Rhineland and Central Germany

Fall in Germany is beautiful. I was able to experience the center of this nation first hand with my then fiancee (now wife) and it was absolutely spectacular. In this next installment of my Notebook project I give an overview of the trip. The sections below have links to pages with greater detail about that section of the trip. If I left anything out, please let me know!

Why Germany

At the onset of every overseas trip I’ve taken people want to know why I am going there. Jen and I try to take 1 ‘big’ trip per year and we had not yet been to Germany. It seemed like a good pin to put in the Map Project! We both share a heritage with the area – I was especially excited to see the Hessen area. Last name research.

Finally, this was of course coordinated to schedule up with Oktoberfest. You see while my soon-to-be blushing bride and I would explore the romantic castles and vineyards of the Rhineland for a peaceful time together that wouldn’t be the end of the trip at all. For me, anyway. I was scheduled to meet my friends in Munich for Oktoberfest – but that’s a story for another post!

General Impressions

First off, we were very fortunate to be able to go. We were very cognizant of the current economic climate while there – US tourism we were told again and again – had fallen like a stone off a cliff this year. While it was a very welcome break from the monotony of cubicle land, we did appreciate having cubicles to come back to (and finance this little expedition.)

What we found were beautiful places, great people, and an interesting history.
The Rhineland is a gorgeous couple’s retreat. Still, it’s kind of an age-appropriate adventure….for retirees that is! This is the vacation we should have taken when we are 65, retired, and in the relaxing, wine sipping years of our lives. But….. this is what you get when you “Rick Steve’s it.”

Still, we had a great time adventuring by train, stepping back a millennia (or more) in time and not eating vegetables. There are NO vegetables in Germany!

Getting there

We were able to take flight from Charlotte direct to Frankfurt. My flight was free thanks to the accumulation of tons of frequent flier miles on USAir. I would later find out that I could have redeemed all those miles for 2 direct flights but, alas, live and learn!

We arrived and Jen was getting over a cold and I was just getting sick. I didn’t sleep at all on the flight and managed to get through customs bleary-eyed and feverish. Luckily Jen was there to navigate us through the airport and buy the train tickets that would be our transport for the entire week. I remember feeling so sick and not being able to sleep for the continuous transfer of trains. Still, Germany gets superb marks for their national transportation system – cheap though, it is not!

Rothenberg ob der Tauber

Our first stop in Germany was this hard-to-get to medieval walled city. Rothenberg is picturesque German town — yellow houses with dark brown trim abound. The best way to describe this place is living history. The city sits on a raised cliff high above the banks of a river from which the town gets it’s name and grapes for wine. That defensive position and arable land have been desirable to nearly everyone who has come by for thousands of years. You can see this as the former site of Romans, Holy Roman Empire, Catholics vs Protestant wars, and more up. It even played an interesting role in WWII.

Well-preserved from it’s heyday as a regional economic power, once the trade stopped (a combination of church politics, changing of trade routes, and technology) Rothenberg found itself too poor to modernize, so they rebuilt and fixed everything they had. In fact, they did that for hundreds of years perfectly preserving the medieval city for 19th century English aristocrats to find. Entertainingly, it was that Elizabethan tourism that spared the town in WWII from Allied bombing when the commander recognized the town as a cultural center.

And still preserved those medieval houses are. Our hotel, while updated with electricity, internet, plumbing, etc must have been centuries old. As were most of the buildings in the neighborhood. The entire city is a post card and we took many, many, many photos. You know you’re in trouble when you cannot decide on which souvenirs to bring home (and you’re only one day into a 2 week plus trip!)

The most identifying features of Rothenberg are the towers, the defensive wall that encircles the town, and the squares provided. We climbed towers, took tours, ate at authentic restaurants open for longer than the US has been a country. Our favorite part was the acerbic Night watchman tour- given at night with a heavy dose of sarcasm in equal measure with education making the medieval city come to life. We laughed our collective asses off at this guy’s humor. If you’re ever in Rothenberg, check him out!

