Thursday, July 21, 2011

Countdown to blast off

Wednesday morning arrives with leaden skies that develop into rain as we set out on our drive to Aschaffenburg where we will spend our last night of vacation.  Since the actual driving part of the drive will only take about 3 hours, we make the decision to stop in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.  This city had its heyday in the Middle Ages as it was on the road to the Crusades as well as the trade route with Asia.   The quartering of troops in the town in 1634, followed by an outbreak of plague left it poor and empty; effectively turning it into a backwater village with little change.  In the 1880s, the artists from the Romantic movement "discovered" it once more and put it back on the map for tourism.  At that point laws were created to prevent major changes and to preserve its 17th century state.  This means that the old fortress walls and towers are intact.

We make our way towards the old medieval town in the center, park the car and head in through one of the gates in the wall and wend our way to the center.  A few blocks in, I recognize a coworker whom I knew was going to be in Germany at the same time, but never dreamed that we would both be anywhere on the same date at the same time.  

We ate our lunch in the main square after catching the clock's noon time display.  This consists of a window opening on each side of the clock face and a figure in each window hefting a large tankard (of beer) and drinking heartily.  Of course, you have to be told that is what is happening before you "get it".  We walked around a few streets for a while enjoying the ambience of the old wall, towers and houses.
We even found a 1 Euro Store, but we didn't go in. I'm sure that would have been a highlight of the entire trip.
We then headed for the Criminal Museum along the south wall.  This museum consists of 4 floors of torture devices as well as displays that covered how all manner of bad behavior has handled in past times.  An Iron Maiden, a water torture device and a rack are some of the larger items.  Manacles and shame masks were also present.  These shame masks are iron masks that are clamped on your head for a mandated period of time.  One was a wolf head for a person that told baudy jokes.  There were masks for gossips too.  Women who fought were placed in a double yoke.  Outside they have a pillory that people can pose in for a picture.  (First three photos courtesy of Hayley)

The rain had stopped before we arrived in Rothenburg, but started again as we arrived in Aschaffenburg.  I had saved the map in Google the night before, but made the mistake of not getting a good enough reference of where the hotel was in the town so we had only the directions provided on the hotel confirmation email.  We eventually found our way to the hotel, but I think the big lesson here is that taking the GPS would have been a good idea.

We went out for a nice dinner at a Restaurant called "The Potato" (in German of course) where it  was "schnitzel day".  Everyone had a nice meal that was even reasonably priced.
Then it was back to the hotel to begin the preliminary weeding out of items from our luggage in preparation for our flight home and an early bedtime for all. 

The next morning we drag ourselves out of bed. Justin and I were kept awake last night by live music being performed loudly and close by.  Bob and Hayley have slept through it all.  Justin correctly points out that it would have been easier to tune out if the band was lousy, but it wasn't.  The female vocalist had a nice sound. 

At this point, we have packed our bags in preparation for the heavy-handed treatment from the Condor agents at Frankfurt airport, eaten breakfast and head to the car.  Lucky me, there is a yarn shop on the street that we stop at on the way to the car park and the kids each pick out a ball of sock yarn to be knit up for them.   This is probably the most shopping I have done on the whole trip.  6 balls of sock yarn.  Harumph.

