When Rog told me we weren’t going to make it to Poland after all, due to changes in our schedule, the girls and I were seriously disappointed, so he wanted to cheer us up by offering Aquaworld. After three days walking all over Budapest, and having previously visited Legoland, Tripsdrill, and multiple water-oriented destinations in the last four weeks, my first reaction to Aquaworld was nope. Not interested, especially when my visual was me chasing the kids all over the park when relaxing was more on my agenda.
“Come in,” he encouraged. “It will be fun, and if you want, I’ll run around with the girls and you can relax.” Huh. Didn’t sound so bad after all.
Multiple pools indoor and out, for adults only and families. Lots of grass, umbrellas and bars so no one goes without.
Close and convenient
Aquaworld has several locations around Hungary, one just ten minutes outside Budapest central. Since we couldn’t extend our stay at the apartment downtown, Rog took advantage of the package for a stay in a suite, plus four passes to the waterpark, buffet breakfast included (not continental, but full breakfast) for 235 Euro, we were in.
Massive and amazing
Straight and a few rights took us to Aquaworld, the passes are magnetized wristbands that resemble a round Applewatch. It grants access to the areas- which include the full children’s playground and child care (you must register separately but no additional fee) the waterslides, multiple indoor and outdoor pools–in fact, Aquaworld planned for all seasons, because the designers replicated every feature indoor as available outdoor, including the jungle-like high walkways.
Dome covered indoor area guarantees you don’t get sunburned in the summer and stay toasty in the winter
Indoor waterball (we call them garble balls) are in the wave pool, the Aztec designed theme an interesting yet fun choice. Separate adult-only areas exist both indoor and out, and the full-service Spa, hair salon and gym are located one floor above, with a stairway connecting to the lower area for easy access. Towels, robes and slippers are provided for the whole family. To top it off, the bar opens promptly at 8 a.m., so for those early risers who just want to get going, the bar makes smoothies and sells pastries as well as adult concoctions.
My pictures don’t do the food service justice. I missed taking the shot of the bread bar, where baskets or stacked chest high, to encourage families to load up and take as many as required! Where does that happen in the US? Another full bar was all for pastries, yet another for eggs, another for meats–about twenty different kinds. Hungarians love their pork, and I’m pretty sure an unwritten rule exists about how many must be offered to be considered legit.
Regardless, I couldn’t eat anything except liquid on this particular day, so I can only say the hot chocolate was thick and divine.
What I liked best and least
This was one easy. I liked it all. Nothing to “not like.” I even found a superior bathing suit at the gift shop–designer quality, fabric and style for 40 Euro. What more could I have asked for?
Well, Rog spoiled me on this one. Yeah, I liked the villa in Verona, as much as I hated the cramped, awful place in Bellagio, but one was country living, the other was city, which were polar opposites, good and bad. With the apartment he found in Hungary, I have the best of both: space and convenience! Not an easy balance to strike when you are also wanting a reasonable deal.
View from our corner apartment down to the restaurant-filled lane below
Let’s talk numbers
Four days, three nights in this three-bedroom, two bath top floor in Budapest, one block for atelier shopping and seven minutes tops (about four blocks) from the central square in Old Town was roughly five hundred Euros. What a steal. Parking wasn’t included, and that was another 60 Euro, so all in, less than 600. Holy cow. Love Budapest! We had one of the best brunch restaurants twenty feet from our doorstep, on the corner of a pedestrian-only lane, which also has two eateries for gluten and vegetarian diners, but also a pub with billiards. Around the corner is Robert Maar boutique, and we met him, had clothes custom made for Rog, and I even picked up two handmade designs by Robert as well.
I’m going to cover the downtown, riverboats, parliament and other subjects separately, since this focus of this blog is to 1) demystify Budapest as a scary, big down for those of you who have shied away from going to the country and 2) show you what can be had for really affordable prices.
View to the pedestrian-only lane (UL), the sitting room (two couches on either side not pictured) (UR) the dining room.
Three bedrooms, one came with girls, too pooped to get out of bed
The building and atrium
Like all structures downtown, zero space exists between buildings.
Just two down from us was another undergoing complete reconstruction, the new apartments
Euro-modern, not old town. Aside from that is a graffiti-lace building that has
yet to undergo a transformation. The units are designated by simple numbers
(10-12) per block, so you just locate the number and you are set. Each has
electronic pads for entry, then the 12’ high doors open wide. Marble floors, a
lift (or elevator as we call it in the States) or the flight up. Being on the
sixth floor, what do you think we did once our bags were inside? Walk, of
course. Rog just doesn’t feel good about our massive caloric intake unless we get
in our stairs.
It’s a beautiful hike though. A wide, 40×40 (at least) bottom floor, open garden is in the middle, and every floor landing has baskets with fresh flowers around the perimeter. The glass elevator is lovely, and we used it when hauling our bags, or when I was simply too pooped to party up those stairs.
Street view in the other direction. See the dome beyond? That’s the magistrate building in Old Town, where the carousel, main Piazza and grand Cathedral are located.
Gates, bars and three locks
Quite a few of the front doors are elegantly designed, and
lack a single piece of metal for security purposes. Ours, however, is double
doors, the first entry point all metal (in white, matching the door). This was
one lock. Then to the door itself, which had two. Nothing is getting past this
fortress. Once inside the top-floor, corner unit, we understood why. It’s
straight out of the pre-soviet era, when structures were tall and grand.
Actually, perhaps they are still that way—we wouldn’t know, but to our new-to-Budapest-eye,
it was better than the pictures on Expedia (I think this was on both VRBO and
Expedia, but we got a better deal on the Expedia).
As you can see from the pictures, inlaid wood floors, chandeliers which we learned were custom made for this apartment – I should have taken a close up—lilies in different colors accent the lighting in each room save the living room, a nice detail. Care is taken for the floor-to-ceiling drapes, the silk pattern in the living heavy and rich, whereas those in the large kitchen is yellows with a floral print. Yeah, I know this is a lot of info, but it’s worth noting. When you’re on the road for a while, or if it’s your one trip a year, you want the experience to be memorable. Would you rather pay four grand a night at the Four Seasons, or go for two weeks on that same amount of money and have this type of authentic, Hungarian experience? The good news is you have the option and know it’s attainable if you want it.
Best brunch we had–three days out of the four!
What I liked best
The convenience, cost, elegance, safety and vibe of the area. Oh! I can’t forget Café Brunch Budapest. It has several locations, one just below our apartment on the corner. We literally came back from Austria one day (about an hour drive) to get more blueberry muffins for Porsche, they were that good. (we got six).
The café (UL), how fried eggs are made in Hungary (meat added) and the mother-of-muffins which we crossed country lines to get.
What I liked least
This building has a few rentals like ours, but most units are privately owned. Our internet was the worst we’ve had in a month of travel—so bad I couldn’t load a single thing—not a picture or a document at all. We learned from the management that the owner is paying 300 Euro a month for service: Rog told him he was getting raked. Television reception was also horrid, which was too bad since the flat screens were monstrous and deserved to be used. But both were ok; I took a break from doing anything productive, and the lack of tv ensured we got out early and went to bed when we got home.
When doing a search for old ruins and castles, Slovakia came up as the number one spot. By number one, I mean oldest. Devin Castle, on the corner of Slovakia within the township of Devin. The castle is widely considered to have predated any other structures still standing. Overlooking the might Danube on a jutting piece of rock, Devin Castle is also thought to have been visited by Christ during his ministry, but some ruins have been traced back to the 5th century BC, 400 year before the celts arrived. We visited it several years ago, and wanted to take another look, as well as eat at the same restaurant at the base of the entrance.
Slovakia itself is a shocker to the system if you’ve been used to seeing the colorful, modern (or old) buildings of the surrounding countries. Cold war-era high-rise apartment buildings are stacking together, side by side and austere. Some are fainted bright colors, but most are grey and lifeless. It’s not until you see the women pushing strollers or the road bikers peddling along the sidewalk does the city of Bratislava warm up. One left off the A4 and one is right in town, another left, following the signs to Devin and the scenery changes once again. Suddenly, the road is waterside, the trees arch over the street and it becomes positively suburban, homes hidden behind gates or dense bushes on both sides of the two-lane road continue until the small town of Devin is reached.
Cold war era buildings are dominant in the skyline upon entering Slovakia. This changes immediately when leaving the city center.
Parking, country fair and food
The parking/entrance for Devin Castle can be reached two ways from the main street and Google maps provides both. If you miss the first left, going a half a mile through town gives you another opportunity to turn left, but the visual of the castle above you nearly enough for self-guidance. This year, a county fair occupied the open grass fields. Pony rides, farm animals, games that I can’t describe in local terms occupied an area half a football field in length and width. It was a warm day, so many were in bathing suits, taking advantage of the inlets of the Danube River just feet away.
The transition from city to suburb is immediate and profound. About ten minutes of this lovely drive and you are in Devin, Slovakia.