You can see my first impressions here on this post that I wrote while there. It’s a little darker as I was a lot sicker during the writing of it!

After 2 brief days we were back on the trains again.

Heidelberg

Some guidebooks will tell you that Heidelberg is overrun by American students, military, and tourists and, despite it’s picturesque allure, you’d be better off devoting your time elsewhere.

I can see a little truth in that but…

Other guide books will tell you that Heidelberg is called “everybody’s favorite town” in Germany. Situated on the Neckar River, tourist books will tell you that it “can be explored in a day if you move fast enough. Check into a hotel in the Altstadt (Old Town) for atmosphere and wander its cobblestone streets at your leisure.”

OK, we did just that. And we had a phenomenal time! From drinking squares to climbing to cliff-top castles overlooking hazy rivers I am ridiculously happy that we didn’t skip this town.

Bacharach & Rudesheimr

Our next stop on our train tour of middle Germany was Bacharach. This was to be our base on the Rhine for the next few days – the remainder of Jen’s section of the trip. Barely bigger than the train station it held, per Rick Steve’s notes it was a convenient jumping off point to the rest of our Rhineland adventures.

One of those adventures was a journey only one or two stops away over to Rudesheim to check out that town. Another picturesque medieval village built into a hill and famous for their wine and vineyards. Surprisingly fun!

The Rhine Adventure Cruise

The chief reason for basing ourselves in Bacharach was to avail ourselves of the K-D line – a ferry that would bring us down the Rhine. Anywhere I go I try to get some time in or on the water and cruising this historical and crucial waterway offered not only a relaxing way to travel but provided a ton of insight into an area I had only read about previously. Family theories abound about how we immigrated from Germany to the states. Any way you cut it, it’s likely I wasn’t the first Hessing to make this trip North.

We hopped on and off again visiting castles, eating, drinking, and amusing ourselves for miles. We explored towns like St. Goar and Boppard. We passed the famous Lorely. We took pictures of castles that I could have previously only imagined as part of fairy tales. After ending in Koblenz, we took explored a little more and took the train back to Bacharach.

Trier

Trier lays about as far west as a town can lay in Germany before you start calling it France. We had a decision to make – spend a 2-3 hours travelling by train to a German city on the edge of France positively reviewed by Rick Steve’s or go to a ruined castle that he absolutely raved about and demanded that we see.

Tough decision. By this time we had enough of Tricky Ricky and his guidebook for senior citizens. The hopping on aond off into charming and quaint riverside villages was nice – especially the wine – but it was time for a little more adventure. Time to cast our flag a little further afield. I’m glad we did. We had a great time and as a bonus stopped in for a whirlwind tour of a surprise city on the return. And we can always visit the super-duper-absolutely-must-see-or-your-trip-is-a-waste castle the next time we’re in the Rhineland!

Our week-long adventure through central Germany and the Rhineland ended the next day as we awoke early and caught a train to the Frankfurt airport. After seeing Jen checked in and escorted through customs I was on my way to Bavaria and Munich and Oktoberfest for the Bachelor party to end all Bachelor parties! But that’s a story for another time!

Trier & Cochem

Our last day in the Rhineland brought choices. Would we stay on the Rick Steve’s path of retirement-level excitement exploring yet another 4 star castle sure to be packed full of tourists? Or would we deviate and head far west to a town I had read about in archeology papers. Despite an extra hour of train rides each way plus transfer overhead, we opted for the latter and made our way to Trier with an unexpected stop in Cochem on the way home.

Trier

Trier is about as far West as on can go in Germany before hitting France.. or rather, Luxembourg. Man, I really wanted to extend the train trip just a little while longer to see if I could have collected another passport stamp! The purpose wasn’t to retire that document early but to see the oldest city in Germany founded by an Assyrian of all people around 2000 BC. With Trier having a massive Roman presence (starting around 16 BC) as well as being holding the only Bishop north of the Alps. You can read more depth about that history later. Let me tell you what we did.

