Category Archives: Germany

Get the Royal Treatment in Ireland

 

One part of the massive Ashford Castle in Ireland.Probably like many little girls, I have had a fascination with castles and country estates that has stayed with me for a lifetime. My first stay in such royal surroundings was the wonderful Castle Sababurg about a 45-minute drive from Kassel, Germany, in Brothers Grimm territory.  It is widely believed the brothers were inspired by Sababurg, using it as the model for the castle in Sleeping Beauty, and I believe it. Sadly, it has recently closed.

When our daughter was young, we stayed in a delightful luxury family hotel, Woolley Grange near Bath in England.  One huge benefit was the on-site nanny to watch over children so parents could enjoy a quiet gourmet dinner. And one of my all-time favorite memories was a stay in the English Lake District at Farlam Hall Country House Hotel, a beautiful Relais & Chateaux manor home with resident cats Gin & Tonic and amazing dinner service.

On a more recent trip to Ireland, we loved our visits to Ashford Castle (pictured at top), Dromoland, and Ard na Sidhe. Read on.

 

Ashford Castle | Cong, Mayo

 

I can’t even think of enough adjectives to describe Ashford Castle. Dating from 1228, this property did indeed start out as a castle. In the mid-1800s it was owned by Sir Benjamin Guinness. In 2013, the property was rescued from receivership by the Red Carnation luxury hotel group. They bought it for less than half of its previous sale price and then proceeded to invest somewhere between $50-70 million in renovating the hotel and estate. Read the rest of this entry

European Xmas Markets: Auf Wiedersehen/ Au Revoir

 

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Hard to believe the week is over and we are headed back to the USA. It’s been a terrific trip!  Using the MOVES app on my iPhone, it registers we have walked in excess of 110,000 steps, which translates to about 55 miles. We believe it – we never walked so much; basically all day and then, all evening.

Our last stop, in Frankfurt, involved a few uneventful changes on the train and a more eventful trip to actually find the cityIMG_4686 market. Once we did, we were glad to have made the effort.  It was incredibly jam-packed with a well-dressed crowd of all ages and an impressive array of food offerings.  At this market the ratio of food to décor seemed to be about 80/20.  It was beautiful with lots of lights and the section in the historic area was particularly interesting. Lots of fun to people watch and sample of final treats of the trip.

In summary, we are now totally in the Christmas spirit and hope it will last, as we head back to our own pre-holiday chaos.

To all my readers – Merry Christmas!!

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Karen & Sarah, Strasbourg.

Sparkling Stuttgart

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It’s impossible to photograph the elaborate decorations on top of each of the 250+ booths at the Stuttgart Xmas Markets. Photos don’t do any of it justice.  The crowds and the lighting just can’t be mastered with the iPhone camera I am using for this trip (decided not to haul the Nikon around the markets).

The booths of the Stuttgart Christmas Markets meander through the central part of this contemporary city, through an exclusive shopping district and around a few historical buildings that survived WWII.  Along the way there is a large model train display, complete with a child-size train for kids to ride, a very busy ice rink, and of course, the requisite dozens of food and drink options.

I hesitate to even call these booths, because many are more like small pop-up stores.  These structures are substantial and the fact the operators seriously compete for best decor honors is obvious.  The lush greenery is all real and every one of the booths is different and unique. Although vendors sell the usual Xmas decorations, angels, candles and toys, oddly, this market also has items usually found at a home show, or maybe an infomercial (think devices to keep pots from over boiling and special chopping tools).  Knives, spatulas, pots and bathroom cleaners notwithstanding, the lights and decorations produce a magical effect.  Several mammoth Christmas trees add to the ambiance as does an Advent Calendar in the windows of City Hall.

Based on the massive crowds around every Gluhwein stand, I wonder just how much is consumed in Germany during the four market weeks . . .

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A small section of the decorations atop a booth selling wild game food products.