Devin is your classic, quaint small town.
The entrance fee is consistent as most of the other castles, about 30 Euro for a family of four. The walk up is easy and takes about twenty minutes, but may be longer due to the goats on the hillside who know how to play the visitors for food. Entertainers dressed in period clothing sword fight, sing and play instruments alongside a few store fronts, also in period. Word to the wise: bring cash because credit cards aren’t accepted.
Not much further is the protected area where Christ was thought to have taught. After 2,000 years, it’s not much more than the stone foundation where a building once stood, but this is preserved by a new building that’s been built around it so visitors can enter and take their time in the area. A fence bordering the area provides one more measure against future degradation.
A short walk from the parking lot and you arrive at the ticket & main gate entrance.
Exiting this structure, it’s another five-minute walk to the main castle. Unlike the majority of castles we’ve been to in our travels, the road up has nary a tree to provide relief from the heat. The great news is also unlike other castles, this one offers free, cold water at the top thanks to a fountain and beautiful (also free) bathrooms! What a relief, figuratively and literally. From the center courtyard (and well, which is impressive itself because somehow they dug down hundreds of feet, through rock), you can go left (west) to one of the ramparts and look across the river and valley beyond. To the right of the courtyard is the larger structure, though much of it is off limits. Just last year, a new metal walkway was added, allowing for an unobstructed view, which previously was availably only from the other tower. The distance between the two is less than a five-minute walk.
Building on the highest peak, the tallest rock never fails to get an appreciative picture.
Time for food
Notice how all my castle write-ups include food at the end? While we have a meal in the morning, castle exploration is hard work, especially since it nearly always involves some sort of climb, further walking, then the descent. Is it any wonder we eat like bears coming out of hibernation at the end of it all?
Readers will often make quirky faces when remarking on my choice of photos, until I call them out with question: you mean, why don’t I always post glamour shots of places? It’s because I personally am so sick of seeing “the perfect shot.” I want to know what a place looks like when I drive up, or am walking, or looking down. And I have no interest in brushing my hair, standing the right way or whatever. When it comes to food, I whip out my iPhone (usually), not my Nikon, snap and eat. I’m a focused girl; I want my meal warm. It helps when it’s pretty, but I’m not going to spend a moment worrying about it.
The reward for visiting Devin Castle is (name here) located riverside to the Danube. You can’t see the river through the dense trees, but it’s there because you just saw it, and the water can be heard. We’ve had the pork knee (sounds gross, but it’s a pound of goodness) Slavic burgers, goulash, their version of cheese sticks and several types of soups. The portions are monstrous and the prices are McDonalds. A $100 meal in the US comes out to roughly fifty dollars, including drinks.
Double boar meat hamburger with cucumbers (Rog and Porsche raved), my Slovakian goulash and previous picture–chicken wings, Slovakian style.
Drones are allowed, and Rog flew his from the parking lot. I forgot to note that he was able to fly his drone in all the castles we’ve visited (hence the shots), because they aren’t regulated in most of these areas. How wonderful!
If you’re going to make the trip, be sure to stop here. You may be tempted to try the hotel across the street, but this is “more local,” if you will.
What I love about Devin Castle
It’s the only castle I know of that mentions Jesus in the historical records. For a person who’s never been to Israel, it may be as close as I get to being in the same vicinity as Jesus. The view is unreal, and the food at the bottom of the castle shouldn’t be missed.
Parking lot, restaurant and Devin Castle, in that order. See, wasn’t that helpful?
What I don’t
Nothing really. It’s so modest, there’s nothing to give tours over—so natural beauty and ruins are there to be enjoyed.
Want to spend the night, go hiking, biking or rent a boat on the Danube? This hotel is the one and only at the base of the castle.
If you are within 100 miles of Bratislava (which means lots of places stretching from Hungary to Austria), put it on the must-visit list.
When I’m really happy, I look slightly possessed. Sorry about that, but not sorry about being really happy. Note: if you see the upper right castle-that’s the part mostly closed due to instability. It’s the left hand side that’s one of two areas open to tour.
Feature photo: taken on site. If you want to see the areal view shot from the drone, go to my Instagram account at sarahgerdes_author. It provides a much better view of the castle grounds and surrounding area.
Following on my piece on the Gardens of Cesky Krumlov, now it’s time to continue the tour of the castle itself, but before I pick up where I left off, I’m going to back track to provide several views of the lead-up to the main entrance.
From any direction, you must cross the waterway at some point to reach the castle. This bridge is right in from off the parking area and where we walked. The grand, multi-storied bridges.
Two hillsides? No problem. Let’s just keep creating rooms and hallways.
To the right is the actors areas attached to the theatre, and the left is the staff (seamstress etc)
If you are at the gardens, head to the upper most level (the maze). To the north, you can view the fields beyond, to the south is the main castle area.
The royal lands are still being farmed- this is to the north, just outside the gardens.
That’s the way we went, coming to the castle theatre. The ticket office is a remodeled building, attached to an extended, low-ceiling structure that’s the performer quarters. A lane for pedestrians’ splits that building and another on the left for the staff, wardrobe and such. From here, a visitor has multiple options to tour the inside or explore the open (free) areas on every side of the castle.
One of the side entrances leading to the castle, not the main gate.
One of the back entrances leading to the castle.
A castle-shaking entrance
Batman must have had a bigger impact on me than I’d care to admit because I’m always so completely fascinated with castle entrances. It’s not just the size and ‘grandness’ of the entry if you will, nor is it the number of barriers put in place. It’s also the length and ceilings. Just as one driveway can be printed stone and fifty feet, another can be a mile in length, tree-line with water and lighting effects. Some, such as Hohenschwangau, were both straight then circular roads, leading up and up to the main castle.
The actual carriage house where the horses were prepared and stabled.
In the castle of Cesky Krumlov, the road taken by the former rulers is long, steep, imposing with four different barriers, entirely covered with curved stone ceilings, barred windows providing views to the valley below. On the right (the inner wall) are periodic cell-like rooms with bars. Were these for prisoners begging to get out? What about goods necessary for the road maintenance during the winter, but what was the point of the bars? These questions didn’t get answered on our first visit and weren’t satisfied this time around either.
In case you get lost–and that’s a not hard to do in this expansive set of buildings.
What we remarked on then and now is the sound of the tunnel. We were talking low as we made the walk up, but we could have been shouting for all it echoed. Imagine a team of eight or twelve horses racing through, clanging on the stone, whip cracking. The entire castle might be rumbling from within, and surely the townsfolk below would be alerted the rulers had made it home for the night.
One of the disembarking areas for the carriages–this is the lesser of two areas, but has been updated for outdoor festivals.
With the occupants out of the carriage, the horses were led to one of two horse carriage houses, the first one being the grandest. Life-size replicas of the horses and carriages are within the house, which accomplished the task of allowing us to visualize the magnificence of the experience of those ruling the castle and town.
Even the peepholes have incredible views.
Authentic artists in the castle square
Not all castles have a gift shop for selling products, but if they do, it’s usually overpriced trinkets. Not so here. Eight stalls set up in medieval, square coverings showcase artisans, no two the same. With the exception of two, each were demonstrating their craft as they made products. A weaver worked at his loom, creating a shawl. A jeweler set stones in sterling silver, a woman crushed lavender for her satchels and a glass blower delicately created small objects.
The most impressive was a two-person team of iron work. Pumping a pedal with one foot, a man kept his small fire going as he insert metal, melted it to the right temperature before removing it. His work wasn’t just knives, as we’d seen in the past, but objects useful and not. When we arrived at the area, he was making a cup. The second time, a detailed iron rose, the kind you’d place in a vase. His partner worked behind the counter, adding additional touches to the works, such as leather, beading or an embellishment appropriate for the item.
The artisan and his craft.
You can probably tell we got sucked in by the skill of it all, purchasing a sterling silver ring with woven details, a lavender pouch for traveling and a few other unique items as a memory of Cesky Krumlov.
Cesky is interesting, because they offer mini-tour/sections are available for independent payment and viewing. You want to go inside the carriage house? Sure, it’s a little fee. This is another wine cellar, charged a’la cart. Don’t hit your head on the way down.
Two times a charm
Because we arrived in the late evening our first night, we had the chance to explore without crowds. Day two, our visit was about 90 minutes, giving us the rest of the afternoon to wander the town, which was our hope. That’s up next, because skimming the town really does it a disservice.
My favorite part of Cesky Krumlov Castle
The waterway around the castle, the entry and incredible view of the town from most any point. A close second is the town and culinary extravaganza that is the town of Cesky Krumlov.
The castle is long, it connects around the entire curvature of the river below. Photo taken from yet another ledge.
My least favorite part
That the renovation and remodeling required has gone a little cheesy. It’s one thing to resurface a crumbling wall, and most of the time, care is taken to at least try and make the application of paint appear more than five minutes old. The paint here doesn’t really match tone or color, but it’s looks almost cartoonish in more than a few places. We tried our best to overlook it, or at least not take pictures with the faux application in the background.
