Northern Lights is a big deal for many people, and seeing them is included on many bucket lists, but growing up in Norway I always took them for granted. Every winter, I would see the green lights dance across the sky, and while I always stopped to look up, it was nothing more than a Floridian stopping to appreciate a beautiful sunset. As kids, we were told not to whistle while outside in the dark, or the northern lights would “come get us”. (My grandpa was quite the jokester.)
I ended my 3.5 weeks in Europe with a visit to Otterøya to see my family. I became an aunt a few weeks earlier, and since I would already be in Oslo to photograph Pole Theatre Scandinavia, it was an easy decision to add a little detour to visit my new niece. On the second night, I was driving home from having dinner with friends when I saw the lights glowing faintly over the fjord. By the time I got back to my parents’ house to grab my camera and tripod, the lights had grown stronger, and I rushed down to the docks to get the photo above.
The next night, the lights decided to outdo themselves, and put on a show unlike anything I remember seeing. The sky was covered in green and purple lights, dancing around without a care in the world.
This photo is taken from my parents’ house, and is looking down towards my great grandma’s old house and barn, where my brother now lives with his family. I could not have asked for a more perfect ending to my trip!
When researching the Czech Republic before the trip, I kept coming across photos of candy colored buildings from Karlovy Vary, and yet it was hard to find much information about this spa town that’s supposedly the second most visited place in CZ after Prague. But since Vivienne and I would be driving past it on our way back to Munich, and our friend Steven wanted to hit up the spas, we booked an overnight stay at Revelton Suites. Our apartment was super cute, centrally located, and very affordable, so I highly recommend it if you’re in the area.
Karlovy Vary is known for its sixteen mineral springs spread out around town, all supposedly with different healing qualities. As the three of us walked around town we saw people filling up mugs directly from the taps and chugging it, so we figured we couldn’t be any worse. We bought our own mugs from a street vendor, and filled up out of a spout shaped like a snake. Cautiously sipping at the warm water, we all wrinkled our noses and gagged a bit. My initial reaction was that the water tasted like having a nosebleed, which is probably accurate considering the high iron content in the water. Needless to say, we never got excited enough to chug it.
As the whole town is marketed as a spa town, I thought it would be easy to find a spa for us to visit, but unfortunately most of the spas are tied to hotels, and don’t allow day use visitors. After calling every hotel in the area, I finally found one that allowed day use, the Balneo Wellness Center at Hotel Thermal.
Excited for some R&R, we packed our swimsuits and walked over there, only to be met by one of the snobbiest receptionists I’ve ever experienced. We clearly didn’t fit the norm of “wealthy old Russian couples” that seemed prevalent in Karlovy Vary, but I’d still appreciate him not rolling his eyes at me as I’m dropping $25 on a day pass.
We were shown down to the basement, into a cramped co-ed changing room with small curtained off areas, and the whole place felt more like a hospital than a spa. (Especially after our wonderful spa experience at Das Tegernsee the week before.) The spa itself consisted of a nice enough pool, tiny jacuzzi, dry sauna, steam bath, “infracabin” (we never figured it out either), and a Kneipp’s Path. Not one to pass up trying something new, I saw a path filled with about a foot of water in four different chambers, where the bottom was covered in smooth rocks, and had to step in to see what it was. Turns out it’s alternating freezing cold and hot water meant to stimulate circulation in your feet.
I’m sure some of the fancy hotels in Karlovy Vary have nicer spas (and staff), but the whole town did not make a good enough impression for me to plan a trip back any time soon. On top of the medical feeling spa lacking in even the most basic “luxuries” (they were “out of towels”, so we got one small hand towel each, even as all the other guests were given large towels), we were surrounded by cigarette smoke everywhere. Want to eat dinner? Good luck getting food down while the table next to you breathes smoke all over the place. You’d think for a town built around health, they’d have picked up on smoking being bad by now.
Despite the less than stellar spa experience, the town of Karlovy Vary itself is gorgeous. The candy colored buildings lived up to the photos I had seen, and I wish I had time to explore the rest of town before we had to leave.
