Monday, September 15, 2014

Germany & Austria

September 2, 2014 – Tuesday – Haarlem, Netherlands to Bacharach, Germany

Windmill control
We are delayed leaving Haarlem because one of our tour members has a serious leg infection, so she and her husband leave the tour to return home. We finally get away from the hotel at 9AM. Our bus is huge, so anyone who wants his or her own seat can have one. I end up taking 4 seats, so I can slide from side to side to stay on the shady side and to see interesting things out the windows. We cruise down the Autobahn, stopping once at a typical rest stop you would find along any expressway/freeway anywhere in the world. I catch up on my journal and annotating photos while we travel. 

We make a midday stop at the Open Air Museum at Arnhem, Netherlands. We have a couple of hours to wander around this historic park, which showcases the cultural history of the Netherlands, complete with windmills, old towns with historic an historic tram system, and displays of life in the Netherlands in the old days. We have an authentic pancake lunch, which is delicious but filling. Three types of pancakes are served: a multi-cheese pancake (which I like the best), a savory onion and egg pancake, and an apple dessert pancake. Not-too-sweet apple syrup is available to garnish the dessert pancake, but the first two are normally eaten without further garnish. 

We travel down the Rhine to Bacharach, Germany, a walled city on the river. Our hotel (Hotel Kranenturm) is 700 years old, and was originally one of the towers along the city wall. It was part of the city’s original rampart wall, and is just a few metres from the train tracks. I draw the room at the top of the tower (Prince’s Room), which means I have the most stairs to climb, but end up with one of the funkiest rooms with the best view up and down the river and of the town and hills. Most of our group have drinks on the patio while the trains scream past us only a few metres away, and we also have dinner together in the hotel dining room, which thankfully is inside! 

September 3, 2014 – Wednesday - Bacharach, Germany

Werner Kapelle ruins, observation tower and the local church tower
with wine fields climbing up the hills behind Bacharach
After breakfast in the hotel, we go on a walking tour of the town with Herr Jung, an 83-year-old ex-schoolmaster with a great sense of humour. He takes us through the dark history of WWII from a German boy’s perspective (he was born in 1931). He was quite emotional at times, and everyone was very receptive to his message. He highlighted the wine growing, which the region is famous for, the historic wall around the town, and interesting anecdotes about his personal friends and acquaintances. 

After our tour with Herr Jung, we drive to St. Goar, a nearby town along the river where we do another walking tour of the Rheinfels Castle. The castle, originally built in 1245 is historic and was huge. It withstood multiple sieges, but French invaders finally took over the castle without a fight and promptly destroyed most of it in 1797 during the French Revolution. Although the castle is considered to be in ruins, it is still very impressive. 

We take a KD Rhine boat from St. Goar returning to Bacharach, arriving in the late afternoon. I go out with some of the group to a little restaurant on the main street only a block from our hotel and have a nice Jagersnitzel, some Rhineland white wine, and a cappuccino to finish.  Germans seem to serve cappuccino with a dollop of crème on top, so I have to ask for “plain, no crème”. My mostly American group is a lot of fun to be with! 

September 4, 2014 – Thursday – Bacharach to Rothenburg, Germany 

After breakfast in our hotel in Bacherach, we schlep our bags across the street to where the bus is parked. The advice from Rick Steves to pack light is a valuable lesson to be learned by travelers taking his tours. Our morning rest stop on the autobahn is very deluxe: nice gift shop, German pastries, Lavazza coffee bar, deli smorgasbord, and wonderful toilets and showers! There is a 0.70 Euro charge to use the toilets, but they give back a 0.50 Euro coupon for merchandise purchases. There is even an adjacent, small hotel for overnight rest stops. Our bus driver has used the hotel on winter ski trips, and says the rooms are very nice and inexpensive. 

Tower, rooftops and the setting sun on Rothenburg
We arrive at Rothenburg around noon, and after some lunch on our own, our guide walks us through the main streets to familiarize us with this medieval city. It is obvious that Disney uses this medieval city to design their fantasyland theme parks. Rothenburg has a wall around the city, towers and gates, cobblestone streets, quaint shops with eclectic merchandise, and beautiful vistas of the valley below. The city is jammed with day-trippers during the afternoon, however by evening they all leave on the buses they came in, and the streets become very peaceful and enjoyable places to explore.