 

Nuremberg’s Symbolic “Christkind” (Golden Angel)

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To break away from the Catholic tradition of gift giving on St. Nicolas’ Day, December 6, Martin Luther (1483-1546) switched festivities in his home to Christmas Eve. He told his children the Christkind brought their gifts. The practice quickly took hold and spread throughout Nuremberg. The fictional gift-giver took form through the years and is represented by the Golden Angel today. Occasional visits by Christkind to the Children’s Christmas Market in Nuremberg is a huge attraction. A new “Angel” is selected every two years. We considered ourselves lucky to be in the area during one of her special appearances.

Nuremberg: Golden Angels & Prune People

Once again, the rain stopped for us, this time just as our train pulled into Nuremberg. After 24 hours with no suitcase (!) I welcomed my cashmere sweaters and warm, comfortable boots (not to mention a few other things).

This is a beautiful, historic city and is home to a 400-yr old market that many others have been modeled after. It is big, lively, colorful and jam-packed with people of all ages.  There seemed to be a  Gluhwein stall every six feet.  And the best Children’s Market I’ve seen.  But a high point was found in the international section of the market, were we discovered a booth from the USA – Atlanta to be specific; I settled on hot cocoa with Jack Daniels, and my friend Sarah apple cider and Jack. Perfect.

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Christmas Market Orientation: Scenes from Munich

Great intro to German markets. Skies cleared when we landed. We managed to get to all the major markets, eat some great food and share a lot of laughs. 

More to come.  

        

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Christmas Market Redux

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World conditions may not be ideal, but I am going to stick to our plan to visit European Christmas Markets again this year.

My friend and I are headed off to Germany today for a girl’s trip of super-sized, festive, cold, delicious Christmas overload.

I know from previous experience that Germany is really where many of our beloved Christmas traditions began and the Alsace region of France, enhanced those traditions with taking tree decorating to the next level.

Since I have been reading all the global stories about security warnings, I have learned that Germany has 2,500 Christmas Markets.  We will focus on just a couple of dozen.

The markets run during Advent, from late November until just before Christmas, and all feature stalls stocked with every imaginable kind of ornamentation and decorative item. About half of the markets are devoted to an incredible array of food, baked treats and goodies of every description.  Not to mention the famous hot mulled wine, Glühwein, (not my fav, I poured it in a bush the last time I visited); I will stick with hot chocolate. I will also collect more of the cute mugs that are traditional market souvenirs and customized for each different location.

A few interesting hallmarks of early Christmas traditions:

  • Nativity Cribs have been set-up since the year 360
  • St. Nicholas (with brown cape and mitre) was first depicted in the Alps in the 13th century
  • Earliest Christmas markets date back to Vienna’s “December Market” in 1294, followed by many throughout Germany in the 1200s and 1300s, and in 1570, France’s oldest market in Strasbourg
  • First documented tradition of Christmas gifts, 14th century
  • Oldest decorated tree on record was in 1419, on the edge of the Black Forest; baker’s apprentices used fruit, cookies, nuts and paper flowers
  • First Advent wreath (with 24 candles), 1833
  • Colored glass balls were first created in 1870
  • First printed Advent calendar, 1908
  • New York holds the honor for the first electric lights, in 1912 on Madison Square

So we begin in Munich tomorrow, then onto Nuremberg, Stuttgart, and a side trip to Strasbourg in France, before returning to Germany’s Frankfurt.

Large and mid-size cities often have multiple markets and many smaller towns are a short train ride away.  So we will see what the next few days bring and will try to post colorful photos and brief descriptions to help everyone get into the holiday mood (particularly all our warm-weather friends).

Frohe Weihnachten, Joyeux Noël, Merry Christmas.

Berlin, a City Truly Divided: Bunkers to Beautiful

Visiting what's left of the Berlin Wall.  Without the barbed wire, attack dogs, and guards with an easy trigger finger . . . .

Visiting what’s left of the Berlin Wall. Without the barbed wire, attack dogs, and guards with an easy trigger finger . . . .

The famous "Checkpoint Charlie".  Is anybody else bothered by the fact that German's are dressing up like American servicemen and posing for photos?

