It was not an auspicious beginning. J and I were in a jet lag induced brain fog wandering around the Frankfurt Airport trying to figure out how to find our rental car. It was 6:00 AM local time, but still midnight to us. Eventually a good Samaritan took pity on us and pointed to a phone. I picked it up and someone immediately began speaking rapidly in German. I realized my 3 years of high school German were not going to cut it and hung up. We looked at each other, hoping the other one would know what to do next. Finally, I picked up the phone again and with more presence of mind, got the conversation going in English. Then is became clear that we had to take a bus from the airport to the car rental place some distance away.
This is where it all began, our love for international travel, except we didn’t know it at the time. Our son, Daniel, took his junior year abroad at the University of Stuttgart and we had decided to visit him there during his spring break. As you become more experienced you get used to jet lag or at least develop an ability to fake things until you get over it, but this was our first international trip and the first one across multiple time zones in over 20 years.
This trip was in March, 2008 and we flew Lufthansa, back in the good old days when they gave you food on airplanes. First a snack, then a hot dinner, then breakfast, all on a 6 hour flight. Finally got the car and fought our way through rush hour traffic (going down a couple of one way streets in the process) to the hotel. The desk clerk took pity on us and let us check in at 11:30 AM. Dumping the suitcases, we wandered around Römerberg (market place) taking in the sights and ate dinner at an Indian Restaurant. The next morning there was no heat, and no hot water but great German cold cuts for breakfast.
NB I generally avoid mentioning hotels and restaurants in this article because that information is outdated. However, everything else mentioned is worth doing unless otherwise stated.
The next morning we drove to Dan’s dorm at the University of Stuttgart, parked the car nearby and took the subway to Stadtmitte (city center). We walked down Königstrasse (the main pedestrian shopping street) to Schlossplatz and admired the architecture of the Neues Schloss, once the residence of two of Germany’s kings. Opposite is Schillerplatz and the Altes Schloss. Another subway ride brought us to Fernsehturm, the world’s first TV tower and the first tower made of concrete. Stuttgart, home of Mercedes Benz, is often thought of as an industrial city. It was here that Daimler invented the high speed engine and Bosch the spark plug. Ferdinand Porsche also set up shop here. An elevator leads to the top of the tower where there is a little coffee shop. From here we could see the greenness of Stuttgart – surrounded by parks, forests, orchards and vineyards, it could be one of the greenest cities in Europe.
Time running out, we hopped back on the subway to visit the Mercedes Benz museum. It was beautiful from the outside, and even more gorgeous inside. Except that they wouldn’t let us in, as it was only 45 minutes until closing time. We begged and pleaded and finally played the “we came all the way from the US” card and they let us in. It was absolutely spectacular and worth another visit.
Back at the dorm Dan introduced us to Maultaschen, a classic Swabian meat pie, we drank some absinthe, smoked a bud recently acquired from Amsterdam and watched Arrested Development. Dan found us a spare mattress but there were no extra towels to be had – we shared one towel for the duration.
The next day we all left on a 9 day road trip with our son. First stop – Dachau. It was horrifying and in the words of Dan, “I’m glad I saw it, but I never want to see it again.” Got to our hotel in Munich late in the day and went to the famous Augustiner Beer Garden for beer and pork cutlets. Monday we took the subway to Nymphenburg Palace, about 3 miles northwest of central Munich. It is an Italian style Baroque palace, built in the 1600s and was considered the Wittelsbach family’s summer escape from Munich. Then back to the city center (Marienplatz) to see the famous Glockenspiel. It was cold and rainy so we opted for an indoor activity – the Deutsches Musuem (spectacular-Germany’s equivalent of our Smithsonian). Left Munich at 4:00 and drove off through rain and snow to Kitzbuhel, Austria for 3 days of skiing.
All 3 of us had been skiing for years and we wanted to taste the European village-to-village ski experience. We decided on Kitzbühel, which is halfway between Innsbruck and Salzburg, and home of the famous Hahnenkamm World Cup Downhill ski race. Kitzbühel encompasses 7 separate villages and 7 separate mountain peaks. With 54 lifts serving 1144 acres of terrain, it is larger than most New England ski resorts.