Disembarking from the train station we followed Theodor Hess street (I know, so closely named!) to Porta Nigra – an enormous Roman edifice acting as a gate to the city. After taking a few beautiful pictures despite approaching rain clouds we continued into the main square. There’s a great story about Protestant vs Catholic “my church is better than your church” shenanigans here and each tried to out do the other. Neat reading. For us it meant great historical scavenger hunting as we identified this and that while doing the typical people watching that is expected in any European square.

We also visited the Cathedral of Trier, the Palace (or the outside grounds at least, and the long throne room of Emperor Constantine known as the Bascillica Constatine which was more historically impressive than the other two if not far less visually so.

For reasons unknown – whimsy, reading INcomprehension, or momentary insanity, we decided to travel to the riverside. I believe we thought we’d find some kind of Roman bridge there. Not so. After a 40 minute walk through what was a very lively small city we came to….nothing! Just traffic and a unremarkable river (the end of which we had seen in Koblenz.) Disappointed we made the long, winding walk back.

Before leaving this neat little city we of course had to eat. The remarkable part of this was that we didn’t eat German food. We were both pretty burnt out on schnitzel and sausage and the Turkish pitas we found tasted wonderful! Even the little bit of veggies on the sandwiches seemed extravagant compared to the lack in the cuisine of the previous week.

Cochem

We had expected to spend a lot more time in Trier so when we saw Cochem coming up on our train ride home we figured – why not stop in?! Here’s a pic on wikipedia. It was late in the day so a whirlwind tour it was. We plowed through tourist stalls, blended into crowds, did some souvenir shopping and ran up and down the winding, hillside medieval roads. While it was too late and too dark to visit the castle of Cochem, there was of course time to sit in the square, grab a few beers, and simply enjoy the moment.

We took the last train out that would allow us to connect in Koblenz for the last ride to our hotel Bacharach. We would be rising early the next day to catch trains to the airport for Jen and to Munich for myself. What a trip!

Bacharach & Rudesheim

Bacharach is a town that went to sleep after the Romans left it. And it never woke up. It’s small and exists solely, it seems, to wrap itself warmly around a train station like a shawl. And to provide travellers a nice cozy spot to stay while daytripping the rest of the Rhine. It has other grandmotherly, qualities, too. One even involving a real, live grandmother and the case of the stolen strudel.

We rolled in to Bacharach on Rick Steve’s recommendations after leaving Heidelberg. Much of the day was spent waiting for, riding in, or changing trains. By the time we got to the town, we were ready to do some exploring. After quickly finding our hotel and checking in to the converted attic (seriously, we have pictures) we did a quick loop around the town and realized that our best hope was to check another nearby town on the Rhine so back we headed to Rudesheim.

Rudesheim

Visitn Rudesheim, being on the far side of the Rhine, meant that we had to take a quick ferry to reach it. No problems there. We wandered Rudesheim’s streets and verified the tour book’s lament that it was indeed over run with tourists. And that is for good reason, the place is replete with bars and offering wine tastings. Both the full-bodied varieties you would expect from the region if you are such a connosier (which I am not) and the offering of the spring wine – something tasting roughly like pear juice, which I loved. A half dozen or so of such tastings and we knew it was time to find lunch.

Lunch was great. Much better fare than we had been used to and we took advantage of the weather to take a steep cable car ride to the top of a hill featuring none other than Emperor William Kaiser sitting on a throne looking forbodingly towards the West. The car ride was great, bringing us slowly and determinely over grape fields originally tilled by Roman hands. Jen didn’t like the heights or the bumps in the cabling. I laughed then but later in the trip fate would get me back.

We spent the rest of the time adventuring up and down Rudesheim’s cobbled streets negotiating the tight quarters with locals in cars and tourists on ridiculously over-decorated trams. A ferry ride and connecting train brought us back to Bacharach.