Onto the Autobahn for the last time with a stop to fill the gas tank of the rental car before dropping it off.  We get to the Condor counter where there must be about 15-20 stations in a row.  There is one agent on duty, with someone watching over her shoulder.  The same family has been standing there for over 10 minutes as the line begins to grow and some official person begins to run the line back and forth like a ride at Disneyland.  Eventually 3 more people show up and begin to check people in.  Entire process took maybe 20 minutes which wasn't too bad.  Unlike in Seattle on our outbound flight, no one has any interest in weighing our carry on to ensure that they weigh less than 6 kilo.  Mystified, we check our luggage and head for the gate.  
Oddly, we don't go through a central Security Checkpoint, but instead they have all the scanning equipment at the gate.  We are informed by a fellow passenger that they cannot let us into the gate because the plane has not yet arrived.  The flight was scheduled to leave at 2:30p, and they didn't begin scanning us until 1:30.   This is the first time in all the flights I have taken with Bob and the kids that they get additional attention and I sail through.  Works for me.   We're now sitting in the gate area where they have a little shop where you can buy snack type foods, magazines and beer.  As we sit there we have some fellow Seattleites surprisedly and loudly greeting acquaintances from back home while drinking beer standing in the boarding lounge.  
Having a seat at the back of the plane, we are boarded first.  As we sit there with our 6 kilo of carry-on, on come passengers with luggage bigger than the bags we checked and proceed to shove them into the overhead.  We are baffled as to why the flight out of Seattle was so horrendously handled by making everyone check in their carry-on AND make everyone adjust their luggage to ensure nothing over 6 kilo was carried on.  Go figure.  The experience with this airline on the way home was almost as if we had flown a different airline on the outward bound portion.  I think we'll avoid this airline in the future.
We arrived on time in Seattle.  The kid's mother had offered to pick us up so I called from my phone to let her know we were at the curb and ready to be picked up.  The calls kept going to "this subscriber is not available".  After a worried hour wait, we decide to catch the bus home which took another hour.  Once home, Bob gets his cell phone and calls the correct number (she had a new cell phone and I didn't have the new number).  Turns out that she'd been circling the airport, calling the airline and worrying about us for the last few hours.   She quit circling the airport and came by and got the kids on her way home.  Bob started a load of laundry and we crashed early.  
We're now all back in our old routines, none the worse for wear.  We have a lot of outstanding memories to reflect upon or as Marcel says "we can eat from our memories for a long time".  It was a fun trip, we saw a lot of cool things, took some great pictures, ate some very nice food and shared a lot of laughs.  Can't say anything against all that!   I wonder where we'll go next?

Monday, July 18, 2011

A Tale of Two Castles or Two Tales to Tell

This post will be made in two parts since I had a totally different day than Bob, Justin and Hayley.  
In the middle of the night, even with my homemade "Nyquil" I managed to have a coughing fit that kicked the stuffing out of me.  It closed up my throat like asthma and I proceeded to cough and wheeze painfully trying to get some air into my lungs.  It hurt and it scared both Bob and I.  Needless to say, the next morning I woke up exhausted and in no mood to go hiking about the castles and the hills on which they both sit.  I elected to stay home and do laundry as there was a washing machine in our apartment at Casa Patrizia. 
Bob and I then drove up to the market we'd seen the night before and got the makings for a couple of breakfasts, lunches and dinner. 
After breakfast and assuring Bob that things would be written in English, they took off for the day.  I proceeded to try to figure out how to make the washing machine work.  Unlike other places we'd stayed on this trip, there was no notebook with instructions for appliances, good restaurants, etc.  I began pushing buttons in random sequence to elicit some type of reaction other than to simply reset the length of time for the wash cycle.  I had to go down to fetch our landlady for assistance.  She indicated that they had lost the paperwork for the machine.  She proceeded to punch away at the panel, indicating that two buttons needed to be held down simultaneously to get it to start.  Eventually, she found the correct two and it started.  I then tried to sleep but there were was a little girl outside next door playing in her inflatable swimming pool which involved a bit of squealing.  
The first load finished and I hauled everything out and draped it over the drying rack that Hayley had noticed on the backporch.  I then started a second load of laundry successfully guessing the correct two buttons (or maybe two other buttons that also worked).  I have no idea what cycle it actually ran since it was in German. 
Again, I tried napping and reading.  This is the period of time where I learn why the apartments are called Casa Patrizia.  The owner's daughter's name is Patrizia.  I heard her calling her daughter in the back yard.  I also know that it was Patrizia's birthday because over the next few hours, about a half dozen little girls were dropped off and they all began to play in the pool in "our" backyard.  The tip off came when they sang "Happy Birthday" in German.  More squealing, some crying, a game involving a metal mixing bowl clanging on the cement and no nap.  :(
Eventually Bob and the kids returned from a busy day and we had salad with sliced chicken breast for dinner.  As we ate, we all shared our day with each other.  
Their version of the same day:  (Photos courtesy of Hayley and Bob)
First they went to Hohenschwangau, the older of the two castles.  This castle is finished in comparison to Neuschwanstein.  It was the childhood residence of Ludwig II and the walls were decorated with romanticized paintings of medieval times.  This artwork had a profound influence on young Ludwig and predisposed his later interest in Wagner's operas.
After they toured the first castle they headed over towards Neuschwanstein stopping to eat their lunch on a convenient bench along the way.  During lunch they watched the many horse-drawn carriages hauling the lazy tourists back and forth between the parking and the castles on the hill top.   They also saw a man whose job seemed to be cleaning up after the horse.  The description indicates that he wasn't very effective at his job.  
After waiting for their appointed tour time at Neuschwanstein our intrepid trio was rewarded with a fine tour of this castle.  This castle was Ludwig's biggest project but was never finished as he drowned mysteriously in a nearby lake before it's completion.  The fact that Ludwig was draining Bavaria's fiscal resources to build this castle and several others is suggested as one of the reasons for his untimely death.  Hayley says it was totally awesome.  Bob says it was "the bomb".   Do you see the level of cooperation I am getting here?
Apparently the tour guide made a bigger impression than the castle itself. Also of note was that they were not allowed to take pictures although many on the tour thought they were being clever by taking pictures surreptitiously.  Neuschwanstein's other claim to fame is that unlike other tourist attractions that run you through the gift shop on the way out, it had TWO gift shops that you went through on the way out.  
Then they walked up to the Marienbrucke up behind the castle.  The construction of the bridge gave Hayley second thoughts about walking on it.  They walked out on it to take pictures of the waterfall.  It is a great place for a perfect shot back at the castles.  
Afterwards they walked back down to the river, took off their shoes and cooled off in the ice cold, rushing waters.  This is where Bob decided to temporarily misplace his glasses in the water; luckily they didn't wash away in the current.  Further exploration found the flume that channeled water to power an old sawmill.  
They also spent a considerable amount of time making rock art along the river.  The landscape will never be quite the same again.
They then followed the bread crumb trail back to the car and rushed home to check to see how I was doing and coincidentally to eat dinner.  We then watched The Brothers Grimm on DVD and crashed for the night. 