Instead of doing travel photos on my own, Steven and I decided that we had to do a shoot. Steven competed in Pole Theatre World in Prague the weekend before as Queen Ravenna (and won the whole thing!), and his costume fit perfectly with the glamorous architecture.
Imagine the amounts of heads turned to look as a tall glamazon comes walking down the street in a cape and crown – it made my day. I love doing impulsive shoots like this, and Steven is one of the most photogenic people I know, so combine that with a gorgeous historic location and you have one happy photographer!
After our adventures at Königssee and Obersee, Vivienne and I spent the night in Salzburg. I had heard wonderful things about this town, home to Sound of Music and countless Austrian composers, but the combination of rain and exhaustion did not give us the best first impression. On Tuesday morning we left Salzburg after a brief visit to the Mirabell Gardens, and drove on to Hallstatt.
Hallstatt is another one of those places that I had seen tons of beautiful photos from, and while I didn’t know much about the village I knew we had to stop there. Boy am I glad we did, because it became one of the highlights for both of us.
It rained heavily when we first got into town, so we beelined for the first restaurant we could see, Bräugasthof. While warming up over an amazing cup of potato soup, we noticed that I was literally the only white girl in the entire restaurant. Apparently Hallstatt is so famous in China that there’s a housing development there built as a replica of the original village, which explains why we saw more Asian tourists here than anywhere else on our trip.
Once more seeing the beauty of traveling in the off-season, and especially on a rainy day, with most empty streets everywhere. This little town square seems like it would be bustling with life on a warmer day, as all the restaurants and cafes had outdoor seating.
Hallstatt is home to the oldest known salt mine in the world, and salt extraction here started as early as four thousand years ago! I wish I had more space in my luggage to bring home some of the many cooking salts, bath salts, and even salt deodorants from this shop, but at least Vivienne got some shopping done.
Most of the village burned down in a fire in 1750, and was rebuilt in the late Baroque style it is now known for. I absolutely love the way the houses cling to the sides of the mountain and extend all the way down to lake Hallstätter See.
I can only imagine how beautiful Hallstatt must be on a still morning, with the water reflecting the village even more than this.
This pink house with butterflies on its fence was one of my many favorites in Hallstatt. Vivienne and I both agreed that if we ever come back here, we should try to rent a room or house to stay overnight.
After hours of wandering around Hallstatt, we reluctantly got back into our rental car and started out towards Vienna, where we would be staying for the next three nights of our trip. After what can only be described as a torrential downpour, we made it into the city, where I had to pull out my aggressive European driver skills to make it to our hotel. I’ll take tiny German backroads over busy streets with narrow lanes any day, thank you very much.
On our first day in Vienna, we wandered around our neighborhood before making our way to the Hofburg Imperial Palace. While we hadn’t planned on paying for the self-guided tour, we wanted to get off the cold streets for a while. The Sisi museum and imperial apartments were way more fascinating than I expected, and I have such a historical girl crush on Empress Elizabeth of Austria (aka Sisi) after seeing that she had gymnastics rings and stall bars in her bedroom to stay fit!
Vivienne and I could never decide which cake to try, and so we ended up splitting 10 slices of cake over three days. I left Vienna looking like I was five months pregnant, but I don’t regret a thing!
You know those locations you see photographed over and over again, until you just NEED to go there to see for yourself? Königssee and Obersee in southeastern Germany, right by the border to Austria, was one of those spots for me. And when I found myself flying into Munich and driving to Prague via Vienna, a boat ride across the lake fit in perfectly.
To fully experience Königssee, and to reach Obersee, you need to get on one of the many Bayerische Seenschifffahrt boats. The boat ride was around $20, and we lucked out by getting on a boat leaving within minutes after buying our tickets.
The entire boat ride to Salet / Obersee takes almost an hour, but the landscape around us was so stunning that it felt much shorter. When we were halfway across the lake our boat came to a stop, and one of the uniformed crew members opened up the windows before asking us all to be quiet. He proceeded to pull out a trumpet and play a short melody, which was echoed back from the surrounding mountains perfectly. I honestly thought we were listening to one of the other boats on the lake respond – that’s how good the echo was!
