5 Hotels – 5 Cities – all different – all definitely European!

In Europe, the price you pay and the value you get seem quite independent – I say this because we’ve been in Germany and Switzerland for 4 weeks now – and stayed in 5 quite different hotels. All except the last have been ‘middle’ of the road quality – not brand names – not super spectacular – just well located.

Our needs were simple – in each of the cities we visited – Munich, Zürich, Nuremberg, Leipzig, and Berlin – we wanted the best possible location at a reasonable price.

In Nuremberg, Zürich and Leipzig – we had one further requirement – we needed parking.

We used only 2 ways to get our reservations – Hotwire (Berlin) and Booking.com (all the others). The rates we paid varied considerably – and were definitely not in line with the quality of the hotel! I’m guessing it’s more a question of the city and maybe timing than the hotel itself. In any case – despite staying in really quite similar properties for size, location relative to featured attractions, double rooms in all cases with bathroom en-suite – the prices actually doubled from our lowest price option to our most expensive night stay. Amazing.

And in several of the hotels – namely the Atlanta in Leipzig, the Goethe in Munich, and the St. Gotthard in Zürich – our bathroom didn’t even have a tub – just a shower! An acceptable one in all cases though – and I have to say often I prefer a shower to a tub. Easier to get in and out of if you are seriously tired!

Our least expensive hotel is the Eurostar in Berlin. This is a fabulous hotel – 4 stars, with a breakfast price point to match (17.50 Euro – per person). But over priced breakfast buffet aside, the hotel is extremely well located – right next to the haufbanhof (Main train station), and a 5 minute walk to Museum Island in one direction and the Brandenburg Gate in the other. Ideal for exploring Berlin – although restaurant options – while plentiful, are hardly cheap. In fact – that’s probably my biggest complaint! Our room is on the top floor – with a glorious view of the city. The front desk is extremely pleasant and easy to deal with – and the spa – while lacking a whirlpool, has a lovely indoor swimming pool and 2 – count’m 2 – saunas. Both are clothing optional if you must know. I’d definitely rate this the best hotel we’ve stayed at – and it’s by far the least expensive. Under $100 a night. Go figure. Internet is free – although fussy – you have to sign in separtely for all devices, and repeat the sign-in everytime the device goes to sleep. Bottom Line – 5 Stars and a Definitely Stay here.

Next lowest price – the Hotel Atlanta in Leipzig. In this case – I’m not surprised at the price – just surprised we could get it that cheap since we stayed there during the Battle of Nations celebration. Everything was full! I suspect our great rate is more due to the length of our stay (4 nights) than anything special we did. And it included breakfast – which was absolutely perfect. Unlimited coffee, cereal, fruit, meat, cheese, lots of different breads and rolls and cakes, crepes, sausages, bacon, meatballs, and boiled eggs. I particularly liked the cheese selection – from Baby Bel’s to herbed cream cheese to traditional sliced cheeses. It was yummy. The location for our purposes was perfect. There was a free parking lot – and the hotel was just a 7 minute drive from the bivouac area for our re-enacting group. The spa offered a whirlpool bath (lukewarm – not hot), and a sauna – definitely clothing optional. But the spa had a nice sized resting area – and a lovely view. Room was nice and large – I could have used a fridge with more space – I had to remove their ‘charge’ items to put in my bread and fruit. And if I had to be fussy – the fact that you had to know to ask for bathrobe was weird. We only found out the hard way – went to the hot tub area – and everyone had one but us! Internet was an additional 17.50 Euro’s a week – but at least we only paid once for all our devices. And TV was additional too – if you wanted more than the basic channels. Bottom line here – 5 Stars – and a definitely Stay Here.

Next up – and it’s a big jump – (175 Euro a night) was the Hotel Agneshof in Nuremberg. But location, location! It was a wonderful location – off a quite side street – right under the eves of the Nuremberg castle, and right around the corner from a great antique shop selling discounted pewter mugs. Oh did I enjoy that shop! The Agneshof also offered parking – at 15 Euro a day – but an essential if you drove into Nuremberg with a car and no assigned parking place. Breakfast was a reasonable 7 Euro per person – and quite ample. They even offered my Cafe Macchiato – my favorite. The Spa was in the basement – rather cool whirlpool, but nice and clean, and a glorious sauna. Oddly the fitness equipment was in the same space – hard to exercise in a room full of steam and clorine. We spent every day out on the town – and quite enjoyed our stay. Bottom line – another 5 stars, and a definitely stay there again – but try for a better rate.