Bacharach

Like I mentioned before, the town is exceedingly grandmotherly. We tried a few restaurants but came back to one run by a real grandmother. Nice, honest food with a home made feel and of course, the best apple strudel that side of the Rhine. We got to know the owner pretty well after our repeated visits and she told us of life running the shop, the collapse of American tourism due to the economy, and what that meant for the riverside hamlets we were staying in. The most interesting story was about a young German lad she befriended and offered an internship to only to have him steal the secret famliy recipe for her prize-winning strudel! Luckily for her, she said it wasn’t enough to know the ingredients and amounts to add, you had to know the reasons to add them. And for that the thief’s strudel would always be second class. Interesting lesson.

The Rhine Adventure Cruise

Early our first morning we headed over to the KD boat line launch and purchased hop-on-hop-off tickets that would allow us to visit side towns as we wanted to. We would later find that our incredibly expensive
week-long German rail passes would have been accepted but there are no refunds in Germany. We boarded the boat with many other tourists already aboard from further up-river. The conductor played tourism tapes cued to mile markers on the river. The recordings were often difficult to hear as tour guides would preach on incessantly and indiscriminately over languages not on their own. Despite very much enjoying the ability to float down such a famous river, the other tourists made want to jump ship.

It wasn’t all bad. Reading about how so many Barons, Dukes, and minor nobles set themselves up in mini competing fiefdoms all along the river in order to best extort floating merchants for ‘tolls’ brought history to life. We learned about folklore and imagined tales not dissimilar from the Grimm tales being played out in all of the colorful multitude of riverside castles. It was no wonder the merchant class was the biggest supporters of rule under a single monarch in Germany – they were going broke trying to market goods along the time’s most major thoroughfare!

St. Goar Castle

Shortly after passing the famous Lorelei the tourists became too much and we disembarked for St. Goar. The main attraction here is the Burg Rhiensefeld castle which we thoroughly explored. At one point we bought a candle and matches and descended into tunnels dug centuries ago. As a defensive structure the tunnels were designed as a sort of honeypot for invaders. Attackers would enter the tunnels believing themselves stealthful. A notification systems would alert the castle owners when to light the match blowing the sequestered invaders to whatever God loved them best.

Still, the most memorable part of St Goar was the walk up to the castle – I took the long way and sweated for 45 minutes. And the run down to make our boat. I think we hit a new land speed record to make the boat.

Boppard and Other Stops

I can’t remember now but we got off the boat in Boppard for some reason. Whether that was general annoyance of the tourist-packed boats or disinterest in the cuisine being served we did. Sadly, Boppard was very small and they didn’t really like us at all. That was just as well, the citizens looked like they were just taking down stalls from a wine festival the previous week and there was nothing going on that day. We found a deli and had a good standing meal. Since we had budgeted more time to explore this disappointment of a town and a prepaid unlimited use rail pass, we took the train back upstream to catch the next boat rather than just wait around.

End of the River and Koblenz

Once back on the boat we sat back and watched as more storybook castles passed us as we floated by. The Rhine still does an amazing amount of commercial traffic and it was interesting to watch the long, low-slung boats carry their wares either making their way up from the Netherlands or down from Switzerland and Northern Germany. At this point there were not many people at all on the boat and the trip became peaceful. We snapped photos and consulted guidebooks but mostly just relaxed and enjoyed the moment.

Koblenz

Koblenz comes from a word meaning “confluence” and Koblenz is where the Rhine and Moselle. Sadly, it was late in the day and we didn’t have more than a few hours at the end of a workday to explore Koblenz but it is definitely a working, if not picturesque city. It’s hard to complain about a town not being tourist friendly when all we wanted all day was to be away from tourists so I’ll simply say that further evaluation is needed.

We found our train and took a long ride back to Bacharach. We would visit Koblenz again that week but just to transfer to points further west.

