Thursday, August 24, 2006

Mosel River Valley/Trier/Luxembourg

Day 1: Saturday, September 11, 1999 - Our plan was to drive to Koblenz, Germany where we would begin our trip up the Mosel River Valley. We left at 9:00 Saturday morning. We were going to leave earlier, but my wife and I stayed up late watching U.S. Open Tennis and the MTV Music Awards.

Mosel River Valley

Once we got on the road, we knew we should have left earlier. The traffic was terrible. At one point, I could see that we were in a traffic jam that stretched for miles and basically was not moving. So, we left the Autobahn and headed cross-country to our destination. We went through downtown Cologne, and basically didn’t know where we were until we finally saw another sign to the Autobahn. The traffic was not so bad at this point, and we made it to Koblenz before noon.

Before reaching Koblenz, we passed over the Mosel River on a very high bridge. The view was great, and you could see the ruins of several castles. After crossing, we took a road down to the river, and proceeded upstream. Within an hour, we came to one of the most famous castles in Germany, Burg Eltz.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz is about 800 years old. We took the tour, and got to see several rooms in the house. It was really fascinating to think that before Columbus discovered America, people were going about their business in this castle. It was situated on a hill, where it would have been difficult to attack. The kids were pretty well-behaved during the tour, because they were fascinated by a lot of what they saw. My son especially liked the displays of the weapons.

After leaving Burg Eltz, we continued up the Mosel. Most of the towns along the way were very old, and they were picture-postcard Germany. This is what most people envision when they think of Germany. The hills on either side of the Mosel are high (almost mountains), and most of them have grapes growing on them for wine production. Mosel wines are famous throughout Germany. The scenery was great, but the drive was very slow due to the winding roads and frequent towns. About 5:00 we pulled into Trier, Germany.

Trier is the oldest town in Germany. Its origin is estimated at 1300 B.C. During the time of the Roman Empire, it was an important Roman town, and many of the ruins are still there. We found the tourist information center, and I asked if it would be easy to find a hotel room. The guy laughed and said that this was high tourist season. However, had made a call and found us a room for about $90. We drove around and found the place, which was a very comfortable old room in a bed and breakfast. We had passed a Burger King coming into town, and we went back and tried to find it for the kids. No luck, so we ate Chinese food.

Day 2: Sunday, September 12 - We were up before 7 to see and explore Trier. We had all had a rough night, because our bed made a horribly loud noise anytime you moved, and my son had a coughing fit during the night. He refused to take medicine, so we had to let him cough and keep us up for about an hour.

At about 8:00, we went to the Porta Nigra. It was the old town gate during Roman times. At that time, there was a wall all around the city. It is a very impressive structure, probably 8 stories high with very high arches. It had lots of rooms up high where arrows could be rained down upon attackers of the city. I couldn’t believe this gate was 1700 years old. The best part was that it was early on a Sunday morning, so we were the only ones there despite the weather being fantastic. My son and daughter spent most of the time chasing pigeons. We left just in time, as some tour buses started pulling up.

Porta Nigra

From there, we went to the old Roman baths. We wanted to see the baths, the amphitheater, and an old Roman bridge. Our guidebook said that Trier is also the birthplace of Karl Marx, but we didn’t bother tracking that down. We went to the baths, and paid to tour the area. There were lots of underground passages that the kids were fascinated with. It was like playing in a series of caves. We spent more time there than planned, and decided to skip the other things on the agenda and head to the country of Luxembourg, just 6 miles away.

We left Trier, and actually drove across the Roman bridge on the way out of town. It was incredible to think that we could drive across a 1700-year old bridge.

Our plan was to see the American Military Cemetery in Luxembourg. First, we had to find a place to eat in Germany so I wouldn’t need to exchange money across the border. So, on the border of Germany we found a restaurant and ate before proceeding to the cemetery.

The cemetery was easy to find. My wife and I were just blown away. There were 5,500 white crosses there with the names of people killed during WWII. They were killed mostly during the Battle of the Bulge, where Hitler made his last great offensive strike as the Americans were closing in on Germany. There were a total of about 78,000 Americans killed in this battle. The battle began around Christmas 1944, so we saw a lot of graves of people buried on my birth date, as well as Christmas and New Year’s Day. We saw a lot of graves of people from Oklahoma and Texas.

We also saw the grave of the commander of the 3rd Army, General George S. Patton. For about a half hour, we were the only people in the entire cemetery. It was strange to look around and see that we were alone in this large cemetery. I tried to explain the significance to the kids, but they are still too young to understand. The experience really brought home the tragedy of WWII for both of us. There were stories there of some of the individuals buried there, and they were very difficult to read. As we were leaving, I saw two older American men sitting on a bench talking. I wondered if they had fought there. A tour bus full of Americans also pulled up just as we were leaving.