On the middle-bridge overlooking the town of Cesky Krumlov below.
Even though we are now up to three times to this castle, I know we’ll come again…and again. Perhaps not for the inside tour, but outside absolutely, and the town—always and forever. More on that next.
One of many garden areas for the court modified with atriums, benches and cafes (not pictured).
After three days in Bellagio and Lake Como, we were ready to
head out of town. Because of the location we chose and the general road
challenges that exist on Bellagio (no cabs allowed, only car and driver,
walking or bike, and of course, parking limitations) we grew fatigued of trying
to avoid getting hit as we squished ourselves against the walls as cars zipped
by. And while I don’t mind a periodic good look at the rock wall now and then,
when I can make out individual strands of grass as Rog tries to avoid oncoming
traffic, it’s time to go.
The drive to Verona from Bellagio, Italy a straight and easy one, with the exception of several road construction projects that weren’t identified on either Google maps or our internal GPS system. It wasn’t a serious problem, but annoying when you lose ten minutes here and there.
In the San Briccio valley of Verona, heading up to our rented villa. This is a northwest facing view.
The heart of wine country
Located on the outskirts of Verona, both towns of San Briccio and Soave (pronounced So-ahh-veh), are both identified as Verona, and a suburb within. As such, the town is listed, and as a (VR) behind it. It would be like saying Russian Hill in San Francisco and the signs reading: Russian Hill (SF). The Italians make it easy so locals and foreigners alike understand where they are at all the time.
San Briccio is about fifteen minutes outside the center of Verona. The owners of the three-story villa we rented are both architects, and lived in this home as they raised their two children. When the kids became teens, the family moved into Verona proper, the “scenic” drive through the mountain roads too much, especially during high traffic times where the drive is more like forty.
The hilltop homes of San Briccio offer a 360 degree view of the valleys below–stretching northeast of Verona, pictured above.
Winding up from the valley through acres of non-stop wine fields, to the mountain top offering a panoramic, 360-degree view of the San Briccio valley below. We could see the neighboring town of Soave, and the fortress castle in the distance.
Free parking on the street (hurray), walking over a canal (upper left), the mainstreet at 4 p.m. in the Castle Soave township (upper right) and the walk to the end of the street. The building at the left is where you turn right, walk up a 1/16th of a mile and you are at the caretakers home.
On both sides of the hill are miles of wine fields, the area producing dozens of brands of vino. The surrounding hills have been cultivated in stair-stepped manner to provide the largest yield. We can appreciate the effort and beauty even if we don’t drink the stuff, but our wildest culinary dreams were met with the food, so don’t cry for me Argentina, we haven’t gone without.
From the caretakers home (left) and the less-than-steep walk from the lower village (right).
Today, the privately-owned castle has a caretaker who lives on the property in a converted sentry house with his German shepherd. The entry fee for four, two adults and two children was 24 Euros (adults 8, children 4). The walk up from town is short and steep, but not too bad compared to all that we’ve ever done thus far. Once at the entry station, it’s less than a hundred feet to the primary entrance.
Set on the highest hill, Castle Soave’s fortress walls extend around the town of Soave proper, which is now converted shops and restaurants, although it’s home to several thousand full-time residents lucky enough to live with castle and wine country views.
Why it’s called a castle is unknown to all of us. The lone attendant within the Captain’s private chambers told us Castle Soave was used for centuries a military fortress for several reasons to protect the town from the neighboring community. It was originally built in the 10th century, the twenty-five-foot-high, two-foot-thick rock walls were built around the town to defend against an attack. Within the highest reaches, two floors exist; one for the Captain (the Italian version of a General) and then a lower level, rather small room for the guards. The remaining part of the rampart was all watchtowers and fighting stations.
From this areal view shot by my drone, you get an idea of the size of Soave proper, the fortress wall a clear line of demarcation.
The armory and guards station is rather small, with attendant saying the room slept only five guards at a time. The rest were on duty around the clock. The Captains private floor has four gracious rooms, the foyer, where he received his soldiers and visitors, his table and three-seat bench in front of a floor to ceiling fireplace. To the left is his bedroom, the ornate bed, armoir and facilities far fancier than the Prince’s rooms in Germany and Switzerland. The Italians knew how to carve a thousand years back! To the right of the foyer is the eating area then library. Up the steps from the library is the Captains private garden, a spot of greenery where he could presumably plot his next battle plan. To the left is the escape door which isn’t concealed at all. If the man needed to use it, speed was the factor, not illusion.
This is the Captain’s escape door off his private garden. It’s thought never to have been used. Little factoid: the last Captain murdered the ruling family in cold blood, ruled himself for 20 years, then was killed in battle with the sword. Served him right.
My favorite part
The best part of this inner military area was the prison. Approximately 100 feet high, all capital punishment was conducted in this chamber of death. The top three floors (each with levels) were designated for nastiness (beheadings, dismemberment etc.) and the bottom floor was essentially the pit where the castoffs, sometimes entire bodies, were thrown down. Then every so often, they’d light the fire, but nary a phoenix would rise from those ashes. The tour guide told us that when the castle was opened to the public, human bones dating from the 1300’s were found.
It was a bad day for a prisoner who displeased the ruling Captain.
The weather in wine country
We didn’t know the afternoon rains so common in Switzerland were equivalent in Italy. We were up on the ramparts, looking down to the valley when it started dumping. From the highest rampart, where we walked the Captains private gardens and escape door leading directly out of the castle, down to his entrance, we were soaked through. But it was so warm that our clothes were dry and hair frizzy when we reached the car.
The upper courtyard, and steps leading to the Captain’s private quarters. The door below is for the soldiers who rotated eating and sleeping shifts in groups of five.
With the weather once again cooperating, we walked the streets, enjoyed our second serving of gelato and appreciated yet another town that seems to have been passed over by every tourist, “influencer” and Trip Advisor writer.
The Captain’s private dining room (upper left) the guards rooms (upper right) and the first courtyard leading to the upper courtyard.
What I’ve loved about the area
Finding a castle that’s rarely written about, seeing miles and miles of Verona, the old and new, past and present.
The Castle less-visited: with tourists sparse, no ticketing agent, metal detector or guide. Just walk up to the care takers office (where he sits with his dog on the floor) Upper left. The second doorway has a downgate, not a drawbridge, but includes a standard door for good measure. Me squatting so you can see the better view of the town behind me.
What I haven’t
The bugs! Oh. My. Gosh. Why hasn’t a single person in the history of man written about the ‘no-see’ems’ that come out when the heat of the day starts to ebb, changing from blistering to merely humidly hot? It’s so bad that in the thirty seconds it took to walk from my car to the front door, I got nailed by seven little wizards of torture. When we were at the pharmacy to pick up my prescriptions (from the next blog on the unexpected Italian hospital visit I had to make the second day here), the pharmacist asked if we’d been bitten at all, and we nodded vigorously. She produced a tube of cream that I have carried everywhere for three days, applying to the red dots of purgatory on all of our skin.
You don’t need to be a lover of wine to enjoy and appreciate Verona. It’s centrally located to zip down to Milan, over to Venice and not far from Lake Como. We are headed next to Salzburg, Austria, which is about as far as either Milan and Lake Como at three and a half hours. Definitely plan a few days, perhaps at a bed and breakfast or home to really soak up the local culture.
Not many people know that for my 50th birthday, I asked Rog to find us a place that was local (e.g. didn’t require a plane flight), unique (something we’d never done before in two decades of marriage) and not a lot of money.
“The impossible, in other words?” he asked. Pretty much.
When Rog came back to me a few weeks later, he was grinning
like a Cheshire cat. “I don’t want to tell you, but I’m worried you’ll hate it,
so as much as I want it to be a surprise, I have to tell you.”
Good thing I was sitting down, because he’d booked a newly-built farmhouse on an eco-farm on a hillside in Nelson, British Columbia (blog forthcoming). It’s owned and run by a Swiss family who’d emigrated ten years prior. The farmer had taken over a ramshackle, one-hundred-year-old home, remodeled it and proceeded to create three, descending ponds, create four garden plots, raise cows from which the wife made butter, cheeses and milk. The experience was so completely odd and wonderful, Rog felt that for this year’s trip, he’d do us one better.
“I found us a 500-year old farm house to live in!”
Wow. Didn’t see that coming.
The local market across from the rail line in the town of Oey, Switzlerand (the market was actually 100% alcohol, but then when one is stepping off the train after working in Bern or Thun, I expect a good stein is what people crave.
A day in the life
Located in the town of Oey, the Familia Herrman Farm is a working farm, which means they live on the output of eggs, veggies, milk, cheese, composts (jams) and other items they produce. The farm has been in the family generations, and is now run by the farmer, his wife Annagret and twelve-year-old daughter. A woman in her mid-twenties had a week off of work for summer break and answered an ad to help out during berry season. During our time, it was lingone berry season, so in addition to the daily routine of waking at 4:30 to be in the garden picking, pruning and cultivating, Annagret was also making jams.