The first stop on the boat ride is St. Bartholomew’s, a Roman Catholic pilgrimage church from 1697. Since I was anxious to get on to Obersee before the forecasted rain came in, we decided to skip it, but it looked like a beautiful stop.
Fifteen minutes after passing St. Bartholomew’s Church, we finally arrived at Salet. While the signs told us to expect a 30 minute walk to Obersee, we arrived in 7 minutes, so again I guess they don’t have active people in mind when estimating walking times in Germany ;-)
Pictures cannot do this place justice. The old boathouse, the crystal clear alpine water, the steep mountains covered in fog, with a hint of snow on the tops – I could have spent hours there exploring and taking photos. And while I’m not usually one for revisiting tourist locations, I would love to come back to Obersee in the summer to go on a proper hike of the area, as there are tons of trails leading off from where we went.
Because I don’t know how to pose like a normal person, I decided that a yoga pose on a slippery rock was a good idea. Don’t worry, I didn’t even get my feet wet :-)
After taking in the beauty of Obersee, we got back on the boat for a quiet ride across Königssee. From purchasing our tickets to arriving back at our car, we spent around two and a half hours at the lakes, and it was worth every minute!
When I started planning this trip, I knew I wanted one day of pure relaxation to make up for the long days of working I would have in Prague and Oslo. After some serious googling, I came across Das Tegernsee in the small town of Tegernsee, perfectly placed on our route from Neuschwanstein to Salzburg. One look at the hotel website, and it was love at first sight.
The spa was a large part of the draw when I picked Das Tegernsee, and it did not disappoint. As soon as Vivienne and I had checked in to our room, we changed into fluffy robes and soft slippers, and made our way over to the spa for our massages. And as much as I prefer my regular massage therapist in Boulder (Gretchen at Boulder Massage Therapy <3) it’s going to be hard to top the view I had from this massage table.
We spent most of our time at Das Tegernsee in the heated outdoor pool overlooking the Tegernsee valley. Being there on a Sunday to Monday stay, we had the pool completely to ourselves most of the time, and could really relax and enjoy the peace and quiet.
In addition to the outdoor pool, there was also a large indoor pool connected via a glass door that opened automatically as you swam towards, and a large sauna area. As if one sauna wasn’t enough, there were four to choose from: a traditional Finnish dry sauna, a steam bath, a forest sauna, and our favorite: the aroma steam bath with beautiful sparkling LED lights in the ceiling.
After a traditional Bavarian dinner in town, we went back to the hotel for drinks at the Schlossbar (castle bar). Enjoying our Hugos in front of the fireplace was the perfect ending to a long day that started in Oberammergau, took us to Neuschwanstein Castle, and ended at the spa hotel of my dreams.
Every little detail at this hotel was so well designed, but I especially loved this lighting arrangement in the Schlossbar.
The next morning started off gray and rainy, but the promise of free breakfast pulled out us out bed early. Breakfast was served in Restaurant Senger, located in a separate hotel building from our rooms and the spa.
I’m a huge sucker for free breakfast. Breakfast is my favorite meal of the day, followed closely by second breakfast, and European hotels know how to do breakfast right. Das Tegernsee had the most opulent breakfast buffet of our entire trip, and I wish I could have stayed for a full week to eat my way through all the options.
Fresh bread, fresh meat and cheeses, fresh fruit and vegetables … starting to see a theme here? ;-)
Self-serve mimosas was one of the many touches that took the breakfast buffet to the next level.
I don’t mess around when it comes to breakfast, so naturally I couldn’t settle for just one or two food choices. The breakfast potatoes were to die for, and I got the best latte of the whole trip.
In addition to the amazing food and service, our breakfast came with Der TAG: a small booklet with the weather forecast for the day, local and international news, available spa appointments, and more. Just one of the many touches that took Das Tegernsee to a different level of hotel experiences for me!
After breakfast we went back to the spa for one last swim, before continuing on to see Königssee and Obersee on our way to Salzburg.