As we were leaving, I saw that there was a German cemetery just down the road. I wanted to go see it, but the kids were fussing so we skipped it. We drove through downtown Luxembourg City, before turning north toward Belgium. The countryside in northern Luxembourg and Belgium was very hilly and wooded. This was the exact location of the Battle of the Bulge. I read that you can still see craters from bombs in certain places.

In northern Belgium, we hopped back on the highway and headed home. It took us less than three hours to get home from leaving the cemetery. My wife told me after coming home that she was pleasantly surprised by our weekend. She didn’t realize that there was so much to see within three hours of our house. I told her that there is a lot more, because we haven’t even been to Amsterdam yet, just 2 hours away.

When we got to our house, there was a parade going around our neighborhood. That weekend was dedicated to a certain festival that each little town has every year. It dates back to the time that each town had its own militia to protect it. There are shooting contests, and people parade around in medieval costumes (our little village, Angermund, was 800 years old). We watched the parade, and then flopped down in the house for a little rest. Amsterdam would be up next.

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Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Denmark, Norway, and Sweden

We had been in Germany for barely a month when we decided to take our first trip. I still had six weeks of vacation to use, so we decided not to waste any time. I had dreamed of traveling to Norway since I was a kid, so that’s where we decided to go first.

Day 1: Sunday, August 8, 1999: We drove from our home in Düsseldorf to Legoland in Billund, Denmark. It took 7 hours to get there. We stayed at a hotel called the Hovborg Kro, which was about 20 km away from Legoland. I think we could have found something a little closer. Legoland was a lot of fun. The kids enjoyed the rides, and the miniature cities, airports, etc., were pretty impressive. The people in Denmark were incredibly polite. After spending several hours there, we left at 9 p.m. for our hotel.

Day 2: We had a ferry to Norway leaving at 11:30. The hotel reception told me that it would take 3.5 hours to get to the ferry departure point at Hirtshals, Denmark. We left at 7, because the ferry company said we should arrive 1 hour early. One the way, it was pretty rainy, and we didn’t make great time. We passed an exit sign for the city of Middelfart. I wanted to stop and take a picture, but we were pressed for time. We made it to the ferry right at 10:30.

We got in line, and drove our minivan onto the ferry. We were down in the lower part of the ship, which was very large. On board the ferry, we had an incident. When we were getting unloaded, I noticed that some grape jelly that we had brought had spilled all over some things. While we were trying to clean it up, there other passengers were going upstairs. Within 15 minutes, there was no one else down with us. We heard an announcement that everyone should proceed to the top, but still we tried to finish cleaning. In a few minutes, the ships engines started up. The noise was incredibly loud. My daughter started crying, and we all proceeded to the door. It was locked! We were locked downstairs near the ships engines for what would be a 2.5-hour ferry ride. I tried to find another way out, or a crew member. No luck. I was almost panicked. Finally, I tried the door again and found that it wasn’t actually locked; it just had an incredible wind blowing against it from an air intake. I would estimate that it was blowing at 80-90 MPH. I finally forced the door open, and we walked through the hurricane-force wind and made it upstairs.

The ferry ride was fine. The water was smooth, so there was no concern of seasickness for any of us. I kept looking out over the water thinking that this was the same water that the Vikings traveled on 1,000 years ago. After a relaxing ride across the water, we arrived in Kristiansand, Norway at 2 p.m.

First, I needed to exchange money. I saw several machines, but I couldn’t find a parking place anywhere. When I found a place to park, it was paid parking, and I had no Norwegian money. So, we parked illegally while I used the cash machine. The first machine didn’t take MasterCard. The second did, but said my card was not valid. I did not know the PIN number for a second card. Finally, I went into a bank and exchanged Deutschmarks for Norwegian Kroner. I had brought 2,000 Deutschmarks (around $1,000) for just such an incident.

We wanted to explore this town, but the kids were both asleep. We decided to proceed down the coast toward Stavanger. We wanted to make it to Bergen, on the west coast, by the next day. We drove until we found a little hotel at Kvinesdal, which was at a high elevation looking down upon a fjord. The view was unbelievable. It also had a large play area for the kids. We stopped here for the night.

The View from Kvinesdal

In the evening, I attempted to call MasterCard because I had also had trouble using it to purchase gas. I assumed that they had put an alert on the card because they thought it may have been stolen. I was going to call using my calling card, but I did not have the AT&T access code for Norway. I went to the reception for help. She could not even tell me how to dial an operator from Norway. She finally found a number for an outside operator; it turned out to be a Sprint operator. I did not know this until I called. They told me that they couldn’t help me. I finally realized that I could call AT&T collect with the Sprint number, and then get the access code. This worked. I called my credit union and asked them to remove the alert from the card.