The famous “Checkpoint Charlie”. Is anybody else bothered by the fact that German’s are dressing up like American servicemen and posing for photos?

What a way to start the day – with a tour of a WW2 civilian bomb shelter.  Berliner Unterwelten (run by the Berlin Underworld Association), offers tours of this often forgotten part of Berlin’s past.  We took tour #1, “Dark Worlds” and were led by our cute Israeli guide Ca’nan, through a maze of underground rooms, walls of phosphorescent paint, and displays of artifacts and weaponry from the era.

Eighty percent of central Berlin was destroyed during the war and 40% of the entire city. The wall went up in 1966, and we happened to be there on “Unification Day” when they celebrate East and West Berlin being back together. Because it was a major holiday, stores were closed and there were massive street fairs as well as smaller celebrations.

Because the Underworld tour was at a subway station, cabs were plentiful when we were finished.  Of course you could take the subway, but it was too beautiful a day to spend any more time underground.

We had the cab drop us at Adenauer Platz and walked down Kurfurstendamm, with its closed high-end stores, and enjoyed a nice lunch at the outdoor café, Redeksheimer.

Then we walked until we reached a stop for the Hop-On bus, which we took to Checkpoint Charlie for what used to be the entrance to the American part of Berlin.  Now a sort of seedy looking area.

No visit to Berlin would feel complete if we didn’t see and touch a part of the original Berlin Wall, and that was next up on our agenda. We had been tipped off by our Berlin Underground guide about the Legend of Hitler’s Bunker and its central location. A sign/exhibit titled “Mythos und Geschichtszeugis Fuhrerbunker” is all that remains to explain the history of Hilter’s final resting place in his specially built bunker with walls almost 13’ thick. Today, the area is a parking lot. Once again, kudos to the Berlin Underground group for doing the research and placing the marker of this significant historical location.

We then made our way towards the Holocaust Memorial, just one block south of the Brandenburg Gate and near the US Embassy. Even though this sobering memorial covers 4.7 acres, visitors might pass right by without noticing it or understanding what it symbolizes.  Designed by an American architect, it features 2,711 gray concrete slabs (stelae), all the same casket-like size, but varying in height from 8” to 15’.  The site also has an undulating base and much symbolism; the effect is disturbing on many levels. What disturbed me most, however, was the lack of appropriate signage and the hundreds of laughing people swarming over the area as an extension of the local Unification celebrations. BTW – the official name is “A Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe”.  No mention of the Holocaust or Germany’s role in those murders; there has been much controversy.

After a pretty exhausting day, we stuck close to home for another typical German beer and dinner (Bavarian, this time) at Augstiner am Gendarmenmarkt.

 

Important Info: The Berlin Underworld tours are daily, but are not offered as often in English.  There is generally an 11AM tour, and some days more tours are scheduled. You can check their website for details, although it is a bit confusing.  I’ve included a map with the photos to help clarify the location.  Other tours include: one of Hitler’s fortresses built to protect the city; “Subways and Bunkers of the Cold War”; “Under the Berlin Wall”, stories of those who tunneled to freedom.  http://berliner-unterwelten.de

Pointing the way to the ticket office.

Pointing the way to the ticket office.

Subway entrance for the start of the "Dark Worlds" bunker tour with Berliner Unterwelten.  Down the hall and then some stairs and through a large, bolted metal doorway it's a different world.  We weren't allowed to take pictures, so my description above will have to suffice.

Subway entrance for the start of the “Dark Worlds” bunker tour with Berliner Unterwelten. Down the hall and then some stairs and through a large, bolted metal doorway it’s a different world. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so my description above will have to suffice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Map of Berliner Unterwelten tours.  This place can be hard to find and you have to get your tickets in person, cash only.  It's about a 20 minute taxi ride from the center of town (or you could take the subway). The experience is worth the effort.

Map of Berliner Unterwelten tours. This place can be hard to find and you have to get your tickets in person, cash only. It’s about a 20 minute taxi ride from the center of town (or you could take the subway). The experience is worth the effort.