Top dollar prizes (Over 220 Euro a night) go to the hotels in Munich and Zürich. And I have to say – the hotel in Zürich was clearly worth the price – of the hotel in Munich – I’m not so sure. I’ll bet other people were staying there for a whole lot less.

In Munich we stayed at the hotel Goethe – picked because it was a middle of the road price – which says something about the prices of hotels around Octoberfest time if over 200 Euros is middle of the road! It was located in a very ‘mixed’ neighborhood, right by the main train station. I call the neighborhood mixed because our neighbors were either Casinos or shops selling sex toys. Walking the streets was an experience as well – there were ladies in full burka with only their eyes visible walking slowly past the bums and homeless you’d expect to see next to a train station. And most annoying – particularly for the price – the hotel is doing a major renovation – so there was no elevator. The front desk clerk had to carry our suitcases upstairs – thank goodness we were only on the first floor! Plus there was scaffolding outside our window – blocking both the view and the breeze. Most annoying – the light in the bathroom was on a movement sensitive switch. If you didn’t move enough while sitting on the toilet – the light went off! Quite a surprise the first time, let me tell you. No Spa, No fitness center, No Whirlpool. Just a tiny sitting area near the front desk, and an equally tiny breakfast area. Speaking of breakfast – at 7.50 Euro per person per day – it was quite a bargain. No fancy coffee – but there was fruit, meats, cheeses, eggs, sausages, and a selection of rolls and sweet breads. I particularly like the Stollen. I know it’s a Christmas Cake – but hey – you cut it, I’ll eat it! Thank goodness we didn’t have a car. Because of the construction – which took out the garden of the hotel, not to mention the entire front of the building – there was barely room to drive by the hotel, let along park. I certainly would have expected a better price given the challenges we had – but I suppose they charge even more when not in the midst of reconstruction. At least the internet was free. Not very powerful, but free. Bottom line – 3 stars and I’d definitely look for somewhere else next time I’m in Munich.

In Zürich we stayed in the Hotel Gotthard. Breakfast not included – and at 32 SF (about $32 per person) not happening for me. I just don’t eat that much food. Awkwardly – the first morning we walked the wrong way – and were in the ‘expensive’ part of town – no breakfast spots to be found. We ended up at the breakfast buffet of a ‘lesser’ hotel – and paid 22 SF ($22 per person) for breakfast. It became my personal goal to locate a better option. Eventually we walked the right way – into the train station – and for just 10 SF ($10) found a lovely breakfast place – they even included my cafe Macchiato for no extra charge. I love you for that! The hotel is an older grande dame – rooms aren’t huge – but they are comfortable, and for our purposes the location and car parking option, which while pricy, totally worked. I won’t say it’s the nicest hotel we stayed in (That definitely goes to the Eurostar in Berlin) but it was comfortable, had 2 elevators, and the staff was very nice. Internet was free – a nice bonus. So a clear recommendation – just try to get a better deal on the price!

So – not a terrible place in the lot, even the Hotel Goethe had its location going for it – but some clear favorites. And I’ve learned something I didn’t know about German’s and Austrians – Clothing is definitely optional in whirlpools and Saunas. So come prepared!

Picture below is our room in the Eurostar –


Pilgrimage Churches – What are they, and Why bother going out of the way to see them?

We’ve seen 2 pilgrimage churches so far – both spectacular – when leads me to wonder 3 things – why were they built, how do you find them in the guide books, and why bother going?

Which leads right into a fourth thing I’ve wondered about – is it worth renting a car in Europe.

Starting with the fourth thing first – why rent a car? In the cities – a car is the last thing you want. What you want is a hotel within walking distance of everything – and baring that – a good public transit system. The challenges of finding a place to leave a car are absolutely mindboggling. Car parks are few and far between – aided and abetted by the authorities – which at least in Switzerland have decided that no new parking spots will be built-in Zürich. You build a new building with 100 spots underground for cars – you’d better find 100 other spots to get rid of. sheesh.

So – no point having a car unless you are trying to tour the countryside or visiting towns way outside the beaten path. And since we had decided to tour and part of our touring required some pretty out-of-the-way places – we needed a car. So seeing pilgrimage churches became a possibility.

