. Portsmouth has a huge Royal Navy Base, and among the active ships you can visit the most prized ship of them all and the pride of the English Royal Navy and the English people in general: the HMS Victory. While we weren't able to take the tour and while it is being renovated and didn't shine in its usual magnificence and glory, it was nevertheless most impressive to just walk around close to the ship. We had read up on the history of the ship a bit, about Admiral Nelson and the battle of Trafalgar, and it was amazing to stand before the ship that had launched England into being the most dominant naval power in the world for a long time. We will definitely be back one day and tour the ship itself.

We stopped in Winchester to see King Arthur`s legendary Round Table, which is displayed at the far wall of the last remaining building of the castle that once was the center of Winchester, the great hall. Other sites we visited include the Giant of Cerne, the city of Salisbury with its beautiful cathedral (and where Jonas and Sara finally got to chose the dinner venue: Pizza Hut!). The cathedral in Salisbury, a sight in its own right, houses one of the remaining original documents known as the Magna Carta, which we found very impressive. And of course we visited our fair share of castles, the most impressive of which were Corfe Castle and Old Wardour Castle, the latter of which was built by Sir Walter Raleigh! Since April grew up in the NC city that was named after him, the visit to this castle was particularly interesting.

After spending almost a week in Dorset, we packed up the car and headed further west to Cornwall. When we arrived in the picturesque fishing town of Mevagissey we were taken by surprise how beautiful this place was. Our cottage was a little above the village, in a neighbourhood atop a cliff, with a stunning view of the sea and the bay from our living room and bedroom windows. We could see the fishing boats go out to sea at night and come back in the morning, and ventured into the center of the town quite often just to find another pub or restaurant or to go shopping. They even had a pirate store, which was a winner with Jonas.


We went on several excursions in Cornwall. One of the first trips was to Tintagel castle. If you are familiar with the tales of the knights of the round table and King Arthur, you will remember that legend has it that Arthur was conceived and born here. Climbing up on top of the cliff and exploring the archaeological site there was a lot of fun. Combined with the rough and windy fall weather, the breathtaking view along the rocky coastline with its majestic cliffs seemingly unphased by the continuous onslaught of waves crashing around them and the undeniable taste of ancient history in the air made this an exciting and memorable experience. On the way back down from Tintagel Castle, Andy and Jonas climbed all the way down to the rocky beach and explored Merlin's cave!

Another day we travelled to the town of Plymouth where we visited the Aquarium. Unfortunately, and to Jonas' disappointment, they did not have the advertised diver show. But, the aquarium itself was quite nice. This was in contrast to the city itself. There's not really very much else to see there. Plymouth was in fact quite important in the history of our country, as it was here where the pilgrim fathers set sail to journey west to eventually start their colony in what is now the United States.
We also visited a small town called Charlestown, which was about 15 minutes away from Mevagissey. Chalestown still looks like a 17th or 18th century harbor, with 3 fairly sizable sailing ships tied to the quay. We learned that the place is quite popular with movie makers, as it provides the perfect backdrop for certain genres of films. Apparently parts of Pirates of the Caribbean was filmed here.
Another quaint little town we visited was Fowey (pronounced "Foy") which provided for nice shopping and good food. We took a little harbor tour there which took us down the river to the china clay docks. One of the main export products of Cornwall is China Clay, and Fowey is one of the harbors where it is loaded onto ships to be sent to china factories around the world.

Towards the end of our stay in Cornwall we visited an apple farm. Apple cider is very popular in the "West Country", and since it was harvest time when we visited the farm, we could see the squeezing and bottling process, as well as taste the different types of cider and finish it all off with some afternoon cream tea :).

All too soon it was unfortunately time to head back, and we decided to do it all in one leg, with a couple breaks on the way in Shaftesbury and somewhere in France for dinner. It was this 18 hour trip that was proof that our kids are now travel hardened. We couldn't be more proud of both Jonas and Sara. They did great on the entire trip which covered over 2,500 km / 1,600 miles, had lots of fun, entertained themselves (and us as well!) and they seemed to truly enjoy it, despite having to be in the car for very long periods at times. And all that without any electronic gadgets or TV's! They have already embraced the travel culture of the Koller family :)
All in all a perfect vacation. In fact, so perfect that we are contemplating going back to England or maybe Scotland next summer!