Tuesday morning, we hit up the ski rental shop. There was no snow in Kitzbühel, but the ski guy assured us there was plenty in the mountains and recommended the “Ski Safari”, a series of runs and lifts that provides a tour of the entire resort. We took the gondola up into the mountains and it only took about 3 turns to discover that he had rented us beginner equipment. We could barely make the turns on the intermediate runs, which were very crowded. The D9 Gondola ride across the gorge was spectacular; we took a couple of runs there before headed back to exchange our equipment. The ski guy was furious, took our equipment back, pointed to a rack and wouldn’t help us further. We picked out new skis, hoping for the best and trying to figure out what we did to offend him.
On Wednesday the sun came out and the new skis worked to perfection. We also figured out that you could ski anywhere, unlike New England with its marked trails. Daniel came down the bowl at the top of Steinbergkogel and said it was the best run of his life. The rest of that day every run was in untracked snow.
On Thursday morning it was snowing and we skied fresh powder all day. We skied Griesalm (best run of my life) and Direttissima multiple times, then a bunch of runs off the Penglestein lift – Kasereck, Penglestein II and Hieslegg. Most of Hahenkamm was closed due to lack of snow, so we only got to ski a small section of it. Stopped at McDonalds just for kicks and ordered a Royale ohne Käse.
On Friday we left Kitzbühel and headed for Füssen. There was an accident in a tunnel near Innsbruck and the cops were about as helpful as they are here in such a situation. We also got stopped because didn’t have the Austrian Highway sticker properly displayed in the window. Arrived at Füssen at 12:30, got tickets for Neuschwanstein Castle for 2:00 and then wandered up the hill in the cold drizzle, walking around the warning signs (its customary) to get out on Marienbrücke (Mary’s Bridge) for the fantastic view of the castle.
Neuschwanstein is one of King Ludwig II’s 2 castles, (Linderhof being the other.) It was built in the Romantic style on a hill overlooking his father’s castle, Hohenschwangau. Sometimes known as Mad King Louie, he ruled Bavaria for 23 years. Neuschwanstein was under construction for 17 years, but he lived in it only 172 days. He was found dead in a lake nearby, suicide or murder – still up for debate.
Time was running short so we skipped Hohenschwangau in favor of the Wieskirche (Church in the Meadow). I had seen this Rococo beauty in 1972 and wanted Dan and Janet to see it as well. Driving maniacally, we made it with only 5 minutes to spare and I’m sure they thought I was crazy. But once inside their jaws dropping made the mad dash worthwhile.
Arriving at the Hotel La, we found it closed. There was a phone number on the door and we elected Dan to call it because he was the best German speaker. Unfortunately, the guy who answered spoke little German and even less English. Through a combination of languages, it was eventually determined that the guy would come pick us up and take us to the “other” Hotel La, which was really a hostel with beds on the floor and a communal bathroom down the hall.
The road from Füssen to Winterthur, Switzerland was spectacular. It was sunny most of the way, glistening off the mountains that surrounded us on all sides. Took a quick tour through Alpenzell, with its quaint signs and stopped to take pictures of the Bodensee. What we saw of Switzerland was not that spectacular and we didn’t spend a lot of time there, it was mostly so we could say we’d been to Switzerland.
It was Easter Sunday and snowing again as we drove to the tiny touristy town of Titisee. Only stop here if you need souvenirs. Then north to Triburg, stopping to hike up to the Gutach waterfall in several inches of freshly fallen snow, which made a nice backdrop for the black squirrels cavorting about. Having not brought hiking boots or expected snow, our feet were cold and wet. We stopped in the nearest café around 11:00 to get coffee to warm up and noticed that everyone else was already drinking beer.
At Triburg, I finally bought the cuckoo clock I had been desiring since my last trip in 1972 but couldn’t afford at the time. Then on to Baden-Baden, where the desk clerk claimed he had no reservation for us. Eventually he found one under our name but it was for April. Luckily, he had an opening so we checked in and headed for the baths There are two choices – the Roman-Irish bath (Friedrichsbad) and the Baths of Caracalla. We had no predetermined destination and following the signs to the “baths” ended up at Caracalla. The line was long and the swim suit optional downstairs was not that spectacular. Our son went upstairs where swim suits are not allowed and said it was much better, but we never made it up there, so I was in a bit of funk on Monday morning when I got up.