So how to find them. I’ll be honest – Regine (our friend in Zürich – who really ought to consider a career as travel guide) suggested both. And thus we visited them. But there must be another way. I did find Vierzehnheiligen in Bad Staffelstein in Fodor – with a star (Fodor choice). And once I knew to look for it – even the Insight Guide has a picture. So it’s there – if you know about it. The 2nd pilgrimage church – which honestly I thought even more impressive is called the Wies Church – it’s well documented on the internet – and knowing the name – I found it in Fodor – labeled “Off the Beaten path” – with which I must agree. So – maybe the best thing is to rely on the ‘you’ve really got to see this’ network!


The Wies Church – located rather conveniently between Neuswanstein Castle and Linderhof Castle – is just there. Middle of nowhere. Not near a town, or even a decent highway. It was built in 1745 because a local woman claimed that she saw the wooden figure of Christ crying in 1739. Said Figure of Christ is enshrined in the altar (Fodor described it as a painting – I thought it was a craved statue)- clearly visible to all who visit the church. But it’s the church that will blow you away. It is a glorious love affair with Rocco – abounding with cupids, light, white statues of saints, prophets, or even just unknown heroes tipped in gold, and a mystery that still resonates. Did the painting indeed cry? We will never know – but the fact remains that the church is well worth visiting.

Even better – dessert at the guesthouse/restaurant right opposite the church entrance. My Hexenstrudel (witch’s strudel?) was amazing.


Picture note: All the pictures below are from the Wies Church – but trust me – seen one cupid, seen them all. The differences are the structure of the church – and the reason it got built!

Vierzehnheiligen near the tiny town of Bad Staffelstein is actually a lot easier to find. It’s located just 40 km from Bamburg – which in itself is a delight. So this church clearly gets a lot more visitors – so many that starting Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday – all visitors must park at least 1/2 mile away from the church.

But again – oh so worth the trouble!

The first time you see the church is actually from the main road – it is situated on a fairly high hillside – and is clearly something remarkable.

Because we went on a Tuesday, and fairly late in the day as well, the road, the parking lots, and the church were relatively empty. Even better – a group was getting a tour of the organ loft – and had brought with them someone to play the organ – so as we gazed in wonder at the glorious architecture – we were surrounded by magnificent music. They sure knew something about acoustics in those days.

This pilgrimage church was built to celebrate the vision of a Shepard, who in 1445 apparently saw 14 saints along with Christ – striding along the hilltop. The church was built between 1743 and 1772 – in true over the top Rocco style. The shape of the church is exremely unusual. It’s almost completely round – and huge. So large that the main part is called “Gods Ballroom”. Smack in the center, and neatly dividing the church in two, is the altar – decorated of course with cupids, saints, heroes, and images of Mary. White, Gold, sunlight, and over-the-top carvings make the entire church seem to dance. No photo’s allowed – so we just got to look, stare, and wonder at the energy and money spent to build something so out-of-the-way!

Unlike the Wies Church, vendors selling religious (and not so religious) souvenirs line one side of the entrance way. Kinda tacky. But on the other side of the church is a former monetary that has partly been turned into a visitors center. All in German, but at least there is some attempt to document and explain the architecture.

Bottom line – they wouldn’t be pilgrimage churches if they weren’t worth visiting. So go. Enjoy. And say I sent you!





The Madness Continues – Another stunning castle, another wasted 3 years

Ludwig II continued… Or where he really lived…

Ludwig never lived in Neuschwanstein. He did spend some time overseeing the construction work from the Gate House. So where was he living while his dream castle was being built?

Linderhof Castle – our stop after a quick visit to the glorious pilgrimage Church at Wies.


You can read all about it – and its miraculous statue of Christ here:




The Church boggles the mind – it’s a whirlwind of Rocco madness. If you’ve seen one cherub – you’ve seen a hundred. After our walk thru, and hungry for lunch, we popped into the restaurant just opposite the door to the church. Surprisingly yummy – I opted for dessert – HexenStrudel – and I had the best meal! Oh it delcious. Color me content if there a nice sweet cake to enjoy.


Tummy happy – it’s on to the Linderhof.

Linderhof Castle is located in an isolated area – a short distance as the crow flies from the drop dead splendor fo Neuschwanstein – but if the crow is driving a gear shift car – it’s an hour on curvy country roads. Worth the trip though – this is a wonderful castle to see – made more interesting by the fact that Ludwig II actually lived here in almost absolute isolation for the last 3 years of his life.


