May 31, 2013

Random Thoughts From Carol

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”  Marcel Proust

OUR PROGRESS:  Since we landed in Ramstein, Germany, in mid-March, our first month RVing in Europe has just flown by!  We have traveled only 1500 miles in that time, keeping with our plan to drive only short distances every day and not spend hours and hours on the road.  We have dipped into 5 different countries—Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, and Luxembourg.  Our plan is to spend the next 2 months in France, a country we have been told is very friendly to campers…and is a favorite travel destination for several fellow campers.  Around mid-July we will head to the United Kingdom for 3-4 months.

WEATHER:  It has seemed unusually cold and rainy to us this past month, and we have been told that it has been a very cold spring in Europe.  Most days outdoors we have needed 2-3 layers of warm clothing, including a ski cap and parka for me on several occasions. 


 We have had a handful of days that were short-sleeve weather, and I felt very grateful for such beautiful sunny days.

 

 In Germany, I am thankful for every hour of sun because all that can change in a few short minutes.

PERSONAL FREEDOMS:  Our most sobering incident happened while we were traveling through Luxembourg when we were signaled to follow a motorcycle customs agent who had also signaled a large truck in front of us (carrying a load of cars) to follow him.  I swear, it almost seemed like he pulled us over as an afterthought.  In any case, as directed, we exited the highway and followed the agent for about a mile to an area where all kinds of inspections were being performed, mostly on trucks.  We later learned that these pullovers were supposedly completely “random,” but I suspect our very foreign license plates had something to do with our selection.  Al was asked to show his passport and the “papers of the car.”  Not knowing the reason for the stop or what it was they really wanted, Al showed the agent the RV title that had been stamped by customs at our port of entry in Amsterdam.  That seemed to satisfy the agent, and I wasn’t asked to provide a thing, not even my passport!  Then, as the agent was about to let us go, he asked to look inside our vehicle, so we opened the sliding door, showed him our very small bathroom, then opened the door to our very small closet.  Once again, he seemed satisfied and we were allowed to go on our way.  We felt a bit shaken and intimidated by what seemed to us a meaningless stop.  It was a reminder to us that freedoms that we take for granted in our country aren’t necessarily experienced worldwide.

Two additional comments on personal freedom…We have been told that in Germany it is illegal to home-school your children, and parents who attempt to do this are arrested.  While we traveled full-time on the road in our 29-ft travel trailer in 1989-90, we home-schooled our two children for a year--and felt entitled to do so.  Also, in Germany it is forbidden to blow one’s car horn except in an emergency situation.  We haven’t had any lengthy conversations about gun ownership yet, except for a brief comment over wine one evening with German campmates, and they were totally perplexed at the American preoccupation with gun ownership. 

INTERNET:  Finding available Internet has been our biggest challenge, especially in Germany.  Even when available, it is a bit pricey—anywhere from $3.50 to $6.00 an hour—and quality of signal is usually very poor in campgrounds.  Supposedly, all German McDonald’s offer FREE Internet…except when they don’t…or they charge for it…or you have to have an existing German phone contract.  We have been told that in France free McDonald’s Internet is more dependable, and so far we have found that to be true.  My habit is to compose my blogs offline in the RV at night and then post and link in pics when we have Internet.

 
FELLOW CAMPERS:  I cannot say enough good things about interactions with fellow campers.  These impromptu and random meetings can be quite rewarding on a personal level.  A wonderful part of camping culture, both in the U.S. and abroad, is that most travelers are very friendly and curious and want to talk with fellow campers.  In Europe we have found everyone to be quite knowledgeable about their country and European history, but a surprise to me is that many are not familiar with Colorado.  I had thought our state had a worldwide reputation, especially for its skiing.  Maybe that’s not the case after all… 

Some of the campers we have met have been incredibly kind to us.  One particularly nice woman from the Netherlands insisted on giving us a box of pancake mix and a bottle of maple syrup to go with it!  I tried her mix one morning, and it was no surprise that my pancakes were quite delicious!   On another occasion a German camper gave us some extra campground books that he had on hand—all in German, of course, but quite useful and a nice complement to the ones we bought in Dutch.  The other day we exchanged email addresses with a delightful Scottish couple who assured us we would not be disappointed with Scotland’s beauty.  We had a wonderful laughter-filled give-and-take with them about both of our traveling experiences.  They also informed us that on Sunday golf is not played at the famed St. Andrews golf course and the public can walk the course!  We immediately put that one on our bucket list.  One of our most enjoyable snowy evenings

Went up a bit in elevation and got snowed on one evening

was spent in the warm and cozy camper of a German couple who invited us over for some wine after dinner.  We volunteered to bring the bottle of Reisling that we had purchased along the Rhine, and all four of us agreed it was excellent.  Who knew Al and Carol were wine connoisseurs?