Five hundred years old and looking sharp.
Of the three-story building, our temporary residence was on the top floor, about two-thousand square feet with three bedrooms, a living area, kitchen/dining room and single bathroom. One thing I need to remark about the Swiss, Germans and even Italians—one bathroom to three bedrooms is the norm. That said, the tubs are seriously long- my 5’ 10.5 frame can lounge out toe to head in each bath.
Like many Swiss homes, farm or not, a breezeway dissects the main residence with the outer building, which can contain anything–cars, shop, equipment etc.
Factoid: The Italian influence is felt across the
country of Switzerland. Below the arches or above the doorway on the outside of
homes is usually the inscription of the family, and its always Familia first,
followed by the name of the family.
As we were going to bed at one or two in the morning, Familia Herrmann were up with the sunrise, working until about 11, when Annagret would make breakfast, usually of bacon and some divinely smelling concoction that made our mouths water. The rest of the afternoon was spent indoors, or in the pool to escape the sun. It’s been very warm during our day, the temperatures in the high eighties and one day the low nineties, which is uncommonly hot for this time of year—early July. Those temperatures are usually reserved for a week or two at the end of August.
Another element of Swiss architecture is the use of covered walkways, this one comprised of apple trees trimmed to grow in a linear fashion, up and over the path, to the tree.
My girls helped collect the food from the garden that fed the goats, gather the 80+ eggs from the two chicken coops, played with the dozen or so rabbits and lounged with the two cats. While none of these acts are individually extraordinary, what we wanted them (and us) to see is the day-to-day authentic living of a family, on a farm, in Switzerland. The twelve-year old worked as hard at her prescribed tasks as her mother and father; each contribution vital to the good of the family.
I took to walking morning and evening, doing a loop that was realllllly long and uphill if I went in one direction or short and downhill if I went the other. You know what my lazier self-wanted to do, but the pragmatist in me realized my pants have been getting tighter, so I went counterclockwise to fight the battle of the bulge.
After the daily showers, snails come out with army-like precision, huge and small. We were in awe this little guy went up a six foot apple tree, out the branch to dangle on the leaf, which, by the way, I nearly ran into face first.
One thing I did have to watch out for was the afternoon storms. About 2 p.m. every day, the dark clouds collected, quickly covering the mountains with a dark charcoal. The cracking sound preceded the thunderstorm then the heavens released its watery load. Pellets of rain, hard and furious, drench the entire area. Between the heat and high velocity rain storms, it’s no wonder this region is so blessed with the bounteous crops.
One of four gardens run by the Hermann familia.
Factoid: Horseflies come out at night, along with these uber-sized flying beetles. With the setting sun and cooler air, these wing born carnivores seeking human blood hover near the green fields, and if I walked within about five feet of the fence line, I’d get attacked. Thus, it was that my path was straight down the middle of the road.
The quite-as-night rail line is a two-minute drive from the home, and ten-minute walk to Oey which itself has been a joy to explore. Two small grocery stores, a micro-bank, four local restaurants and two outdoor shops. Up the road out of town, we found two ski hills, one if for locals only, and I do mean, only. A small bus that goes up two times in the morning and the same down for the return is the only car that can get up the narrow road. It’s built on an individual’s private mountain.
A typical home in Oey, Switzerland, right off main street.
The other ski resort is would also be considered local, but
this at least has five different, two-story chalets, two restaurants and a
sports center. It’s running now, and the dozens of mountain bike paths occupied
with avid outdoor enthusiasts.
Heading the other direction from town leads you across the lone bridge (and only ingress/egress) to Oey. Turning left heads you to Bern and Zurich, turning right to Thun, to Zermatt (prominently featured in my Danielle Grant romance series) through the Alps and in to Italy. In and around we have toured for five days and we want more!
What I loved
Everything I described. Our five-day, four-night stay on the farm was 574 Euro, which we thought was a screaming bargain. Goats, a pool, rabbits and farm fresh food? Any time.
The Bern region of Switzerland, lush and warm, bulging with agriculture and recreation, skiing, hiking and climbing, Alps style.
What I didn’t
The internet service has been terrible. What I thought was poor in Germany was space travel compared to the automobile which, like any car, was periodically out of service or struggling to even start up. But that’s what you get in the middle of the mountains; a small sacrifice.
Definitely a must-do if you want the authentic, Swiss family farm style experience. What a blast of a time.
The hills are alive…wait, that’s Austria. Regardless, this is what staying on a farm will make you want to do: break out in joyful song, hands in the air.
Feature photo: taken from the grassland in front of the Familia Hermann farm.
Four years ago, we were essentially lost on the backroads of Germany, which is what we refer to as “taking the scenic drive.” We had chocolate in hand and saw a few cars turning left up a long road and thought, ‘why not?’ It wasn’t until we drove into the parking lot and saw the castle on a piece of rock did we realize we’d stumbled on a castle.
This is taken from the armory, located across the bridge, opposite the castle
Getting there & parking
Lichtenstein Castle is on the way to (and about 20 min from) Burg Hohenzollern. If you drive too fast, you will miss the sign and right hand turn. Up a half a mile on paved road is upper and lower parking. The short walk up is on gravel, then arrival at the grounds. Tickets are cheap, 10 Euro for an adult, 7 for a child, and then you wait under the shade for your turn. The tours are limited to eight, which is about the max you can have in a lot of the rooms.
A little factoid is that during the war: the Allied forces had determined not to bomb many of the castles that we’ve seen during our travels, and I’m just so happy. This incredible feat of building the mini-but-super cool castle will be around for hundreds of years to come.
The walk to around one side of the castle
Sadly, no pics of the inside are allowed per usual, but official snaps can be seen on the website and available for purchase. My favorite room is the Knight’s Hall. It’s like a larger American dining room that would fit a twenty-person table. Along the upper moulding is actually a shelf with serious German steins, each with an insignia. Mounted heads of dead animals, boar being the primary one, are stuck on every available inch of wall space (that’s not why I like the room, it just comes with it). At the front is a pedestal, the kind you see at a conference facility, the wood ornately carved. We were told that from this, the hunters would hold a stein of beer and entertain the others with their stories of hunting greatness. I imagined fisherman doing the same: “It was the one that got away! It was thissssss big!”
On the left side of the podium is a secret door with a painted mural blending so well the tour guide had to open it up. This was the means for the Lord of the manner to escape the hunting room and go straight down to the den of sin, where his “ladies” waited for him as his wife was three stories up in her quarters.
This is a shot from the road down below, near the town (see further details in Tips)
The basic tour lasts 30 minutes and it’s of the first and second floors. The narrow, curving stairs weren’t all that hospitable, and that’s all we had time for. That said, the castle now offers a variety of tours, including the “Grand Tour” which we didn’t do because of the time constrictions. Next time around (if we are so lucky), I might be in for the 2-hour end-all-be-all tour. The list of tours with visuals is here.
Another view from the grounds
Across and over the bridge is the gunnery, a round building displaying the cannons and other tools of war. It’s mostly closed off, but you can peek inside well enough to see how the soldiers shot their weapons on the invaders below.
The lower courtyard
For being so small and perched on a jutty of rock, the castle has a surprisingly gracious grounds to walk around. I can see the ladies of the joint enjoying the flowers under the shade of the trees.
What I love
The drawbridge over the infinite drop below, and the view of the castle from just outside the moat. It offers some of the most scenic portraits that even an amateur like me can pull off a good photo. I also love that pedestal and the visual of men lifting their steins, all hailing the boar that got away!
The armory is located on the corner overlooking the valley–and the only means up to the castle. This is one path
In a land where nary a guardrail exists, this has an actual fence, a strange site to behold.
What I don’t
Obnoxious tour companions. Ugh. We had another American who would not be quite, made loud noises throughout and constantly complained about not being able to take photos. About the time my mind started to go to a dark place, I just slotted her to the drawer of an annoying child, which fully enabled me to tune her out and go back to enjoying myself.
A peak inside the armory
Definitely do this if you have time. The tour is short, about 20 minutes, and well worth it. The grounds are lovely and small, so you can do the entire thing in less than an hour. No steep walks!
Every castle worth it’s weight needs a little dog door. Rog tried but didn’t fit
Tip: if you don’t have time to go to the castle, when you see the sign off for Schloss Lichtenstein, telling you to go left or straight, depending on your direction, instead, turn right, because the castle itself will be in your view. Doing this will eventually take you in to town, but half-way there, about five minutes going downhill, you can pull over, and from this vantage point, you can take the excellent shots from the road with your long lens. This way, you get the best (and only) shots without actually going on property, and missing out on your next destination.