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Deutschland, here we come.

The final country on our tour...Germany.  We load our things into the car and drive out of Lucerne which was amazingly easy all things considered.  Google says that the drive time is a little over 3 hours, however, Google always knows where it is going.  WHEN we have Internet access, I've been saving off the Google map of the destination on my desktop to be able to guide us when we each our final destination.  Unfortunately, the map doesn't always translate to what you're looking at...but I'm getting ahead of myself.
On our way to Fuessen, we wind up driving through the western tip of Austria.  We stopped in the town of Bregenz to find some lunch and pull over to this little market we find.  We're walking around trying to collect sandwich makings.  I'm at the back counter where they have the meats and breads.  Bob comes up and says that he thinks we are in an ethnic market as he holds up some item in his hand and the writing on the package is not in a language that I recognize, why heck, it's not even the same alphabet!  As I'm waiting for someone to come out of the back room to get service in the bakery section, I here this ZAP noise.  I look up and there, mounted on the wall, is one of those bug zapper units.  Some fly has met it's maker, which is probably a good thing given the open meat counter.  I'm thinking it's a creative solution when a woman comes out and grudgingly offers to serve me.  I ask for some of the rolls in the bin over there and she tells me that they are old and then walks off. 
At this point, we decide to buy only the fruit that we have collected and get out of Dodge.  We finally found another market further along and lunch was purchased and consumed.  The fruit purchased at the earlier stop turns out to be beautiful to look at, but tastes borderline nasty.  
Through Austria and onto the German Autobahn where the other cars begin to pass us at speeds that cause our car to be sucked over into their lane as they whiz past.  At this point, it's fairly easy going until we get off of the Autobahn and start to find our way around Fuessen.  Since we are early for check in, we decide to go to visit Linderhof, one of Ludwig II's castles.  Now we run into the problem of having a map that doesn't show all the little roads, the scale is too large.  I try to navigate by dead reckoning and a large percentage of luck, but the stars are not aligning themselves on our side.  After several abortive attempts (and driving back into Austria a couple of times), we wind up heading north on one of the roads that actually shows up on the map.  By now, I'm thinking "screw it", we'll go visit Wieskirche and then go all the way around and get to Linderhof.  It's not what I had in mind, but it worked.  Unfortunately, it did lengthen the time in the car...
Wieskirche is a church that is situated on a little knoll and is now surrounded with buildings given over to the tourist industry which dampens the effect of the church.  When I first saw it in 1973, it was this simple looking little pale yellow and white church standing on a rise in the middle of a field.  It has since been repainted to a pale peach and white and a new "wing" built on the backend in addition to the restaurant and gift shops built out front.  