 

The Largest Model Train Display in the World: Hamburg, Germany

Of course, at the center of it all, is the trains.   They are running everywhere around you - but you never seem to see the same train twice.

Of course, at the center of it all, is the trains. They are running everywhere around you – but you never seem to see the same train twice.

I counted 78 monitors in the impressive Control Centr.

I counted 78 monitors in the impressive Control Center.

The Miniatur Wunderland is a lot more than model trains, anything you imagine can probably be found within this massive display – but more on that in a moment.

My husband is crazy about model trains. He has meticulously restored and maintained, vintage Lionel trains running around our study and on display. Even though he favors the larger O gauge, popular when he was a kid in the 50’s, he loves any well-done train exhibit.

Since opening in 2001, the Miniatur Wunderland attraction has constantly grown.  Current displays (in HO scale), are inspired by scenes from Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Scandinavia and the USA. The newest feature is a working model airport; Italy can be seen under construction.

To get an idea of the massive scope of this attraction, let’s review a few facts we learned on our “Behind the Scenes” tour with Marius, our knowledgeable guide:

Miniatur Wunderland Fun Facts

  • 950 trains
  • 14,450 train cars (wagons as they say in Europe)
  • More than 8 miles of track
  • 3,050 switches
  • 335,000 lights
  • 3728 miles of cable
  • Longest train is a 47’ coal train in the USA section, with 66 cars and 5 engines

Four times every hour, each display changes to dusk for about a minute, then night for about three, and sunrise for another minute. Interactive buttons trigger all kinds of surprise actions (just in case you don’t have enough to watch).  Along with all the kids, my favorite had to be the Swiss chocolate factory that wraps a small Lindt chocolate and drops it into the hand of each chocoholic visitor.

One of the big crowd-pleasers is the airport, where 40 different planes pull up to terminals, take-off and land.  Video monitors, just like those in a real airport, display flight schedules and video of planes. Planes are all types and sizes and include occasional appearances of an emergency landing of the Space Shuttle and a comical flying bee.

In Scandinavia they use real water to maneuver large shipping vessels and passenger lines and even feature a beach with a rising and falling tide. Throughout the displays visitors will find countless surprises and hidden visual treats.  Every employee of the attraction is encouraged to submit creative ideas for inclusion.  You can tell they have fun – you find yourself constantly smiling when you spot things like a couple of nuns sitting on a bridge, an office worker zipping around the office in their rolling chair, torch-lit skiers coming down a slope, the Coke polar bear, or a couple having “fun”.

A great place to visit if you like trains, or any type of models; the kids and their adults, were all having so much fun. It truly is an incredible engineering, electrical and technological wonder.  My only criticism is the gift shop – a very odd collection of not-so-great “stuff”, they are surly missing a huge opportunity. In the past couple of years, we had viewed a number of You Tube videos about the attraction and, I am happy to report, the actual experience exceeded all my husband’s expectations.

Tips:  Go early or late to miss the big crowds, if you travel as far as we did, take the Behind the Scenes Tour – it was well worth the $15 fee. If you want the tour, book it in advance, unless you speak German, or it may not be available. They do have senior discounts and you can buy your admission tickets (regular 12 Euros), ahead of time, on-line.  www.miniatur-wunderland.de

There is More to Hamburg than Toy Trains

Hamburg is Germany’s second largest city and is filled with tree-lined streets and green spaces. It is biker-friendly, runner and walker-friendly and a very pleasant place to visit. Anchored by the centrally located lake (Alster) and the Elbe River, Hamburg is a port city whose residents seem to be embracing their waterfronts.  We are staying by the lake and it seems to be busy every minute, and this is during the week. We’ve watched sailboats, crew teams, kayakers and paddle boarders everywhere.                                                          

The Hop-On bus tour is a great option and can get you around key areas. There seems to be a good public transport system – but it is also a great city for walking. If time, you can get out on the lake and/or river for a water tour.