In the evening, we all took a walk down the mountain. On the way down, we found a bunch of wild strawberries. We gathered a handful and took them back to our room to eat. They were small, but very tasty. After this, we played with kids out in the play area until we were thoroughly worn out.

Day 3: The next morning we had a traditional European breakfast, and then left for Stavanger. We first popped a movie in for the kids, and then headed off. It took about 2 hours to get there. The roads were very winding, and the speed limit was only 50 MPH. In Stavanger, we planned to take a 4.5 hour ferry up to Bergen. At the tourist information, they told us this ferry was only for passengers, not autos. She told us that we would have to drive and take 3 different ferries to get there. We did this, and it took six hours.

On one of the ferries, I met a man who lived there on one of the islands. It was very interesting to talk to him about life there. However, he was more interested in talking about life in America. We ended up doing a bit of both.

In Bergen, we searched out the tourist information. Again, parking was almost impossible. We finally found a parking space and went into the tourist place. I wanted to book a hotel room for two nights, and a tour called Norway in a Nutshell. It involves a train into the mountains, then another down to a fjord, and then a boat ride down the fjord. Finally, a bus and train take you back to Bergen.

The hotel room was hard to get. They were booked up. After a great deal of searching, a place was finally found. We got directions, and then went to Burger King across the street to eat. My wife and I wanted to eat Norwegian food, but we were worried the kids wouldn’t eat anything. When I walked up to the counter, I asked the guy working there if he spoke English. He looked at me like I was crazy, and said “Of course I speak English.” As I would later learn, almost all Norwegians are fluent in English.

After eating, we attempted to find the hotel. It was supposed to be near a hospital, five minutes from the tourist information. After 40 minutes, we found it. It was IN the hospital. It was an extra room in a maternity ward at the hospital (literally pronounced “sick house” in Norwegian). It was usually used by families who had someone in the hospital. The room was a little small, but it sufficed. Just another interesting part of traveling in Europe.

Day 4: We left at 6:40 to catch our train at 7:30. The kids were really excited about riding a train. Unfortunately, all of the nonsmoking cars were booked, so we had to ride in the smoking section. It was O.K. most of the time, but a few times people were smoking near us. We changed trains high in the mountains. The next train stopped by a waterfall, where a woman that appeared to be dressed like a mermaid came out and sang in the mist and fog of the waterfall. It was a little unusual, but my son really liked it. My daughter was upset because she never saw the woman. None of us saw her very well, because she stayed within the mist.

When we got to the bottom of the mountain, we caught a boat for a trip up the fjord. This was awesome. My wife said it was the highlight of her trip. It looked like pictures I have seen of Alaska. I videotaped so much that the battery went dead. We had no way to charge it back up, because we hadn’t brought our charger (which also required a transformer due to the different voltage). I would regret this.

After a bus ride, we came to a train station. We had over an hour until our train left, so we went down to the water, and had an ice cream. A seaplane landed on the water in front of us while we were there, which my son really enjoyed. We also met some Americans there from Kentucky. After our train ride, we were back in Bergen. We went back to the same place we parked the day before to explore downtown. We saw a green van back out of a parking place and smash into another van. He took off, but we got his plate number. We put a note on the window of the car that got hit. We messed around Bergen the rest of the evening, and then back to the hospital.

Day 5: We washed some clothes the day before in the hotel sink and hung them up to dry. They weren’t dry the next morning, so we had to find a dryer. We found one, as well as a washer there that we could have used for free. After the clothes were dry, we headed for Oslo. This was a two-day trip, so we knew we would need to stay overnight somewhere.

On the way, we climbed high into the mountains. We saw a lot of snow. Finally, we came to a place where we had to catch a ferry. My daughter played with a Norwegian girl at a playground while we waited on the ferry. After the ferry, we continued into the mountains. We stopped in one town, and had lunch by the water. We met a group of tourists from Israel, and spoke with them briefly.

In the afternoon, we continued toward Oslo. The scenery was spectacular, and there was snow on the surrounding peaks. Near Eidfjord, we came upon a 600-ft. waterfall called Vøringfoss. We parked at an area with a sheer drop (and no real protection to prevent kids from falling off). High above the waterfall was the scenic Fossli Hotel. We found a campsite in the area, and decided to stop and see if they had any cabins available. They did, and the cost was only about $30. Our hotels had been averaging $120-$140 a night, and we found this cabin high in the mountains for $30. After unloading our luggage, we all hiked a little ways up in the mountains before turning back. I decided to try and climb the mountain the next day, because the climb didn’t look too bad.

Robert and Kids with Fossli Hotel Behind Us

Day 6: I got up at 5 a.m. and started up the mountain. The climb had some steep parts, but I was never in danger of tumbling down the mountain. After 2 hours, I reached the top. The view was unbelievable. There was our cabin way down at the base. I could not believe how high I had climbed. I was higher than anything else around me. I never saw another person. I was above the tree line, and there was nothing but scrubby grass growing up there. I was soaking wet due to a little rain and knee-deep grass, but the view from here was definitely the highlight of my trip. I wished so much that I had my video camera. I made up my mind that someday I would come back to this spot.