At any rate, you walk up to the church, walk inside and get hit right between the eyes.  Built in the mid 18th century, the interior is decorated in the high Baroque style called rococo.  The style of the exterior is diametrically opposed to the interior.  
Side altar.
 Front altar.
 The organ loft at the back of the church.
 The clerestory windows that run along the sides of the church letting in the light.

While we were inside, a visiting group of tourists gathered at the front and began to sing "Amazing Grace".  It was very pretty to hear their voices as we admired the magnificence of the ceiling and different altars.  It's a bit choppy as I tried to shorten it using iMovie on my laptop.

We left Wieskirche and continued on the large loop based on the map.  We finally arrived at Linderhof (the long way around) about 5p.  The man at the gate waved us in without paying the parking since we were so close to closing time.  We were able to get in to last tour of the day.  
The tour no longer allows photography - even without flash which is a disappointment to Hayley and I.  It is also conducted primarily in German with notebooks containing laminated sheets that say roughly the same thing in "your" language as the tour guide is saying German.    The binders are labeled on the spine in German with the various languages.  Mainly Eastern European, English, and Korean.  If you are from a neighboring EU country apparently you are expected to speak German.  The Swedes on the tour went with English. 
Linderhof is one of the few completed castles that Ludwig II built.  
It was patterned after Versailles and Louis XIV was a big influence.  One of the little rooms was was patterned after the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles.  A lot of the art on the walls were portraits were of French nobility from the courts of Louis XIV and Louis XV.  Ludwig was apparently not playing on a level field as he had a tendency to sleep all day and cage around in the middle of the night.  He had a dining room with a table that stood on a trap door.  At meal time, the table was lowered to the floor below, set by the servants and then winched back up into place.  He didn't like to interact with people.  There was a lot of carved and gilded woodwork all over.  I remember reading that over 22 lbs of gold leaf was used throughout the chateau.  Given the weight of gold leaf, that's a heck of a lot of gold leaf.  
After the tour of the castle, we walked around on the grounds and took pictures.   
This urn had the signs of the zodiac running around it.  Oddly though the faces covered up Scorpio and  Taurus.
Hayley getting a shot looking down at the fuchsia.
After we finished we got back in the car, drove back through Austria again and found the apartment where we would spend the next two nights.  Again, not an easy task.  As I mentioned earlier, the Google map lacked any distinguishing landmarks.  I finally used my cell phone and Google maps to find out where we actually were and used it to retrace our route and find the address.  As we rounded the sharp right hand turn to roughly the 5 o'clock position, I noticed that the street sign was jammed up into a bush and leaves covered it up.  Small wonder we missed it, but the mishap was a blessing in disguise as we found a market up the road a ways.
We unloaded everything and Bob and I managed to put a pasta dinner on the table with food that we had brought with us.  We turned in fairly early.  I had been coughing quite a bit so I dosed myself with some "homemade" Nyquil.  Cough syrup and a stiff snort of Calvados, an apple brandy we had picked up in Normandy.   The lengths one goes to for a good night's sleep...Nyquil tastes better than this stuff did.
Tomorrow the castles. 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

One day in Lucerne

After breakfast at the hotel, we hit the streets of Lucerne.  it’s a Sunday morning, so it’s kind of quiet except for the other tourists.  
Random photos along the way.
    Water spigots in the water fountains in the squares

These are some of the pictures that are painted on the headers under the roof of the Kappelle Bridge here in Lucerne.  This is one of the two bridges that spans the River Reuss.  I thought it sent an interesting message one escapes death.
We went first to the main train station to buy lunch items since that is usually where the shops are open on a Sunday.  It was a very crowded location.  This shot is of the large arch that is the sole remainder of the old station before it was remodeled.
As we walked towards the Lion Monument, we encountered a Sunday concert in the park.
This was interesting...not sure what the motive was with this.   If one translates the top of the sign, it informs the reader that in the ground floor of this old building is the company Mixer, providing "full service solutions".  Was there really a desire to aid the hapless, lost tourist?  Or was it more a desire to keep people from walking down their street?  Odd way to advertise your business.