Small bistros, cafes and bars dot the lake-front. We had a lovely dinner at the charming Kajute. No English version of the menu, but we figured it out. In fact, you won’t find as much in English here, but everyone is eager to please and help.  We also find this city refreshingly less formal that some other German cities we have visited in the past.

 There are dozens of hidden surprises tucked into the detailed displays at Miniatur Wunderland. I'd like to know exactly how many adventuresome couples there actually are  but here is one, up high on a roof top.  Others were, under trees, along riverbanks, seen trough apartment and office windows and even cavorting in a field of sunflowers.  We even saw a threesome, and I don't mean golfing.  I've rated this couple PG to show here.  Not all the hidden treasures are sexual.  We spotted a giraffe being loaded on a plane, a penguin family, a corpse in a river, and more.  But we missed the crocodile and dinosaur . . .

There are dozens of hidden surprises tucked into the detailed displays at Miniatur Wunderland. I’d like to know exactly how many adventuresome couples there actually are . . . but here is one, up high on a roof-top. Others were, under trees, along riverbanks, seen through apartment and office windows, and cavorting in a field of sunflowers. We even saw a threesome, and I don’t mean golfing. I’ve rated this couple PG to show here. Not all the hidden treasures are sexual. We also spotted a giraffe being loaded on a plane, a penguin family, a corpse in a river, and more. But we missed the crocodile and dinosaur . . .

See that cute little tuxedo kitty in the tree?  The Fire Department comes to the rescue!

See that cute little tuxedo kitty in the tree? The Fire Department comes to the rescue!

One of the 150 interactive buttons, triggers response to a church fire.  Others play music, start a SWOT team shootout, a knight's jousting tournament and lights on for a sneak peak in an apartment building, and much more.

One of the 150 interactive buttons, triggers a response to a church fire. Others play music, start a SWAT team shootout, a knight’s jousting tournament and turns lights on for a sneak peek into an apartment building, and much more.

Along the shore of the beautiful Alster Lake, right in the middle of this very green city.

Along the shore of the beautiful Alster Lake, right in the middle of this very green city.

For my pirate girlfriends - just had to post this flag, seen along the Alster lakeshore at one of the many small marina/bistros.

For my pirate girlfriends – just had to post this flag, seen along the Alster lake-shore, at one of the many small marina/bistros.

 

Xmas on the Rhine: Heidelberg

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

One of the small Xmas Markets scattered in the center of Heidelberg.

Today had to be our dreariest day. Originally we were going to take a bus from Speyer to Heidelberg, but the low water levels have resulted in the need for a longer trip (2 hours) and later, another 2 hour trip to Strasbourg and our new home, the River Princess. It has rained all day.

Heidelberg is a beautiful city, much of it untouched during the war. It was terrific to see the Heidelberg Castle and reacquaint myself with the fascinating and complex history of the German/English royal family. Fortunately, the rain broke for a few minutes and we were able to see the beautiful views from the Castle looking across the rooftops of the city and across the Neckar River. It reminded me of the views in Florence.

We lunched at the historic (1592) Ritter Hotel and then checked out a few of the central markets, and watched the kids skating on the ice rink. The little ones were so cute pushing around their little ‘training penguins’!

The Christmas markets here are scattered through the squares, but all in a central area and easy to get around from one to the next. Due to time and weather conditions, hard to know if we found them all, but we sure tried.

I would’ve loved to have more time to discover (and photograph) this charming spot on a better day. While at the castle, I did partake of the local legend and placed my foot in the impression of the knight’s footstep left in the stone of the terrace. It is said if you do this you will return to Heidelberg and also live a happy life. So, here’s to returning!

Finally, into France and back on board ship – this time the Uniworld River Princess. The ship is decorated in a beautiful Art Deco style and is very nice. Our room is a bit smaller on this ship – but we managed to efficiently stow everything and were soon off to a wonderful dinner.

PS – News Bulletin: we hear the big bomb of Koblenz has been successfully defused and removed!