Heidelberg

Heidelberg. The town we never would have went to had we listened to Rick Steve’s. The guy hates it thanks to all the American students, military and tourists the town gets. Normally, I’d be with him. Who needs that? Here’s I’m glad we didn’t listen to him at all.

So, Why Heidelberg?

My friend Christina has led an amazing life working, volunteering, and teaching theatre. Earlier that summer she accepted a position in Stuttgart. Since absolutely no one recommends visiting Stuttgart (Ricky, Christina, or even locals), we made plans to meet up in Heidelberg. Sure, Mr. Steve’s had his objections but our day trips book disagreed. Once we saw the photos Christina took of the city, we had to go.

So off we went. Three train connections later from Rothenberg ob Der Tauber and we were there. And Rick was right. On first impressions, the place was about as foreign to me as Epcot center. We got a taxi and made it to our hotel – a charming place overlooking the Nekar. And very close to the iconic bridge spanning it. Sadly, by that time I had received Christina’s note that she would not be able to join us due to school issues at the very last minute. No matter! After quick shower and discussion with the hotel manager on what to see and do, and we were out exploring.

Impressions

Heidelberg is immently walkable. We criss-crossed cobblestone streets traversing main venues and alleys. The customary stop at a central square and some great beer and wine provided a great spot for people watching. A trip through Germany necessitates repeated sampling beer and wine! Looming in resplendant dilapidation high on a hill above us sat a castle that I might have imagined in my lego building days. Of course we had to check it out! In short order we had found the lift and made our way up. Instead of describing it, I’ll let the pictures do the talking.

After exploring for an hour or two we descended and head back to the river side. That provided even more people watching as people headed home for dinner. We spent a while snapping photos and watching long cargo ships pass through the locks of the river. While I tremendously enjoyed the atmosphere and ambiance, I’d be lying if I didn’t say that the best part wasn’t when a lady stopped to ask me a question… in German!

Later that night in pursuit of dinner we explored the university grounds and the main stretch. The weather was temperate so we enjoyed ourselves, and our beer, outside.

Conclusion

I can understand the concerns Mr Steves had regarding Heidelberg. Normally I try to shun anything looking remotely like a tour bus. However, there were no tour busses. All of the people in Heidelberg visiting were there with purpose. While authentically German they might not have been. But the students – both German and American (and their visiting families) – gave the city a young sort of vibe. Something that certainly wasn’t in the Rothenberg – the touristy city that time forgot. And we would miss that energy begining the next day when we took the train again to Bacharach, another very sleepy town on the Rhine the next day.

Neuschwanstein castle

Castle from last month in Germany.

Today I’m in a hotel in Durham, NC and the view is not as spectacular. But I wanted to see if I could upload a pic and a post via my trusty iPhone.

Germany at Rothenberg ob der Tauber

Germany, Frankfurt to Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber. They come by hundreds and thousands. Airlifts successful, the troops touchdown at the Frankfurt airfield and travel by rail through the Frankish countryside heading East. Frankfurt airfield to Frankfurt to Wurzburg to Steinach eventually on to Rothenburg Ob Der Tauber. Disembarking from the train, all you hear is rolling thunder. The foreigners have taken the city and life will never be the same again.

No, it is not 1945 and we are not referring to Undersecretary of State McCloy’s attempt to prevent the medieval city from destruction via artillery. It’s 2009 and this rolling thunder refers to hordes of tourists (American, Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Italian, and German) dragging their wheeled luggage boisterously across cobblestone streets. These modern day foregin invaders are here this time to take photos of the walled city, not to raize it. One wonders if this is not the more insidious kind of destruction.

Welcome to tourist Germany.