An interesting European campground custom is the use of bathrobes to go to and from campground showers.  Some male campers have very colorful robes, and when it is warm enough the men go back and forth in their very colorful boxer-type underwear!  I looked carefully, and I am fairly certain that is what the men were wearing.

CAMPGROUNDS:  European campground bathrooms and showers are wonderful, even better if heated (many are not).  You gotta check things out, however, because one very nice campground we stayed in did not furnish toilet paper!  It was strange in the beginning to see campers strolling back and forth to restrooms with a roll of toilet paper in hand.  Then, there are the restrooms that have multiple toilet stalls but only ONE very large roll of community toilet paper on the restroom wall near the stalls.  You simply pull off what you think you will need before going into a stall—I’m still not used to that kind of planning ahead!  Aside from bathroom quirks, most campgrounds are relatively cheap and many are completely free or have a minimal fee of $8-$10 a night. 

 

 One of our most beautiful free campsites
 
But--be prepared perhaps to pay extra for a shower, HOT water in the shower, fresh drinking water, sewage dump, etc. 
 
No nice way to label it--this is a European dump station
 

Must be a carryover from centuries ago when toll roads and tariffs were a common part of life…
LANGUAGE CHALLENGES:  In the larger cities, finding English-speaking tourist information help is not hard.  However, in more rural areas we have had to pantomime a lot to get information.  Sometimes when we check in, our campground host provides lots of information to us, almost entirely in German or French but with just enough hand gestures and random English words thrown in that we find out everything we need to know.  One day we had several conversations with the man camped next to us; he spoke entirely in German and we answered in English with a lot of hand-talking thrown in.  Amazing what we learned from each other…

STRONG DISLIKES:  This one is easy—lack of plentiful public restrooms.  Using a public restroom in Europe seems to be a privilege that should be paid for—anywhere from 25-80 cents.  However, restrooms in restaurants and museums are free to customers, so a little planning ahead can solve the scarce restroom problem.  My next strongest dislike is paying to use a grocery cart.  This one I don’t understand at all!  Doesn’t a nice big cart encourage some impulse buying?  We just use our handy-dandy cloth bags in the supermarket and buy only what we can carry in 3 bags.  My goal is never to pay for a grocery cart! 

NAVIGATION:  I am thankful for the top-of-the-line Garmin GPS we purchased in Toledo when we visited my brother and his wife last September.  We added the European module and that has been a godsend!   Our GPS avatar, Jill, has only led us astray a few times.   Al has become a wizard with Jill, and we even sometimes use “her” to navigate walking in a big city.  The most surefire way to find a campground is to use its GPS coordinates and, best of all, Jill knows where every McDonald’s is—for free Internet, of course.  As the navigator, I sometimes just give up on our European maps, even the supposedly better Michelin maps.

“Men read maps better than women because only men can understand the concept of an inch equaling a hundred miles.”  Roseanne Barr

 
 

Alsace: German or French?


"If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay at home.  James Michener

Al writes:  The province of Alsace lies in the extreme northeast portion of France bordering with Germany.  This land has changed hands many times between France and Germany over the last several centuries of wars.  Now is it an amalgam of French and German culture that makes it a unique part of France.  You can order sauerkraut with your crepes.  Yum!  The two towns we chose to visit were Strasbourg and Colmar.

Strasbourg is the living symbol for the hope of eternal peace between France and Germany.  It is the home of the European Parliament and has, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful Gothic cathedrals I have seen on this trip...Cathedral de Notre-Dame.  Its characteristics are pink sandstone and incredible delicate, detailed construction,

 
two levels of beautiful stained glass,

 
and a gilt-edged organ.

 
The town itself has an Amsterdam-like feel with its waterways,

 
but with a very Germanic appearance.

 
Colmar is smaller but makes up for its lack of size with charm and world-class art.  Colmar is the home of the Unterlinden Museum which displays one of the most important works of art in the German culture, the Isenheim Altarpiece (1515).  I know that it seems strange for this important German work of art to be in France, but that is typical of this region.  The altarpiece is a series of hinged panels designed to help people in medieval hospitals endure horrible skin diseases, such as rye ergotism (a disease caused by rotten rye).  Basically, the theory is that anyone suffering from ergot poisoning does not have it as bad as the agony and suffering of the Crucifixion.  


 

The other masterpiece we had the pleasure to view was Martin Schongauer's angelically beautiful Virgin in the Rosebush (1473).  We were not allowed to take photos, so the Internet provided us with this photo.
 