Feature photo: drone shot taken by Rog as I took the manual shots
Little did I know that its Porsche would usurp me as the family social director at the ripe, young age of 13. It was she who has found multiple theme parks that never even registered on either my, or Roger’s radar. The obscure castles and German-centric amusement recreation areas have been hidden in plain sight, arrived to find we are only non-German speaking folk about.
Located just outside the city of Stuttgart, right smack in the middle of wine country, with a chateau perched on the nearest hill is Tripsdrill. I didn’t know much about it other than Porsche said we “must, must go there,” so we drove the 2 hours from our place in Kammeltal. Parking is free, plentiful and given it was a Monday, practically empty.
Another mostly empty theme park–this is the entry point, and the “streets” leading in to the rest of the park. Every attention to detail was made in creating this park; not a flower or piece of (real) laundry was out of place.
Two parks in one
For the grand price of about 40 Euros for a family of four, we had unlimited rides in the amusement park, and access to the wilderness park, which is about a 1km drive away, although you can walk. The wilderness park has animals of all types, with an eye towards those that can be held, touched, petted and played with. The lone exception to this is bear exhibit, even the German’s have a line. But the deer, falcons, goats and every other relatively tame, non-carnivore is available.
Two giant treehouses hold up one of those dropping/fluctuating rides that make your stomach go into your throat, then down into your bowels and back again. We passed on that, choosing to pet and scratch the goats that were directly across. The bottom picture would make Andretti proud; it’s a mini-race course.
One thing about the German mentality is the responsibility-based approach. Ergo, there’s nary an attendant or monitor at any station. If your kid gets stomped by a deer or a finger bitten off by a goat, your bad as a parent. At every entry point, one, waist-high swinging door is followed by another. It’s your responsibility to ensure the animal doesn’t escape from the first, or second. And following Darwin’s theory, if you allow a four-legged creature to outsmart you or your child, you get to go chase it.
The upper left is the misting I mentioned, while the right is the agriculture area where the ride is conducted in wine barrels. The bottom is one of three water rides–note the edge on the right–look mom–no rails, or guards to prevent one from falling in.
Moving on to the amusement park, this same attitude prevails. As an example, two water log rides exist, one for kids under 13 (although adults can ride on it as well) and another for adults (although kids above a certain height can also ride). Right next to the water are paths of stone, where anyone and everyone is allowed to sit and dangle their feet. In Germany, and most European countries, it’s all about self-responsibility. If you or your offspring fall into the water and hurt themselves, you pick them up, dust them off go on with your day. Companies are protected from the consumer (prevented from lawsuits), and as such, can offer amazing experiences where one isn’t inhibited. Ergo, parents aren’t on their phones, but watchful and playing with their kids, which is a beautiful experience all around.
An education environment celebrating German engineering achievements
Tripsdrill is not just any theme park, where the rides are the end-all-be-all. This is about the full experience of educating the visitor as they wait in line, grab a snack or drink a glass of wine. Wine making is dominant in this area, so an area consisting of its own, originally-styled wine-making barn sits next to four different smaller buildings, each one with original pressing (or whatever it’s called) equipment. Sorry, I don’t drink or know much about wine, or speak German, but know lots of people who do would appreciate this, along with the free drinks served.
These are just a few shots from the inside of the castle which houses the sleigh roller coaster ride, hence, the entirety of the displays are life size items relating to sleigh making.
A few other examples include the sleigh roller coaster. This
is located in a castle, wherein the signs posted show waits of 2 hours at the
entry. We arrived on a Monday, so we walked right up and on to the rides, but
the Germans, anticipating rush hour, take advantage of every step to educate
you on the sleigh making. Within the building are lifestyles, custom mannequins
demonstrating all things sleigh, starting with the stables) grooming and
doctoring the horses—which actually include the horse, all the tools and items
for medicate attention, and even a side stall where a person sleeps near his
horses. The next area within the wait line is a huge movie screen, showing a
black and white film of the old days of sleigh making. The walkway is one story
up, looking down below on a recreated outdoor scene of a winter wonderland.
This continues right up until you enter the ride.
Each ride has its own focus, from the kids spinning ride, where the cup is actually a bread bowl, and all the surrounding items focus on bread, to the swing ride that’s a three-story high mushroom, and the wait line is all about agriculture. The entry to the wooden rollercoaster, (the smoothest, and best one we’ve ever ridden, I shall add), is all about mill working. It’s like the anthology of using and applying lumber, the first tools and wheels, to then more sophisticated equipment and applications—cutting, slicing, and manufacturing. All I could think about was my father, who would have cared less about the ride, but hung out for hours oohing and aahing about the machinery.
Notice the wooden roller coaster in the back left? In between that and this monster-of-all wooden forts is the lumber section, where riders waiting in line get to see the history of millworking.
Me and Rog were right there with him, and had a moment of
silence in his absence.
I’ve just got to mention a third water ride, which is the rafting. In the US, you have to wait your turn, the attendant directs a group one a time to get in, and that’s that. Well, here, since there’s no attendant, and the round floats come up the metal ramp without assistance, those in line are left to their own to walk on the wet, moving ramp of metal, get in (no straps mom!) which fit 12, three to each section, and sit down before it goes off the ramp, plunging in to the water below. Guess what? No age limit on the kids either, but nary a problem or mishap.
If you’re going to be launched out on a water log, do it from a castle, I say.
A note on rides all around Germany
Pretty much it’s void of lockers. Everyone works on the honor system, which means that the backpack or purse you are carrying is placed on the shelves by the ride. You set it down prior to getting in, go on the ride, then pick it up. A few years back we were leery of this, but shouldn’t have been. Stealing doesn’t happen here. So it was that I’ve been removing my pack with all my camera gear, wallet and sundries, placing it on the shelves or ground, and pick it right up after the ride is done.
A few of the displays regarding sewing–from the most basic, through to the looms, including all the machines and irons. These women worked hard and were talented!
Each and every ride and planter box has been treated with care. It’s as though a master gardener (or 12) have been cultivating this park for years, and this is the glorification of their work. I took over 110 shots of this park, more than all the castles and destinations combined, but know you might suffer from overkill. Yet I’m giving them credit through the mention, because it’s deserved.
This attraction/ride was all about the history and art of breadmaking, hence, they are in a bunt cake!
Another nice touch are the arched entrances that double as misters, not enough to ruin the makeup or hair, but cool you down. Not a bench exists for resting that isn’t situated under shade and my favorite part (although unused by us?) The metal chaise lounge chairs where adults could take a breather as their kids play in the park. We need these in America!!!
Seriously civilized living; the parents kick back, read, snooze or watch their kids across the flower beds in the large lawn.
The food was tremendously great, pizza, schnitzel and bratwurst, all tasting farm fresh, as well as the baguettes probably baked that morning. Germans know how to eat, is all I’m saying.
I’ve touched on the honor system, but today’s experience
takes the cake. We spent nearly six hours at the park (when we anticipated
about three) and couldn’t find our care. Now, there’s only about 4, double
parking lanes that were full, and from a distance, I thought I saw our car, but
the trunk was open, so we walked on. Reaching the grass parking area, we turned
back, double-checking our eyes. Indeed, the trunk was open, because the
groceries we’d purchased that day, from water bottles, fruits and veggies. Furthermore,
my long lens was in the glove compartment, which was unlocked, and my metal
water bottle and sunglasses were also in the car.
We realized that Rog’s remote must have gotten accidentally
punched as we walked away, and four six hours, the trunk was open, and car
unlocked. Not a single item was out of place or missing.
One word. Wow.
Final tip to a new traveler
I lied, another note. When it’s lunchtime, everything just down. The grocery stores. The banks. The gardening shop. Trust me, we’ve tried all three things between the hours of 12-1 over the last five days and can vouge that it hasn’t mattered what town, it’s all done for, which actually, is a great thing. Everyone takes the break at the same time, for a full hour.
What I loved
All of it. Period. The end.
What I didn’t….
That the three water rides closed at 4:30, while the park itself closes at 7. The wilderness park doesn’t allow entrants after 6 p.m. to allow an hour for late starters.
An absolute must if you have kids, or love German history and manufacturing. Rog and I agreed that if we lived here, we would have seasons passes. I’m not sure I’d ever get tired of Tripsdill.
Feature image: the roller coaster in the foreground of the chateau. only in Germany
Today’s castle-going journey is being split in to two separate blogs because I have too many photos, and suspect WordPress will collapse on me, which happens when I push it, which means Castle Nueschwanstien in one and Hohenschwangau (Hohen is Castle) in another.
A clear shot from the paved road up, where you can walk, or have a horse-drawn carriage (like Cinderella, actually, but without the slippers).