I then grab my camera this evening and take advantage of the beautiful pastel-colored light as the Sun is setting over the city. The whole scene looks magical as I walk along a section of the city wall, and meet up with the tour group in the main square. We follow the Night Watchman, which is a guy in medieval costume carrying a scepter and lantern who delivers a humorous talk as we wander from place to place through the city. He explains the function of the night watchmen, which in medieval times ensured doors are locked and people are not on the streets as night falls. He describes the city gate system, and how people had to make their way inside the security of the walled city an hour before dark. 

September 5, 2014 – Friday – Rothenburg, Germany to Routte, Austria

The breakfast buffet at the Rothenburg hotel
This morning's breakfast in the Hotel Gerberhaus is delicious and very impressive. There are all sorts of cheeses, cold meats, pastries, fruit, cereal, and sweets including chocolate! We then schlep our bags out the back door, down the alley by the wall, and through the doorway to the bus in the parking lot. 

Our morning rest stop on the autobahn is again very deluxe: nice gift shop, German pastries, Lavazza coffee bar, deli smorgasbord, and of course the wonderful toilets and showers! I cash in my 3 coupons from previous bathroom breaks on a cappuccino, so it costs very little. 

First stop today is Dachau Concentration Camp. Dehumanization of the prisoners was the primary aim, and then they were literally worked to death. If they weren’t healthy, or if the men were too big or too small, they were immediately executed. We are taken on a walking tour by an Irish guide, and then have an hour and a half to ourselves. It is very sobering as I walk through the site. Our guide told us the crematorium was going full bore most of the time. He said in the weeks running up to the end of WWII, the Germans ran out of coal, and then resorted to mass graves. Dachau was the first concentration camp built on German soil, and was a training facility for the staff who ran the other concentration camps as they were built in other countries. I have my first weiswurst sausage for lunch in the cafeteria before we board the bus. I took photos, but I can’t bring myself to look at them…so no photos of Dachau will be posted to this blog.

Young cows in a paddock with bells around their neck in Steingaden
We stop to visit the Pilgrimage Church of Wies in Steingaden, Germany. This Rococco church has Jesus sitting on a rainbow on the ceiling. In the adjacent farm there are young cows in a paddock with bells around their neck. I find this a welcome relief from the profound sadness of seeing Dachau. The beauty of the Bavarian countryside is striking, with lots of farms, small villages We take the autobahn back into Austria, and return to our hotel in Reutte. 

September 6, 2014 – Saturday – Castle Day – Bavaria, Germany

Neuschwahstein Castle from Mary's Bridge
We drive back into Germany from our Austrian hotel this morning to see Bavarian castles. King Ludwig II built Neuschwahstein Castle, which is probably the most famous, since Disney’s Fantasyland castles are modeled after this spectacular castle overlooking a beautiful green valley and lake. Crowds here are very bad, especially on Mary’s Bridge, which is above the castle and gives a picture postcard view of the castle with the valley behind.This castle was built in the 1800s, and poor Ludwig only got to enjoy his castle for a few months before he died. 

Heohen-Schwangau Castle is another beautiful castle located beside The Alpsee, a glacial lake. This is where his parents raised Ludwig. His father, the king loved the night sky, and had his bedroom equipped with stars in the ceiling and a Moon which could have the phase changed as required. 

We take a group photo in the valley, posing with Neuschwahstein Castle behind us on the hill. Next stop is a luge – individual carts run through a metal tube down a hill slalom-style. Everyone in the group tries it – some go faster, and others take is slowly. This is one of the reasons I finally decided to book this trip. I reasoned that any tour operator who includes a ride on a luge as part of the stated itinerary must have something going for them! 

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

Town and valley near the Brenner Pass
I see a gas station showing 1.33 Euros/litre for gas in Austria. We are listening to the Sound of Music on the bus as we drive through the Austrian Alps. The first hour is very similar to our mountain roads – winding, rocky, and steep hills. We then descend into a long valley and take the expressway to the outskirts of Innsbruck. Jennifer tells us we will be following the original Roman road (Via Claudia) the whole way today. The road ends up in Rome, although obviously we won’t be traveling that far. We travel through the Brenner Pass out of Innsbruck across the Alps and into Italy. 

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