The rest of our time in Colmar was devoted to delightful pedestrian avenues and people-watching.




Finally, I have an important observation.  There really is such a bird as the cuckoo bird.  I did not realize that cuckoo clocks have a bird call that is realistic.  I can now tell you there was a cuckoo bird cuckooing most of the night over our RV. 

"Once you have traveled, the voyage never ends...The mind can never break off from the journey."    Pat Conroy

 

 

 

 

May 26, 2013

The Romantic Rhine


“The idea of my heart dancing with delight was far too good to pass up.”  Tahir Shah, Travels With Myself

Carol writes:  One day during a casual conversation in a supermarket, while waiting in line to pay for our groceries, we were told that this has been the rainiest Spring in Europe since 1983!  On a few occasions our campground host has made attempts to apologize for the soggy weather.  Our visit to Koblenz presented us with weather challenges that convinced me I would need more than a raincoat for socked-in rainy days.  So, I now have a new blue umbrella as a souvenir. 

 
Our campground in Koblenz was situated very close to the historic German Corner where the Mosel meets up with the mighty Rhine. 

Just outside the campground gates, a short ferry ride across the Mosel brought us to a rather grandiose equestrian memorial statue to Kaiser Wilhelm I,

followed by a stroll between rain showers into the gardens around the Basilica of St. Kastor.

The next day we were more than ready to sit back and enjoy the drive along the mighty Rhine.  The Rhine River originates in Switzerland and flows northward for 530 miles to its outlet into the North Sea at Rotterdam; however, it is the tiny section between Koblenz and Bingen that holds the most interest for tourists, so we limited our drive to that section.  The Rhine Valley has a long and rich history of fairy-tale legends and real robber-barons who from their lofty castle perches levied tolls on passing river traffic.  In German folklore, misfortunes along the Rhine were blamed on the irresistible siren call of the fair-haired Lorelei. 

We narrowed our choice to two castle tours along the Rhine.  Our first visit was to Marksburg Castle, the only surviving medieval castle on the Rhine which was never attacked because of its commanding defensive position, 
 

with cannon poised to attack any invaders.   
 

I found the full service kitchen
 

and the master’s bedroom, with its short bed,

to be wonderful representations of what life was like in Marksburg’s heyday.  The beds were short because in the Middle Ages no one slept flat and fully stretched out, as that was a position associated with the dead.  Since everyone wanted to wake up in the morning, they felt it best to sleep slightly propped up, thus the shorter beds.  We passed an ancient wine storage vault,
 

a primitive indoor toilet,

and a simple but well preserved small chapel.
 

All in all, Al and I enjoyed Marksburg Castle as much as Burg Eltz.

The most famous ruined-castle experience along the Rhine is mighty Rheinfels Castle in St. Goar.  The self-guided tour



was well worth it for the view from the top.  Can’t take a bad picture here!
 

After visiting 3 very different castles in varied settings and states of repair, we felt very satisfied with our choices.  A nice finish to our castle experiences was provided by another marvelous campsite located along the Rhine.  Mother Nature granted us a marvelous sunny day, so we took full advantage in Bacharach with some down-time watching the ever-present barge traffic,


and talking with some friendly German neighbors, who named France as their favorite vacation destination (no surprise).   We told them we were headed to Strasbourg the next day and planned to make a slow week-long meander down the eastern provinces of France all the way to the French Rivera.  Our plans more than met their approval.

“Don’t count the days, make the days count.”  Muhammad Ali

 

 

May 25, 2013

Castles and Vineyards Along the Mosel

“There are no foreign lands.  It is the traveler only who is foreign.”                                  Robert Louis Stevenson

Carol writes:  After a short dip into France we decided to head on over to western Germany and soak up some wine country and castles in the valleys along two of Germany’s most scenic rivers—the Mosel and the Rhine.  Our Mosel river tour began in Trier, Germany’s oldest city and at one time an ancient Roman capital.  Our half-day walking tour started at the ancient Porta Nigra gate, an impressive Roman fortification that somehow survived intact through a thousand years of many conflicts.
 

 Karl Marx was born in Trier, so I guess that was the explanation for all the little pink and purple statures of Marx that dotted the walking area on both sides of the gate, like large chess pieces.  This display did seem a little odd to me on the grounds of such a classic ancient Roman gate.

 
The Cathedral (Dom) is the oldest church in Germany and dates back to the days of Constantine.  St. Helena, Constantine’s mother, permitted part of her palace to be used as part of the church.


Our rainy day tour concluded with a dash out of the rain into the Konstantine Basilica, which actually started out as the Roman Throne Room of Emperor Constantine.  It is the largest intact Roman structure outside of Rome and is now used as a Lutheran church.