The shout-out to my 79 mom is important because it was she
who gifted me a calendar of castles when I was twelve. On the cover was Schloss
(Castle) Nueschwanstien, which seared itself in my mind as the end-all-be-all
of castles, and places to visit. For years, I promised myself that when I “arrived”,
I’d go. Little did I know it would take me decades to arrive! In truth, it wasn’t
that I couldn’t have gone before. It was just a tad out of the way when I’d go
to Berlin, Hamburg or Hannover for business and later, with Rog and the girls, heading
to southern Germany never made the top five on our list. Today, we realized
that we were a lot closer than we realized, which made our visit that much more…how
shall I say, impactful (embarrassing would be another word). We shouldn’t have
Fun fact: this castle is conventionally known as “The Cinderella Castle,” because Walt Disney famously said he modeled the castle the animated movie on Nueschwanstien.
Cinderella lives, just like Elvis
We were north about 90 minutes, the drive was fast, per usual, the traffic nil, despite us learning it was the weekend of a fair in the nearest town of Fussen. As a side note, we later learned the family history of the three castles I mentioned, and it was sort of “I’m going to out-do-you” mentality, regardless of the fact the parties were related. That made it all the more interesting.
An incredibly beautiful journey to the region, the town just outside Fussen and a pic of the mountains as we head to our destination.
The closest major town is Munich, but it’s not too far from
Lichtenstein and Switzerland. On the Autobahn, time is always cut in half, so
that’s something to keep in mind.
Arrival and parking was a breeze. Straight off the freeway about five minutes, in town, parking nearest the castle is to the right, with a sign identifying it was full, so we turned left, took a ticket and parked, front row. Tip: make sure you have 7 Euro in coins with you because they don’t take credit cards for parking and this can’t be purchased on line (we didn’t know this).
Tickets and prices
A short walk of five minutes to the one and only ticket
counter, and another $28 Euro for two adults, as kids are free (at least 13 and
under). Because we arrived at 2, our choices were limited for tours; either the
Nueschwanstien or the Hohenschwangau Castle, but we couldn’t
do both. We asked the ticket agent for his insight, and he balked. My husband,
ever the man, leaned in, and asked, “if it were you, and it was your money,
what would you do?” At this, the agent glanced around and told us the skinny.
“Take the Hohenschwangau,” he answered in a low voice. “The Nueschwanstien tour has 60
people for a 20-minute tour, and it’s so crowded you will hate it. The Hohenschwangau
is limited to 20 people and a 35-minute tour, and it’s much better preserved.”
That was it. The translators are available in multiple languages, the most important being Mandarin from the number of visitors predominantly from China.
The view from the lot is top right and below, while the upper left is the building adjacent from the ticket office (which wasn’t nearly as pretty).
The journey up
Our time was in fact, very limited, because we were told the walk
up to the world-famous castle of my dreams, Nueschwanstien, would take
30 minutes, unless we were going to take the horse-drawn carriage. None of that
for us. Then we’d take some pictures around the external premises and inside
courtyards, because it is open and free to the public. Only the tours charge a
fee. We’d then have to go down, and walk back up the other hillside to Hohenschwangau.
Fortunately, the only sun on the way up is right at the base of the hill, the rest of the rather steep road is paved and in the shade. One shortcut on dirt stairs is available, and we watched an American couple and friend hand carry their stroller (with two kids) up the stairs—hundreds of feet. We were impressed.
By foot or carriage, the scenery is stunning
Sitting on the top step was a man drinking his bottle. He was in good spirits, inviting us to sit by him, but we thanked him and continued; stopping was not an option. I was going to reach that darn calendar destination!
Halfway up is a rest station, consisting of two restaurants and an ice cream station. Sweating profusely, we continued up, reaching the top in another 10 minutes. Once at the castle, you can turn left or right. Left will take you up and around an side of the castle that’s being restored; the west-facing side towards the valley and lake beyond. Then you read the massive entry doors, walk in (again, all of this is free). You can take pictures in the courtyard, or continue up another set of stairs which takes you to the “real” main square. This area reminds me of Robin Hood, where the King walks out on the deck to great the crowds, but without the king.
The first thing you see from the base of the castle.
Back down the stairs you go, and those taking the tour look to the electronic sign identifying the next group. Through the turnstiles you go. The rest of us walk down, then back around the other side of the castle. It does have an overhanging, metal grate with invisible decking for pictures to the east, overlooking the rushing river below. It was freaky and awesome at the same time, and I thought I was going to get crushed by the onslaught of foreigners with selfie sticks, all battling for the corner spot. And I thought us Americans were bad!
The main castle entrance
The “bottom” entry courtyard, which requires one to walk left, and up the stone stairway to the courtyard
The main courtyard on one side….
And turning around is this opposite facing…all the views are to the valley
What I liked most
The castle is all I imagined it to be and more. In both this castle and Hohenschwangau, the artifacts are original, not replicas. If you’ve not been to lots of castles (we’ve visited 15 or so thus far), it might surprise you to learn that most everything inside is a replica, because the value is high, as is the risk of damage or theft. It’s just fun seeing all the gifts from other royalty and such, knowing they are the real deal.
Coming down from the castle…
Nothing that can be changed. It was disappointing to hear from the staff that it’s overcrowded, the tours so big and fast—but even this I have to defend a bit. We learned more from the staff that tourists had taken too many liberties with the original items—from silverware to lamps, coats of arms, porcelain etc., and event destroying items on the wall. For that reason, about 90% of Nueschwanstien is closed off. What a bummer, but it proves the sad saying true: the actions of the few destroy it for the many. GRRR
Absolutely. It’s a feat of mankind for a person to have a vision for a castle perched on a hillside as well as the fortitude and engineers to design and construct the structure.
Both come with small townships, local people and not a word of English
Ok. Maybe a word. Hello. that’s what we got and we were thankful for it. The rest of the time, we used Google Translate and smiled a lot.
Day two/37 amounted to three hundred miles , two castles, a butcher-bakery, finding our rental and trying to make an honest Bavarian food fair. Disappointment faded with the people, service and incredible cuisine however, and we ended the day at midnight, while I stayed up until 3 a.m. converting photos and writing blogs. ha.
No speed limits: everyone loves the Autobahn
Shooting down the Autobahn, where no speed limit exists, is the real reason we came to Europe, or so I teased him. He experienced nirvana for about 300 miles and I didn’t blink an eye. 100 mph are normal, and we were getting passed at 110. I won’t tell you how fast he got that Audi A6 touring mobile going as I want my mother alive and happy, not angry or dead.
Zipping through the mountains, we see this incredible (put perfectly normal) feat of German engineering–this unbelievable bridge connecting two mountains, and why? Because why go twenty miles around when that can be shortened to about 2, that’s why. No stopping allowed, so I did my best between trees going way-to-fast.
German roads are ‘da-bomb’ as my daughter said, and we made good time from Aachen through the countryside to our first stop at Burg Berghausen Castle in Keppen in upper Bavaria. This is a manor that didn’t even show up on Wikipedia or any other searches pre-trip, but our car (and Audi A6 touring sedan) showed it on our dashboard, we were going right by anyway, so thought, why not?
Each experience we created this day is special. The soaring tree which made us stop and say: God created this. The second was me thinking: I may need to write a book about a person inheriting a castle, and the last shot, with the girls, was taking as we hypothesized what the evening was going to be like for the couple getting married this evening, and the reception to be held on the deck behind us. What a night it will be for that couple.
It’s more of a manor than castle, but rightly got the designation because it has a bridge with a moat and lake at the backside. Across from the main building are large stables, servants quarters and substantial armory at the front entrance. It’s privately held, open only for special events, but walking the lawns and parks around is open and free. Muskrats the size of a small dog ate feet away from us, and a whole family of four (parents and little ones) waddled right on up expecting to be fed, as did the single, large swan in the lake and loads of ducks. The visit was short but impactful, with Rog and the girls identifying the muskrats and hundred-foot beech trees being their favorite parts.
The horse stables, side of the castle and another angle of the front
The world’s largest, tame muskrat, swan and servants quarters
Local eats in Keppen
Despite the luxurious foods offered at the rest stops, we wanted real German delicacies. Not two minutes in to town we found it at the town’s one and only butchery/bakery. Potato salad, the likes only found in my mother’s kitchen went hand in hand with marzipan and almond pastries, as well as sausage and cold cuts. It was sweet and salty, just the way I like it—so much that I took a pic of the mother-of-all bread making stoves and cajoled the owner to take a selfie. Her first ever. She was so embarrassed, she was fussing over her hair and giggling like a schoolgirl the entire time.
Today, Rog had his vehicular nirvana while mine was culinary. The marzipan pastry as long as Rog’s hand and the little town of Keppen. This was 5 pm-ish. Rush hour.
A note on Keppen: every person here has been incredibly
kind and polite, but speak functional English (hello) at best. We have not met a single person (in two days)
who speaks conversational English, although we have two more days so things may
change. I’ll keep you posted!