Linderhof, unlike Neuschwanstein, is located on rolling grounds that lend themselves nicely to some serious landscape gardening. Opposite the front door is a large pool – with a highly decorative and very attractive fountain that ‘erupts’ every 15 minutes. Ludwig II had been to the worlds fair in Paris (1867) – and had seen Versailles – so he decorated Linderhof to honor the Sun King – Louis XV. It’s filled with gifts given Ludwig from various monarch, and planned so that Ludwig could live here without seeing his servants.

For example – his dining room features a table that sinks into the kitchen so it can be set and served – then ropes pulled to raise the table in front of the king. No servants to ignore. Perfect.

Like Neuschwanstein, you must take a guided tour. Unlike Neuschwanstein, the out-of-the-way location and less dramatic appearance keeps the crowds away. In our tour group there were just 7 people – the guide, us (English), our friends (German), and a couple of Russians. So our guide handed out printed books to our friends and the Russians – and gave us the best tour ever. She showed us hidden cabinets and staircases that the servants used to hide from Ludwig. She pointed out details on paintings and explained Ludwig II’s fascination with the Sun King and his mistresses. And most importantly – made sure we knew to go visit the ‘Venus Grotto’.

Following her directions, we wandered into the extensive gardens, admired the arbors and various planting – including the magnificent waterfall system framed to perfection by the windows of Ludwig II bedroom. You can see it behind the Castle in the picture taken from the top of the landscaped buildings in front of the castle.


Eventually we make it to the Venus Grotto – and again must wait for a tour group. Well worth the wait I have to tell you! Ludwig II was enraptured by Richard Wagner’s operas – and the fact that scene painters not architects were asked to design Neuswanstein is well know. Less well-known is that he had the same person design for him a personal grotto. The place is huge – completely artificial of course – with a oversided rough shaped pool and a swan boat for the king to relax in while singers and the chorus performed Wagner’s operas from ‘shore’. All for an audience of exactly one. The hight of extravagance – a 25′ waterfall that turns on and off on command.

Futher foolishness – while at the Worlds Fair in 1867, Ludwig saw the Moroccan exhibit – and bought it! It now sits proudly in the garden of Linderhof.

Magnificat decor, beautiful furniture, and a fascinating back history. The Linderhof is worth driving out-of-the-way for.

Ludwig II – Never envy the life of the rich and bored!

In 1868, at age 18, Ludwig II became the king of Bavaria. But the times they were a-changing! He could never be an absolute ruler as he wished – instead he had to tread a very careful path around Bismark – a task for which he was apparently ill prepared. The result – a war that ended badly, and a rank of king only in name.

But he had money – and nothing really to do. So he retreated into a life of fairy tales and Wagner inspired Grand gestures. Friendless at the end, but surrounded by servants – his cause of death in 1886 remains a mystery – although the ill minded might wonder about his uncle, who became regent upon Ludwig II death and ruled for quite some time.

Sad life aside – Ludwig II wanted to build things – things that people would remember. And build he certainly did. We visited only 2 of his 8 palaces, one of which I’ll chat about today – the other tomorrow.


We also saw a third (Hohenschwangau) from a distance. That was more than enough to get the general idea- this was a king that loved the ornate, the over-the-top, the extreme. And he had the money to make it happen.


Neuschwanstein Castle is the stuff of picture books and Disney fairy tale fame. It’s not hard to imagine that Disney used Neuschwanstein as his model for Cinderella’s castle – even the guide books admit that this is one of the most famous buildings in the world.

But Ludwig II only spent about 8 nights here – by all accounts he visited during the multi-year construction, but there were never any parties, any balls, any sparkling lights and magnificently dressed people – not in reality. But on the walls – Ludwig fished his wish. Heros of Wagner Operas are everywhere – proud, glorious, and for many – insane. The tour (it’s required that you take a tour – no self touring) needs to be reserved ahead – but if you are aware of that – the reservation is free, and the time you will save is counted in multiple hours. We walked in, walked up to the booth, paid and left. Others were less lucky – and dealt with snaky lines that looped and curled. Don’t do that – reserve your tour!