An hour later we were in Heidelberg, but Easter Monday is a holiday in Germany and most stores, including the absinthe store were closed which deepened my funk. However once we got up to Heidelberg Castle the spectacular views erased all traces of it. Heidelberg is a university town and my son’s favorite town and he was eager to take us there. Rick Steves tells you to avoid it due over commercialism. We found that we agreed with Mark Twain, writing in A Tramp Abroad:
The Castle looks down upon the compact brown-roofed town; and from the town two picturesque old bridges span the river. Now the view broadens; through the gateway of the sentinel headlands you gaze out over the wide Rhine plain, which stretches away, softly and richly tinted, grows gradually and dreamily indistinct, and finally melts imperceptibly into the remote horizon. I have never enjoyed a view which had such a serene and satisfying charm about it as this one gives.
After Heidelberg, we drove to Schwäbisch Hall, which many claim to be the most “authentic looking” German town, i.e. the kind you see on advertisements and gift boxes. Spring break over, we took Dan back to school, had a last meal with him, and left the next morning feeling confident in our abilities to travel alone.
Once again it was cold and snowy. We drove along the Rhine past innumerable castles and vineyards, into Bacharach over a funky one lane bridge. Parked at the side of the Rhine, we ate lunch in the car and watched the barges. Then onto St. Goar and a tour of Rhinefels Castle – once the biggest on the Rhine. My German must be getting better – when I asked in German for two tickets, the clerk asked if I wanted an English or German guidebook. It was a great self-guiding tour and you can basically go anywhere in the semi ruined shell. No part is off limits and consequently we got lost several times.
From St. Goar we drove southwest to Trier at the head of the Mosel Valley. It is Germany’s oldest, an ancient Roman city and UNESCO World Heritage Site. We got to Trier at 3:30. The hotel faced a pedestrian walkway, so it took a bit of map reading and some good navigating to get to into the parking garage. We viewed the Porta Nigra, the only remaining gate from the original Roman wall surrounding the city. It was too late to tour the Roman baths, but they let us into the Roman coliseum for free.
Wednesday morning we got up and spent a few more hours in Trier before heading up the west side of the Moselle River.
Stopping in Cochem to take pictures of Reichsburg Castle.
Saving the best for last, we arrived at Burg Eltz around midday. The tour was only given in German, so we didn’t understand much but it was the coolest castle of the trip. Its been in the Eltz family for 840 years, intact for over 700 and furnished as it was 500 years ago. Three separate branches of the Eltz family built their houses in the castle complex over the years. The collections of armor, weapons, paintings and tapestries are amazing. There is a bed that has survived since 1525. One of the 15th century bedrooms had a built-in toilet, flushed by rainwater collected from the roof.
Then drove down the east side of the Rhine to the Loreley statue at the top of a 450 foot tall cliff overlooking the river. The Loreley legend concerns a naked woman with long blond hair who distracted sailors to their death. The reality is that the ships foundered on the reefs just upstream of St. Goar and the sailors needed some one to blame it on.
Then past Gutenfels Castle and Pfalz Castle and on to Frankfurt for the flight home. We had added 1594 miles to the car odometer, gone farther outside our comfort zone than we imagined possible and decided we couldn’t wait to do it again.
Tips and Observations
- Learn a few German words and use them. It doesn’t matter how poorly. They will immediately recognize you are not a native speaker and probably start talking in English, but they will appreciate your effort. But if you just start speaking English, expecting them to accommodate you, then expect rudeness. That’s just the way it is. You travel other places to learn about other cultures. Learn German or expect to be treated rudely.
- The Autobahn is nothing to be afraid of. Drivers are courteous and anticipate well. Truckers generally stay in the right lane. Just stay out of the left lane where there truly is no speed limit.
- Kids of all ages walk alone in cities as large as Munich, even at night.
- Everything is on the honor system – parking , trains, subways. You buy a ticket and keep it with you in case anyone asks to see it, but they hardly ever do.
- The roads are in excellent condition – didn’t see a pothole anywhere.
- Drivers are courteous, but skiers are not.