Rothenburg ob der Tauber – Rothenberg on the river Tauber (or ROT), is a well preserved medieval village and that is what saved it hundreds of years ago and that is what makes it popular today. ROT hit its stride as one of the 10 largest cities in Europe a milenia ago. Sitting on a hill protected on three sides by steep river embankments, an Imperial decree from the Holy Roman Empire, and stout outer defensive wall encircling the city, ROT was well protected. Blessed by 400 square kilometers of land situated at the nexus of two important trade routes (Rhine to Bohemia and North Sea to Rome), fertile soil, and 180 small towns to tax, Rothenbergers had it good and it shows today.

Though the city was only ever captured once and that was after a 3 day battle towards the end of the 30 years war, that final surrender left it torn asunder. Pillaging was the order of the day and after the 1600’s, the town never, ever recovered. Protected by poverty, the city was forgotten. Rothenbergers barely had enough resources to subside with let alone modernize buildings so the cute antique walls, homes, and squares kept preserved until the late 1800s when tourists re-discovered the town in a time capsule. Since then, tourism has been a source of fortune, and perhaps misfortune.

While it was Rothenberg’s status as a mediveal city that kept the Allies from finishing with artillery what air bombing started, tourism has been the town’s lifeblood for over a century. The city is awash in tourist dollars leaving a visitor feeling processed in a commercial sort of way. That’s not to say that the people are not friendly – they are, nor that the buildings are fake – they are not. The fact remains that an authentic German medieval experience this is not. Think more Epcot center than Disney, but with much higher-end shops.

Perhaps the best lessons one can draw from ROT is how absolutely difficult life has been on this planet for most of human existance. For the vast majority of time people have been concerned with having enough food and water to survive a winter or a seige. The largest concern has been death by privation, fire, war, or pestilence. If by some manor of success people can now afford to travel and view the world as it once was, so much the better. Moeny is far better spent purchasing coo coo clocks, steins, and currywurst than making cannons.

Heidelberg Video

OK, just turn off the volume for this one and enjoy the slideshow. Better videos coming, I promise.

Ok, just watch this one if you’re really, really bored.

Free Flight Fiasco

I recently booked an award travel with USAir for my upcoming Oktoberfest trip. I had 100k dividend miles and still paid $111 in feed. Due to my itinerary, I had to choose these dates. A ‘free’ flight is always welcome but I felt like I could have done better. After all, it took years to save up for those free flights!

Flight Itinerary

There
Depart: Charlotte, NC (CLT) 18 Sep 2009
Arrive: Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) 19 Sep 2009
Class: Coach

And Back
Depart: Frankfurt, Germany (FRA) 04 Oct 2009
Arrive:Charlotte, NC (CLT) 04 Oct 2009
Class: Coach

CLT to FRA was fine but CLT to Munich or Berlin would have been better!

It turns out that I could have done much, much better! I left out some items in my How to Find Cheap Flights Post.

Bring In the Cavalry

I travel a bit, but there are others that travel much, much more. And I now bow down before them. There is a frequent flier’s bulletin board FlyerTalk and it covers everything flying on the cheap. And they mean business. Seriously. It took me a week to find the Rosetta Stone for these people!

Errors Made While Booking

It turns out booking via the USAir website was a big no-no. They only offer a fraction of the flights there. For far cheaper I could have used the Star Alliance – an air carrier group of which USAir is a part of – and gotten my pick of any German city – Berlin, Munich, etc and traveled Business Class for only 80k miles! I would have spent less AND have gone to the exact place I wanted to. All I would have had to do is to join the ANA Frequent Flier program and used their search engine to find a way to go. I was robbed!

What to do next

Well, if it was only me, I would cancel the flight (and pay $250 to do it) and rebook on a partner airline for 50K miles, or 80K in business class. But I have a traveling companion for the first week and that brings the re-booking fees up.

What I am going to try to do is rebook the leg of the journey back from Frankfurt to Charlotte. Unfortunately, I have been told conflicting information. Ideally, I would leave from Munich (or Prague) at the same time / date as my current flight out of Frankfurt 10/4/2009. Is it possible for me to do this – and get the 50k in miles back – without invalidating the first leg of my trip? I am not sure, but I will find out!