After hiking back down the mountain, we continued toward Oslo. We stopped on the way at the Torpo stave church which dates back to the 1200’s. We also stopped and let the kids play in the snow a little. We weren’t really dressed for it, though. After we made it back to Oslo, we again tried to find the tourist information. After driving around for awhile, my wife spotted it. We parked and went in to book a hotel room. They were pretty booked, but they found one near the city center at a good price. It was difficult to get to, but we finally arrived. When we got there, we found out that they had no parking available. I had to pay an additional $35 in a parking garage to park the van. Suddenly, the room was not so cheap. Also, I had to pay cash for the parking, and it consumed every bit I had. I went to a cash machine and again it said my MasterCard was invalid. There was a couple from California there having the same problem.

Day 7: We had an ambitious agenda on this day. We wanted to see several museums, and then an amusement park in the afternoon. We went to the Norsk Folkemuseum in the morning. This open-air museum displayed buildings from all over Norway dating back to the 1200’s. They had been moved from all over Norway to this museum. This was very interesting, but we rushed through it. Next time we spend a bit more time there.

Then we went to the Viking Ship Museum, which housed ships that they had found sunken near Oslo. It was hard to believe that these ships were over 1,000 years old. At this museum we realized we didn’t have time for half the things we wanted to do. My son fell asleep on my back, and we laid him down on a couch. My wife stayed with him while my daughter and I looked around. My wife met more people from Israel who wanted to know all about life in Texas. After we finished in the museum, we spent some time walking around the streets of Oslo. We spent some time on the grounds of theRoyal Palace, but we didn’t have nearly enough time to cover everything. If I had it to do again, I would plan at least 3 days for Oslo.

We left Oslo in the afternoon, and headed toward Sweden. We crossed the border in the evening. We nearly hit two moose standing in the road. We found another nice campsite near a beach outside Tanum, and we rented another cabin. Directly across from the campsite were some 3,000 Bronze Age rock carvings. We found out that this was a World Heritage Sight, which includes things like the Pyramids in Egypt and the Taj Mahal. We also visited the Vitlycke museum which had a very cool reconstruction of a Bronze Age farm. We decided to spend the rest of the day in the area, and then proceed to Denmark the next day.

Day 8: We got up the next morning and explored the open-air museum, and then went to see the rock carvings. It was very interesting to see the depiction of life from 3,000 years ago. We spent about half the day there, and then headed on toward Denmark. In the afternoon, we caught a short ferry from Sweden to Denmark. After quite a bit of searching, we found a very unique hotel in Helsingor, Denmark. Helsingor is the site of Kronborg Castle, the setting for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. However, once again there was no parking at the hotel. The reception was not much help, but we parked down the street in a public parking area. They told us that we “probably” wouldn’t get a parking ticket there.

Day 9: We got up early and went to tour the castle. We crossed the moat and explored the courtyard. We would have killed a couple of hours had we gone inside, but decided we didn’t have time. After half an hour, we headed toward Copenhagen. Today’s plan was to do things for the kids, and we planned on visiting a large amusement park in Copenhagen. However, it was raining, so we proceeded to Plan B. This was an indoor place for the kids to play near Ringsted, called Fantasy World. We spent most of the rest of the day there. The kids played, and we walked through Santa Land, which had moving figures everywhere. The kids really liked it, and didn’t want to leave.

Finally, we proceeded toward home. One thing I will always remember about driving through Denmark is that there were so many wind turbines. I had always heard about Denmark’s wind industry, but you have to see it to appreciate it. We finally caught a ferry to Germany in the afternoon, and then drove until 11 p.m. to get home. All in all, an incredible trip. It was not, however, long enough. We did learn a lot of do’s and don’ts for the future, which would come in handy on our next trip.

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About This Blog

Between 1999 and 2001, my family (my wife, young daughter, young son, and myself) lived in Düsseldorf, Germany while I was on an expatriate assignment for the chemical giant Hoechst. While living there, we received the European vacation benefit of six weeks each year. We took full advantage of this benefit, traveling all over Europe. I documented most of our trips, mainly so we would have an account for later years. However, I thought this blog might also benefit those planning a trip to Europe.

I have around 17 essays, covering Europe and even venturing into North Africa. I will edit and post these essays as time allows. I think my writing got better during later trips, and I also learned to be more descriptive of the events. Hopefully these essays will be of some interest to those planning a trip to Europe, or those who are just curious about living and traveling in Europe.

I also maintain another blog dedicated to energy issues: R-Squared Energy Blog

I am always happy to try to answer any questions about our European experience.
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