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  • Niki Harry

Germany/France-Natasha's Birthday surprise

My niece Natasha was doing a semester abroad in Strasbourg France for 2 1/2 months. Since now we have all the time in the world and we are retired, we thought: what an amazing opportunity for us as well! So we planned the whole trip and decided to live in Europe for 2 months while she was there.

BUT she did not know that. It was to be a surprise for her. One week after she left it would be her 19th birthday and that was our plan.. to shock her on her birthday.

Oct 16th – Natasha (in the red plaid shirt) with her classmates at the airport in Toronto ready to leave for their big adventure.

Five days after Natasha left we followed suit. She was living in Strasbourg, France and we chose to stay on the German side, across the Rhine river and about 40 minutes away in a small village called Berghaupten, just on the outskirts of Gengenbach. This was our home for 2 months. We had a gorgeous 2 bedroom upper floor, fully furnished and equiped apartment. We were on the edge of the Black Forest, with a ton of hiking opportunities in the area.

The village of Gengenbach.

We arrived on Tuesday Oct 22nd. We spent 2 days getting ourselves oriented. We drove past her residence and school, we scoped out Strasbourg and we found the restaurant where she was to be on her birthday with all her classmates. Her teacher was in on the surprise and gave us all the details about their whereabouts that day. I was so excited and couldn’t wait for the moment as we were planning this for over 10 months!

Finally! The day arrived. October 24th – Nat’s 19th birthday. We arrived early and sat in the restaurant when the class walked right past us, including Natasha who did not notice us. Once they were all seated, we got a beer and just casually walked up to her and handed it to her. She nearly died from shock! Not in a million years did she expect to see us there for her big moment. Many tears were shed by a few of us and I was so happy that we pulled it off. We surprised her with a cake and then were finally able to relax

A few images of Strasburg.

Nat’s school and dorm, Chateau Pourtale.

​The weather was glorious during the end of October. We spend many hours hiking and exploring the surrounding areas. The leaves were just starting to turn.

A view of our house/apartment on the outskirts of the black forest.

We then decided to take a drive to Croatia and spend 7-10 days there as Natasha was busy with school and we had lots of time to do whatever we wanted. I have never been home at this time of year and have always wanted to go during olive picking season and be a part of that annual tradition. We surprised all the family members as they had no idea we were in Europe at this time of year.

Early morning sunrise view from our patio… saying good-bye once more. And a 13 hour drive back to Germany.

A few days after we arrived back in Germany to our apartment, my sister and her friend arrived from Toronto. They spent a week in Paris and then came to stay with us for a week and to visit with Natasha. This is one of my favourite little towns, Baden-Baden, Germany.

We toured around the region, checked out some castles, checked out the Christmas markets, shopped and of course, did lots of wine tasting!

We also took a long drive one day and took them to Lietchtenstein and to Switzerland. Specifically Vaduz and Zurich. Amazing that you can go to so many countries in such a short time. It only took 3 hours to get to Vaduz, Lietchtenstein.

This is Vaduz Castle and is the palace and official residence of the Prince of Liechtenstein.

​We spent the last evening with them in Zurich touring around the city and enjoying a nice meal together.

The girls went back home to Canada on Nov 14th.

John and I continued our daily jaunts, discovering as much as possible.

​We visited 9 countries and drove 9800 kms. We drove through most of the black forest. We hiked. We visited and walked the majority of the towns & villages on the German and French side. We drove the entire Alsace wine route.

We discovered a very cool monkey sanctuary in the Vosges mountains in France. It reminded me of Jurassic park, with the massive fence & huge electronic gate keeping the animals in and humans out. They allow you walk around with the animals - which are wild and have huge teeth might I add! I am a little unsure right here... and so is he by the looks of it.

They give you food so that you can actually give them some treats.

My favourite photo which I captured of a macaque family.

We encountered unexpected and bizarre ice and snow storms during some of our scenic drives and climbed right to the top of some mountain where you could see the Swiss Alps behind us.

High up above the clouds and extremely cold up here.

We found amazing old castles and churches.

​We visited Belgium and Luxembourg for the first time. We became part of the village life with locals getting accustomed to seeing us & trying to have conversations with us. Grocery shopping was always a challenge & a great laugh.. our smart phone and translation apps came in very handy. My Mac and Netflix were saviours at night time.

And of course, the famous European Christmas markets were in full swing and quite amazing to have witnessed in so many towns and different countries.

We discovered three favourite restaurants in the area. One, oddly enough, was Thai along with local German food. The same owner, the same cook. Amazingly the food was excellent.. especially the Thai. But it was extremely difficult to order as nothing was in english and it was a guessing game. We took our chances each time and each time it was all delicious. But everywhere we went, we indulged in delicious food.

This was a wine bar in our small town Gengenbach. The wines were delicious and one of the only places around that carried world wines and not just local Alsace wines. Their appetizers were delicious as well.

Tim’s steakhouse was our ultimate favourite and we went there 4 times. The steak was the closest to what we would expect to get at a high end restaurant in Canada, the sides were all delicious and healthy, mostly various vegetables. The owners Tim and Nina were wonderful friendly people and were thrilled with our return visits and high praise.

And Raclette.. so yummy! A specialty from this region. Melted cheese on crusty bread, with some prociutto. DE-licious.

I love the outdoor seating which always provides blankets if it ends up being a bit on the chilly side.

Every window on every home is uniquely decorated for the Christmas festivities.

We treated ourselves to two nights at this old chateau in Luxembourg. We had the only suite in the whole place. It was phenominal.

Driving along in Belgium, I saw a sign that kinda blew me away… a town named after me! This is my real name. My first name.. which I never use. And this is exactly how I spell it too. I had to stop and have a photo taken.

We drove back to Switzerland and went to visit my cousin & her husband who live just outside of Zurich.

Here we are enjoying coffee at an outside patio in December.

And finally our amazing two months came to an end. Such a fantastic time it was discovering new places and living abroad.

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