About ten minutes later, we were in Saffig, going up a dirt road to visit the local castle, which is only named Saffig Castle, another one that showed up on our Audio roadmap but not on Google or any listing anywhere! This castle is seriously old (13th century) and is undergoing complete restoration. Personally, I like the old, original stone, and we weren’t allowed to take any photos. Side note: we get that a lot, but usually ignore it, because it’s a ploy to get us to purchase stock photography. Yet sometimes, I ask for permission and get the wink and nod, thus allaying my guilt. That’s what happened with Castle Burg, but not here. I actually received a scowl instead of the nod, so I dutifully put away my camera, but did manage a single shot through the trees as we left the area.
My off-premises shot through the trees. See what I’m talking about on the restoration above? It looks fake and call me a traditionalist, but I like the original.
Our Bavarian rental
This time around, we wanted the fully country experience, which included cows, farmland, locals and meeting more German folks. We loved and appreciated going to towns where English wasn’t spoken at all, because it forced us to speak the language (or at least use Google Translate). Our desire came true with a home in Kammeltal, (pronounced like Camel-tall). From VRBO, we found the home, and are presently perched on the top floor of a two-story home, with three bedrooms, two baths, two balcony’s and modern kitchen, with views to overlooking the small town on one side, and farmland on the other. The backyard is grass, a trampoline and hothouse garden, all for our use. Check in time was 9, and we arrived at 8:40. It’s light here until 10:30, just like Coeur d’Alene. Our German hostess/owner and her family live below us, but we’ve only had a single sighting, which I expect will continue. The house, street and neighborhood are local, mostly older folks who ride their bikes the few blocks in to town—which is a completely different look, feel and style from Ashford, and that’s what we love. One day and veritable world away from what we experienced the day prior.
A few shots of our authentic Bavarian home
Baby room, front and back yard
What I love
People walk their dogs through farmland, which means strips of gravel separating wheat and corn fields, instead of paved paths alongside freeways or streets.
What I don’t
Only four restaurants exist that only has its name listed, without
any other details. But the 4 km drive in one direction gives us one town, a 6
km drive in another direction gave us Gunzburg, and that’s where we went for
Even before we knew that all four restaurants closed Friday night at 8 p.m. in Kammeltall, we were intending on hitting the food festival. Sadly, we missed that too! Yet the (slightly larger) town of Gunzburg has a much bigger Old-town/downtown (because a new/modern area doesn’t exist as of today). Fun fact: Gunzurg was founded in 70 b.c., although it does look slightly more updated. It features its own main square, where we found Greek, German and lots of outdoor pubs but after 9, only serve appetizers and drinks. Fortunately, one superb Italian restaurant is open until 11, and we were seated by the owner, referred to as “Uncle.” Love that. Pure Italian through and through, but has lived in Germany for 30 years. I’ll let the pictures do the talking, but suffice it to say we want to go back to Guntia again before we leave, eventho we will be in Italy for 5 days in another week.
Our dining experience in Gunburg was tops, the freshly made mozzarella caprese my favorite
Daughter number 1 passing out on #2’s lap, who then enjoys sparkling water at the white table clothe experience of Guntia
What would take us away from sunny Lake Como south to Milan? The Duomo Cathedral truly one of the most magnificent churches ever built. The construction required thousands of skilling craftsman, each specialized in their own trade, passing along their expertise and tribal knowledge through generations of time. After hundreds of years and plenty of archbishops, the Duomo stands as a testament to the ingenuity and sheer determination.
A view from the main worship area within the cathedral
The journey & parking
Milan, (or Milano, as the locals and country signs call it) is a city of approximately four million. The drive from Como took approximately four hours. Having never had our own car in Milan before, we were initially hesitant, then had a moment of clarity. We drive all over the place, from Los Angeles to New York, Berlin to Boston, which are far larger. Milan proved to be a piece of cake. Straight in we went, found street parking for a few bucks, and even got a caprese appetizer on a side street before walking a few blocks to the cathedral.
We arrived to find a part of the cathedral under reconstruction, and a whole lot of military personnel protecting the national landmark. Neither bother nor obstructed us whatsoever. The main square was less than half-full, the day overcast and cool. In other words, a perfect day to visit.
Every entrance is guarded (as you can see behind me) and parking on some of the closets streets is only for service or military vehicles
The fees and expectations
If you want to take your own photos, an extra charge of $5 is required, but completely worth it. The columns, stained glass windows, and 15,800 pipe organ make it worth the money. Because it was a slow day, the inside wasn’t crowded in the slightest, which was a good thing; the mausoleums holding the deceased archbishops were worth snapping a photo, which we did multiple times.
Street parking all around–this was a Thursday afternoon
The tourist information identifies which archbishop was responsible for a particular section of the Duomo, which shows the link between general manager, if you will, and what was created. Imagine the vision of these guys, who knew their contribution was vital, but they’d never see the completed work in their lifetime—or for several lifetimes to come. Talk about commitment. Most of us can’t see a few years in front our faces, let alone decades or centuries.
My number one recommendation is don’t go when service is in session!
My mother plays the organ, so I’m a bit familiar with the instrument. The long, metal rods scaling up from the balconies make it the largest organ in Italy, and in the top 15 instruments in the world.
Beyond the cathedral
If churches, architecture or history isn’t your thing, don’t
despair. The Duomo Square has shopping area known as the Piazza Del Duomo.
Think the Mercedes Benz clothing/jewelry store and the like, along with multiple
outdoor eateries. If your traveling partner is at the Domo, you can easily
spend an hour wandering through the shops or taking in a hot, chocolate mousse drink
as I did (which was more like pudding, actually).
The entire visit will run you no more than two-four hours, depending on your tastes. That leaves a lot of time to explore other parts of the city.
Just one of many, many entrance doors
What I liked best
All if it, the area, the cathedral, shopping, eateries, you name it. I even got the military guards to smile and take a picture with me, and they accommodated!
What I liked least
Nothing. Nada. It was as perfect as the day could get.
Feature image: The Domo, taken from the main square
Today we spent the afternoon with an executive from a research firm and his voice over actress wife. As we toured the neighborhood, the conversation eventually went to the subject of travel, and if my journeys inspire my novels, or was it the other way around? Did I get an idea of a destination and then go there for the final research?
That led me thinking and discussing Switzerland, which is off schedule for my blogs, but I’m pausing to cover a few areas I realized I’d completely skipped over. The Swiss Alps, the “James Bond” Dam, handcrafted homes perched on the hillsides, defying the natural laws of gravity, the homes of the Russian oligarchs in St. Moritz, along with the painfully expensive whole hazelnut chocolate bars and handmade clothes in town, and last but not least, the cows. Yes, the cows, but I’ll get back to that.
Each and every one of those items found a mention in my books. For this piece, I’m mixing it up. Rather than give you the standard play-by-play route we took during this particular trip that served up the creative buffet, I’ll break it down in to the scenes I wrote. A fun change for me and perhaps more interesting for you.
In a previous blog on the penthouse we rented, I mentioned the tree-lined streets along Lake Zurich, my fictitious, but not totally fictitious wealth management building. I witnessed a father in an overcoat, exiting a U-shaped building eerily similar to the Walldorf-Astoria in New York. He had a young boy and girl on either side, equally well-dressed.
The drive out of Zurich leads along the river, then up to the mountains, but this road was chock full of road bikers–and by that, I mean BMW touring bikes. Lots of them.
I thought to myself: he looks like a serious billionaire, and those are his fortunate offspring. It was the place a man like Lars Egle, one of the lead characters would live, and that’s where Danielle inadvertently runs in to Lars in the lobby near the end of Made for Me. The scene was exactly as I imagined, and it all came about watching that split-second interaction of the father and children. (I thought taking a pic was tacky, but more importantly, I couldn’t get my camera out fast enough and missed the pic).
On the way up and it’s getting colder–but I refused to put on a coat until the very top
Leaving the city, driving alongside the river to the Alps
was another scene, this time with Andre, Danielle’s first love in Zurich (also
for Me). Escaping their struggle in their lives, they ride his motorcycle out
of town, going up the beautiful, windy hills, seeing the cows. The inspiration for
this was the very ride we took on our way to Milan, with a stop through to St.
Moritz. We ogled at the green river to our left which looked more like a
flowing glacier than river. The cows were so large and the fur seemingly so
soft, we stopped the car, got out, and approached. They had the massive,
old-school cowbells that I didn’t actually think existed outside the movies.
The fence was a flimsy little thing, which wouldn’t deter a thief whatsoever, and
the cow was completely unconcerned when I rubbed its head. Now, this may come
across as odd, but I’ve touched a lot of cow hide-it had been rough, not
smooth. This breed of Swiss cow was more like cashmere. I was so taken with the
entirety I mentioned in the book, along with a grove where Andre and Danielle
have a romantic interlude.
Yeah. The cows inspired that—and I really love that scene.
Look at that fur. You can see from the photo it looks like the hair on a child!
Not just in postcards or promotional videos. This is the real deal–the actual road. I snapped this as I turned around in the car to get “the view down the hill.”