Just a note – I don’t think you actually reserve a time – just a date. I’m not sure – but I typed in 11:00 as my desired time – and when we arrived – our tour ticket was 11:30. Not completely sure how that happened – I wasn’t the one who paid for the tickets. On the other hand – since we had 2 German speakers and 2 English speakers – they may have decided the only good choice was the tour with audio guides!

Anyway – cars are not allowed on the access road – only horse-drawn carriages and people walking.


Shuttle buses take a completely different route. We thought we’d take the carriages – realized that the line was seriously long – and opted to walk. Good thing. No carriages passed us on the entire walk up. And it was a very easy walk, along a paved road through a forest. About 3/4 of the way up is the ‘carriage’ stop – and from there the views just get better and better.

It’s a completely beautiful castle. No wonder it’s one of the top tourist spots in Germany. I get it. Totally get it!


We had plenty of time to wander around the outside and take pictures – if the tour starts at 11:30 – it’s going to start at 11:30. This is Germany you know. There are normally so many tourists – they have a loading now – and a pre-loading line. And still the wait without reservations can be hours. Part of the reason – it’s not that horribly expensive. Combine relatively inexpensive with seriously famous and you have a winner.

I carefully read the tripadvisor reviews before hand – and while the advice to get reservations is a winner – along with the advice to come early – the occasional complaint about the number of rooms you can see is completely unfounded. The issue isn’t the number of rooms you visit – it’s the number of rooms that were completed! And the rooms are huge. confiding that Ludwig was effectively hermit – it makes the castle even more amazing.

Ludwig II had two floors completely done when he fled here in an attempt to escape the government representatives who were coming to put him in an insane asylum. But those 2 floors are wonderful. The life-size murals telling the legends that Wagner immortalized in his opera are simply stunning.

The only sad thing is the speed that you must move thru in order to stay with your group. I actually ended up with the group after mine – caught between locked doors. No matter – that guide just waved a smile and continued on with their explanations.

You are not allowed to take pictures inside (they want to sell those postcards) – but you can take pictures in the kitchen. Got to love copper pans, eh?


One of the best parts of the tour is one not often mentioned in the reviews. After you tour the castle, you end up at the restaurant. Decent prices, and standard German food awaits there. But across the hall is a stellar exhibit – a video subtitled in at least 3 languages that shows using animated sequences the history of the building of the castle. it shows the original medieval forts that determined the shape of the foundation, it showed the castle being built step by step – and most importantly it showed what was on the original plans, but never brought to fruition.

Ludwig had planned on a Knight’s bath – effectively a private hot tub just for him. He’d also imagined a huge secondary terrace and overview on the Western side of the castle – the one overlooking his childhood home, the Schloss Hohenschwanagau. That’s the castle we saw from a distance, but never visited.


After seeing the castle and watching the video, I was so impressed by the beauty of the paintings – not to mention the gold and gilt and ornamentation – I actually bought a story book that summarized the legends emblazoned on the walls.

Bottom line – worth the trip!

A Rest Stop to Remember

Rest Stops on limited access highways are often a necessary evil – new or old, they offer stale food at outrageous prices – and hopefully a clean bathroom and maybe a place for kids to play.

In Germany – the food in the rest stops is actually quite good, nice cheese, tasty wurst of different types – even freshly fried schnitzels. But still – nothing to write home about.

Well – the rest stop at Kellmunz an de Iller – just north of Memmingen on the A7 is a horse of a decidedly different color.


Can you imagine recommending a rest stop? Well I can and I do! This place was unique.

We knew it was special as we pulled past the gas station. Swirls of what looked like ice cream decorated the roof, fun art decorated both the inside and outside.


Even the revolving door had creative touches – plants in the corners, designs on the glass. Each space was unique and fantastical. There was a room just for kids, with kid sized tables, chairs, and games. Things to look at and admire hung from the ceilings, cascaded down the walls, and in some cases – ran along the floor.

But the absolute drop dead feature were the bathrooms.

When have you ever seen such bathrooms!


From the kid sized Entrance cut in the normally ‘handicap’ access – to the amazing broken tile work – These are bathrooms I shall never forget.



Next time you are driving around near Munich – route yourself to this rest stop. It’s a hoot.