 
As we left Trier and headed down the Mosel Valley, our ride took us through peaceful, picturesque villages with beautifully maintained cemeteries,


 
and quaint painted houses,



in towns nestled along the Mosel at the foot of massive vineyards that stretched high up onto the valley walls.  This was Riesling country—the “king” of white wine grapes whose sweet taste is personally most pleasing to my palate.  I learned that the best Rieslings come from grapes grown on what seems to be impossibly steep canyon walls.


 
 The combination of the favorable angle of the sun combined with the mineral-rich slate soil that holds the sun’s heat through the cooler nights nurtures the perfect grape that creates the perfect Riesling.  I read that the grapes of the flatter, lower fields result in a poorer quality “table wine.”  It would be a huge stretch for me to detect the difference.

The Mosel Valley and the romantic Rhine Valley have castles galore, and we soon caught “castle fever!” Our best reference source for many of our sights has been the travel books written by Rick Steves.   We yielded to his expert recommendations and enjoyed our first castle experience along the Mosel at Burg Eltz, the castle Steves claims is his personal favorite in all of Europe.  Incredibly, this castle has remained in the same family for over 800 years through 30 generations.  Burg Eltz was fully furnished, and that made the visit so much more rewarding.  The setting in a hilly, wooded valley with Spring in full swing was superb and took our breath away as we rounded the bend on our short steep hike down to the entrance.


At the end of one of our most beautiful sunny days along the Mosel, we came upon a campground where we enjoyed our most lovely campsite to date.  We camped only a few yards from the banks of the Mosel, which provided us with a constant stream of entertainment from various kinds of barge traffic, along with gorgeous swans that fed along the grassy banks.

 
 

We had lively conversations with our next door neighbors, a delightful couple from the Netherlands, and even got in a few hours of relaxing outdoor pleasure reading…


 
Our three days along the Mosel River met every expectation promised by our travel brochure—“ancient castles perched on riverside hills and in the side valleys of one of the most beautiful wine-growing regions in all of Germany.”  Our trip down the Mosel ended at Koblenz at the famed German Corner where the Mosel flows into the Rhine, and that is where we started our journey up the Rhine Valley of storybook Germany.  To be continued…

“I am not the same having seen the moon shine on the other side of the world.”  Mary Anne Radmacher

 

May 21, 2013

The Scarred Landscape of Verdun

"Good tactics can save even the worst strategy.  Bad tactics will destroy even the best strategy."  George Patton


Al writes:  Our travels so far have taken us in the vicinity of the WWI trench lines in Northern France and Belgium.  A visit to the WWI battlefields would not be complete without visiting Verdun.  This area is only 25 miles from the French/German border, and thus, France felt compelled to fortify the area with forts to discourage invasion.  I can only tip my hat to the incredible stupidity and stubbornness of the German and French generals.  The Germans thought, "We will attack and overcome the strongest and best French positions and demoralize their army."  The French would not give an inch and used enormous amounts of manpower to take back any part of the line or any forts that were lost.  The result was 800,000 killed in 300 days of nonstop trench warfare.  This conflict was considered the biggest battle in human history up to that time.

The landscape approaching the area was beautifully misleading.  We traveled the beautiful rolling hills covered with fields of the yellowest yellow and the greenest green we have ever seen.  Every time we hit a rise, the land was covered with a quilt-like pattern of yellow colza and what looked like green spring wheat.  The sight was breathtaking…

 
As we got closer to Verdun, the landscape changed.  The millions of rounds of artillery fired in this area left the ground covered with craters and moguls.  

 


 

 
As we continued up the "Battlefield Road," we examined some authentic communication trenches that remained after almost 100 years.

 
Our first planned stop was the moving Douaumont Ossuary, which is the main monument/cemetery for the French and has the tombs of over 130,000 soldiers.  There was a lot of activity with refurbishment of the monument and replacement of crosses in preparation for next year’s 100th anniversary of the commencement of WWI.

 


 
 


Our final stop was Fort Douaumont, which was the most strategic stronghold anchoring the entire line.  It was the site of brutal slugfests as the fort changed hands several times. 




 

Our travels through the WWI areas reinforced the books I have read about this conflict.  The generals conducting the war were unimaginable and impervious to logic when they sent hundreds of thousands to their death with attacks on fortified positions.  Tactics had not caught up to the technology of machine guns, artillery, and gas.  All wars are sad, horrific endeavors, but this war should never have happened.  A generation of men from France, UK, and Germany were decimated for little gain, and history shows that the seeds of the Second World War were sewn with the millions put to rest in the grounds of these battlefields.

"Fixed fortifications are monuments to man's stupidity."  George Patton