This road had a scene between Kaitlyn and Rick, where he pulls over and asks they set aside their “convenient date” status to be something that’s special to this place and time in their lives.
In actuality, this is called the Contra Dam, as well as the Verzasca or Locarno Dam, was made famous worldwide in Goldeneye when (as stunt man, standing in for) Pierce Brosnan bungee jumps over the edge, straight down, fires the gun, locks it, then penetrates the soviet stronghold. I’m telling you what: never in all my life have I seen a dam like this, and I’d thought the Hoover Dam outside Las Vegas was impressive. Not even close. Perhaps my long lens would have captured the magnificence a bit better, but my shorty had to do. The Dam gets a mention in several books, not just one.
Contra Dam–the best shot from the road looking up
Now this town had its inspiration in my dad, who often spoke of going to St. Moritz (pronounced San, not Saint) when he was a young man, then later as he traveled for business. He’d speak of the town, the food and above all, the ability to get custom clothes and shoes made. It would be decades until I got to experience the town myself, and my that time, it had been so built up in my mind I wasn’t sure if it was going to meet expectations. Well, it exceeded all I’d imagined. The streets were/are still narrow yet uncrowded. The small shops with exquisitely made, half-million dollar watches next to an ounce of hazelnut chocolate for $15 francs and cashmere clothes that made me drool. I wrote about all these items in A Convenient Date, where the lead characters, Kaitlyn Reid and Rick Santos visit the small town for a conference.
Everything is appropriately expensive in this lovely little town, from watches to chocolate. I purchased the chocolate:-
The gondola ride and the Russian Oligarch
Now this was fun and totally unexpected. In June, the snow is gone, but St. Moritz is still rather chilly. Rog and I had been discussing (aka arguing) about where to stop and eat, but it was sort-of between seasons (ski/winter and summer/tourist), which meant most of the places weren’t open. Undecided, we went to the gondola and took a ride. In we went, over the town and up mountain, getting the birds-eye view of the spectacular homes resembling fortresses on the mountain. At that moment, I visualized a scene with Lars and Danielle (back to Made for Me), riding the gondola, her asking him about the home, and him telling her it was the resident of a client, a Russian oligarch.
After the gondola ride, we were able to take the car and go directly up the roads. No gates, no security guards. I guess St. Moritz is so secure and area so safe, no one bothers with such piddly things.
By this time, I donned my coat (still in St. Moritz), but Rog is sporting shorts and a t-shirt like it’s warm.
The crossing in to Italy
You can imagine my depression when we slowed down at the border between Switzerland and Italy, thinking the Italian guards were at least going to check our passports. They barely looked up before waving us through. I was ready, passport in hand, when Roger looked at me some undiluted pity. “That’s the whole point of the Eurozone.” Duh. I moped, putting it away, feeling stupid, but still disappointed. I channeled this scene in to A Convenient Date, when Rick takes Kaitlyn for a drive to his childhood home on Lake Como. On the way, she remarks on the slate-topped homes of Italy, which were so very different from those in Switzerland.
Slate, slate, slate….the change in materials once in Italy was dramatic and powerful
Feature image: the hills of the Alps, outside St. Moritz
Three castles, one McDonald’s and lots and lots of money
One afternoon in Zurich we decided to get in the car and just drive towards the Alps. Somewhere along the way was a sign for Lichtenstein, and we had nothing better to do so we hung a left off the A1 and bingo, ended up in another country. Given that we were entering from Zurich, the first town is Vaduz, the capital.
Vaduz castle, in the capital city of Lichtenstein
My previous reference to the country was a place where the excruciatingly
wealthy of the world park their money. Funny thing is that in the US, bastions
of money means huge, ornate buildings, fancy cars and snappy suits. Here, the
environment is so understated you’d have no idea of what lurks behind the
mostly grey, mostly one-story buildings. No flashy cars, just a single
McDonald’s and corner cafes, which are themselves, nothing more than metal
tables and chairs.
Still, we arrived mostly in the company of summer road
bikers, nearly all on BMW touring bikes, their outfits not leather, but mesh,
because as we were told, they “breathe better.”
About a mile or two inside the fourth smallest country in
Europe is the town of Vaduz, pretty much the one and only city. It’s home to
the Prince who lives in a great castle which is off-limits to tours (bummer) a
few parks and lots of great shops for chocolate. As an aside, I know you are
likely sick of my fixation of chocolate by now, but some people have wine,
others coffee, me chocolate. Sorry. At least I can tell you what to purchase on
Amazon, for most of it is in fact, for sale over here.
There are two interesting castles to visit, nonetheless.
Some of which must be done on foot, because the hub is car-free on purpose. The
winy roads rival Lake Cuomo for the width (which is about arms-length wide) and
the goal (we presume) is to get visitors to spend more money on the local
The Rhine cuts through the country, and nearly every exit
off the A1 offers up a park. And keep in mind that there aren’t that many exits
and then you are out of the country.
Even though it’s not open to the public, take the path and
walk up the 150 meters to take pictures. It’s lovely and really, just standing
by all the wealth in this micro-country makes me feel good at a seriously
This is definitely my favorite castle in all of Europe-and it’s likely the smallest. First, it sits on an island of rock that juts up and out, requiring access by bridge. Second, it has a really cool ‘hunting room’ with the original pedestal the hunters would use to stand up and retell their adventures of killing the local boar with one of the original steins that line the upper molding of the room. Third, it has a “mistress” door for the Lord of the manner to sneak out and have a moment with his lady friend. The upper rooms, which are very small and off limits (though we cajoled a peek) are upstairs in the turret-area of the castle. The tour is SO worth it, you must, must, must do it. This castle has a great scene between Danielle (the American expat) and Zurich-born Andre, which is wrote specifically around this destination in the first book of the trilogy, Made for Me.
This is one of the few castles in all of Europe that offer such a glorious, unobstructed perch from which to take photos
Keep an eye out for the funky elements of the area. Rog found a side entrance for the dog, which begat my tongue-i-cheek phrases that when I get my next castle, I’m definitely going to make sure I have that bat-cave door for my four-legged companions.
The nearby armory to ward off the
The day was beautiful, crowds light and completely family-friendly. Easy parking with a bit of a walk in the heat (uphill) but no too bad. Pictures are not allowed inside the castle, as they encourage postcards, so my law-abiding self had to make do with the pics from all the angles possible.
Just a short distance away is the armory. Factoid: during WWII, the Germans tried to bomb the castle but succeeded in damaging only a fraction of the structure; the rest remained completely intact.
Two hikes are definitely worth making the effort. The first
is the Prince’s Way Hike and the Eagle’s Way Hike. One thing I seriously love
about Lichtenstein is they offer up a site detailing the location, level of
challenge and more details so you can be fully prepared. (Unlike the States
where it’s more of: you paid the park entry fee, good luck!) Check out this
link for the details for the available hikes.
When we got hungry, literally no restaurants were open
because we arrived (apparently) at an odd hour. The McDonald’s was crammed with
road bikers, but the notion of being in Europe and eating at the sole fast-food
restaurant in the country was a little offensive. So, we kept wandering up and
down the side streets (below the no-car zone) and finally found an open
restaurant. Rog had never had boar before, and I wanted authentic as well, so I
just pointed and ordered, loving the meat, potatoes and schnitzel.
A lake that’s called a swimming pool
Now this was interesting. We were boiling up and thought-
okay, we’ll see what’s around. The Grossabuent
Leisure Centre popped up, and since it is billed as a swimming facility, we
thought pool. Well, we look up the website and laughed, reading that it’s
actually a lake, but billed as a non-chemical swimming area, so it’s named a
Centre. Got all that?
The random monastery/church on the hill. We got lost, found
a church-basilica overlooking the entire town and took a look around. Honestly,
I think some of our best pictures came on that hour side-adventure, and I’m
sorry/embarrassed to say I can’t find the name of the place—one reason why I
MUST start writing these blogs real time during my travel. (and NO, this isn’t the Cathedral of Vaduz,
also known as the Cathedral of St. Florin. This is way smaller.
One of my personal favorite subjects is cemeteries or gravesites. They can be so exquisitely personal and though provoking I am always taking photos- so shame on me. I can’t recall the name of the actual destination but adore the photos! Arg!
We love churches when the architecture, grounds and vibe is different from what we’ve previously seen. The Cathedral in Vaduz offers that, but then we found another, smaller church that for the life of me, I can’t recall the name. Perhaps one of my readers can help me! The pictures speak for themselves, especially the cemeteries.
I love cemeteries. We learned that this one was/is reserved for only the most stalwart families.
Open to the public after May 1 through October, the tours are by appointment only, and relatively limited, including the gardens and the chapel specifically. It’s also available for weddings upon request. The view from the grounds, however, are awesome and should definitely be seen.
After that, the tour of the country is pretty much over,
well, unless you are there to discuss your gazillion-dollar account with a
financial advisor. Sorry, can’t give you a recommendation on that one.