PS: Victor is having a ball driving on the German Autobauns – the lack of a speed limit, and the quite nice Audi A3 that we rented combine to make driving quickly fun. Another advantage of the A3 – it was a wonderful GPS system. Unlike most it actually pronounces place names correctly – or at least as expected, and it was very easy to figure out how to use it. There are all the standard features – points of interest by topic, last destination, and a specific control over the volume of the spoken commands. It also offers a very nice ‘alternative’ route option, shows you the next 3 intersections of interest, as well as time and distance to your destination.Another feature I love – it’s polarized the opposite of my sun glasses – so I can see it – even when wearing them. Now why didn’t BMW think of that for their heads-up display.

And unlike the voice activated system that Helmut was using – it doesn’t argue with you if it doesn’t care for your accent!

Driving in the fast lane, averaging 150 Km/hr – and loving it.

Close up and Personal – Life in a village in Bavaria

Living the nice life in Bavaria – ever wonder what it would be like to live in a village of 450 souls? Well – that’s where my German friends live – and like most dreams – the reality is always a bit unexpected.


Their village is about an hour outside of Munich – but almost directly off the auto-bahn – so it’s a fairly easy drive into the city. There’s no public bus system to speak of in that area – but BMW, being the good employer that it is, provides bus service for their employees on demand. Nice, eh? So getting to and from work is not as challenging as one might imagine.

What is challenging is the lack of shopping. There are no shops of any kind in the village – if you want even a container of milk, you must drive to the next village to get it. It’s only about 5 minutes driving – but for those of us who live in the city – that’s a long way. Apparently there was a shop – but it closed. Just not enough business to be viable.

Another challenge – and this is one of those good/bad things – they know everyone. Really well. And they have a strong group of really good friends within walking distance. That’s nice – I don’t know my neighbors – so the idea of having friends so close is incredibly appealing.


And they party hardy! Birthdays are a cause for huge celebrations – so large that one of the farmers actually built a room for everyone to use when they have a get-together. And they gather months prior to the party to plan the entertainment. They’ve done Can-Can numbers, written songs based on popular music – We totally cracked up on their version of ‘In the Navy’ – which had much to do with potatoes… Since it was in German, I’m sure we missed most of the jokes – but the recurring theme of potatoes was very obvious. And seriously funny.

Of course – you don’t get along with everyone – and in a village of 450 – it’s hard to avoid seeing someone who perhaps you are not that fond of. I guess avoidance is a skill you learn when you live in each others faces – all the time!

Because they live far from the city – they have a back yard. It’s small by North American standards – but fairly large by European Standards. There’s a vegetable garden, a flower garden – and a wonderful pond. Helmut has built the pond himself. It’s complete with a 4 foot high water bubbler/fall, countless frogs in season, and 20 fish. There are several sections to the pond – the 10 or so smaller fish tend to live in one part, the very large fish in the deeper portion. The pond freezes over in the winter – but Helmut assured us that the fish have no problem surviving, the water is deep enough for them to keep it from freezing completely.


Like any pet – the fish respond to Helmut – and come when he calls – probably because he’s got the food!


Their home is lovely – and we were lucky to be invited to stay with them. The home is new by European standards – built around 1970. It has 3 floors – a full basement, the main floor with a tiny kitchen, huge living and dining area, and the top floor with 3 bedrooms and another bathroom. What makes it distinctly different from what we’d expect in North America are the windows – that open at the top or at the sides depending on how you turn the handle. Another surprise – the size of the kitchen – they don’t even have a full-sized fridge – just a 1/2 size one. The full size fridge is in the basement. Because shopping requires planning – they also have a freezer in the basement. I would guess that farm houses would be larger – but this is more of city home, just located in the country.

About the food – being Eiser’s – we travel from meal to meal. And breakfast at Andrea and Helmut’s was great. And based on what we’ve been having at hotels since then – completely normal for this part of Germany. Eggs are offered, there’s at least 2 kinds of breads (it’s Octoberfest – at least one is a pretzel), jam, butter, meat slices and cheese. I visited a market and picked up fruit to add to the meals – fresh Strawberries, Figs, and pears. For dinner – if we’ve eaten in – we had wurst. Different kinds of wurst – but awesomely good. And one night we just had bread and cheese – naturally at least 4 different cheeses of course. And Beer. Lots of Beer. And Liquor. Can’t complain about the food.

Andrea is a great decorator – and unlike me – for her less is more. So each room reflects their love of Adventure travel – that is how we met them of course – with simple yet beautiful displays of all the wonderful things they have collected on their trips here and there. My favorites were the memories of Africa – an adventure we shared with them.