We head across to the lion monument, which is full of Chinese tourists (from the looks and sounds of them) that have just been dumped out of a tour bus.  Dead center in front of the monument is this noisy, gesturing throng trying to take pictures of each other in front of the monument.  We stand off to the side, wait for their rapid departure and take our pictures.  The monument was from Louis XVIII to the Swiss in memory of the Swiss Soldiers that had lost their lives trying to protect the Royal Family at the outbreak of the French Revolution. 
We then headed to the Gletschergarten (glacier garden).  Luckily for us the gardens, which are right behind the lion monument, were not on the tour for the Chinese.  This attraction has been there since the end of the 19th century and has grown over time. Originally, a wealthy wine merchant had bought the land and begun to dig into the sandstone to create caves in which to keep his wine.  While digging they found all sorts of anolmalies in the rock caverns and called in local scientists who confirmed the formations as being the result of glacial activities.  
Rocks with fossils of ancient life forms.  
One of the holes created by the glacier.
The park had remained in the family and over time, each generation added to it.  It had a number of interesting exhibits but also had more “family” oriented items also.   The one that seems to engender the most enthusiasm is the house of mirrors which had a Persian type of feeling in the decorations, but this little vignette shows some of the other "attractions". 
The many Bobs and how many Hayleys do you see?
Will the REAL Hayley raise her hand?
As is usual for us, we spent hours in the museum looking at all the exhibits and sometimes discussing them.  We ate a late lunch in the picnic area of the gardens and then left to explore more of Lucerne.  Bob took the kids to see the old city wall and towers and I walked back through the old city to the hotel.  It was obvious that we were in from some rain as the clouds were darkening and we could hear occasional thunder.  I had left my umbrella with Bob and the kids, but it really didn’t start raining until I had reached the hotel so that worked out fine.  They tumbled into the room not long after I had and we spent the next few hours watching it pour and counting the time intervals between lightning and thunder to determine how fast the storm cells were traveling over us.  By dinner, the weather cleared up again and we headed back out to find a restaurant.  We choose one of the restaurants on the other side of the River Reuss.  We seated ourselves outside as close to the water as we could find and ordered some drinks and then dinner.  Again, the skies started to threaten so just before they were about to serve us, we moved under the building where it wasn’t so scenic, but the chairs were more comfortable.  It’s interesting to sit along the sidewalk and watch people go by.  One middle age couple came semi-staggering along with a big brown glass beer bottle that they had obviously drained.  A short while later, it was obvious that they had been out for a refill as they staggered back with a now full bottle as well as some other full vessel.  I guess they took it to a local bar and had them fill it up since the stores were all closed. 
The name of the restaurant was Der Schiff  (The Ship) and the placemat had instructions in German to make this origami piece.
It was kind of a quiet day today.  Bob thinks that the kids are subdued because of the difference between being out in the beautiful alps vs. being in the city.  I think that we have just all kind of hit a point of being ready to head home.  Three weeks seems like a long time to be on the road and living out of a suitcase.  Two seems too short.  Perhaps three weeks would be good with fewer stops and more time spent at each stop.  
When traveling with the kids, I have always felt a responsibility to make sure that everyone has a good time.  Now that they are older, I tried to engage them by having them make decisions on what they wanted to see and how they wanted to spend their time.  I think it was successful overall, but I still think I heard that the few 4-5 hour drives between some of our stops seemed like long days, no matter how we tried to break them up with activities.  Perhaps the stops actually made the travel part of the day seem longer.  I’m not sure.  I think that some of the drives were planned to be shorter but when you can't find what you're looking for, it means some extra time in the car.
In most of the places we have stayed, there has been TV, but the kids haven’t paid it much attention since the english speaking channels are rare and usually news stations although The Simpsons seems to be watchable even when you don't understand German.  They have been reading or using the laptop to keep themselves entertained in the evenings.   Given the timing of this trip, it will most likely be the last one we take with them and I think that it has provided many memories for us all to look back upon in coming years.