Because it’s a village – walking around is expected – but sidewalks are not provided. No need – there are hardly any cars. In fact, the only moving vehicle we saw in our hour or so tour was a tractor!

Their village has a church, a May pole, a lovely cemetery, and a huge farm – owned by one of Helmut’s very good friends. We were able to get a great tour of a working farm – by the farmer. Cool.


It turns out that our friends live in the Hops growing area of Bavaria. I didn’t know this prior to our visit – but 70% or more of the hops grown to make beer in Germany is grown right near their home. We arrived just after the hops harvest had been completed. So we didn’t get to see the hops on the vines – they had been harvested, separated from the stems, and packed for shipping. But we did get to see the equipment they use today to harvest the hops – and we toured a Hops Museum.

Germany controls the stuff that goes into their beer – in a big way. A law passed in 1516 restricted what can go into German beer – just water, barley and hops! The newest research in the ‘Hops’ field is on how to naturally get the hops to have different flavors. No joke – apparently the hot new thing is raspberry Hops.


As you can easily imagine – having a law this strict – and given the amount of beer brewed and consumed in Germany alone – makes Hops growing a very big deal! Hops farmers do very well financially – despite the intense effort involved. And apparently the quality of the hops is key to the flavor of the beer. There is a lot of competition among the growers as to whose hops is the best. It’s a bit like growing grapes for wine – but without the cachet!

Hops are vines that grow vertically – up to about 30 feet high. So hops farms look a bit like telephone pole farms – there are poles stuck in the ground about every 10 feet – and between the poles are strung wires.


In the fall, the farmers tie down wires about a foot apart – these wires are then tied to the hops plants. As the hops plants grow in the spring, the farmers manually train the plants to run up these wires. In the fall – machines cut down the wires, shake the hops seeds off the stems, grind up the stems and wires – and spit out the hop seeds into huge bags. These bags then go to the breweries to be further processed on their way to becoming beer.

This picture – taken at the Hops Museum – shows the old-fashioned way of getting the seeds off vine. Today of course they use a huge machine.


Our friends told us that most hops farms are still family owned and operated, and providing good incomes. The major concern – hops from China of course.

What made our stay with Helmut and Andrea so special – in addition to the great conversations and wonderful tours they took us on – was the chance to see how other people really live. Too often our visits to other countries are restricted to museums, hotels, and restaurants. We were lucky to spend 4 days and 4 very alcohol fueled nights enjoying a life style very different from our own. Truly a wonderful part of our trip to Germany.

A special personal thanks to Helmut and Andrea – who as you can tell – went way, way, way out of their ways to make our stay with them – and in Germany so very special. Leslie and Victor

Life Styles of the Rich and Famous – the Princess of Thurn and Taxis for example

Regensburg, Germany is a relatively small – but historically important walled city in Germany. The old town dates back to the stone age – and for quite some time – it served as the capital of Bavaria. The ecclesiastical part of Charlemagne’s General Assembly was held here in 792. So this town is no sleeper!

We visited for 2 main reasons – one to visit the ‘Schloss’ or Palace of the Prince of Thurn and Taxis, and 2nd to see the stone bridge that part of Napoleon’s army (the 3me ligne) fought hard and long to win in 1809.

Seeing the bridge was easy. It’s just there. But seeing the Palace – naturally that required some planning ahead. Regine (one of our German friends who lives in Switzerland) made reservations for us weeks ago – and it was a good thing too – getting English tours is consistently challenging here in Germany.

Why did Regensburg rate having the Prince of Thurn and Taxis build a Palace? It turns out that from 1663 until 1806 – Regensburg was the permanent seat of the Imperial Diet of the Holy Roman Empire, which of course made it very important. That wasn’t enough – what got the Palace built was the relocation of the Reichpost to Regensburg in 1748 – and as the head of the Post – the Prince of Thurn and Taxis needed a new home. However – they didn’t take possession of this Palace until 1812, when secularization laws forced the Benedictine Order to give up possession of the Cloisters of St. Emmeram, and the property came into the ownership of the family of Thurn and Taxis.

According to our tour guide – the family of Thurn and Taxis rated the inherited title of Postmaster General because the idea of postal stations was their invention. The pony express concept – horses and riders waiting at stations along the route – so the mail never starts – was invented by this family between 1200 and 1400.

Don’t believe me – check it out at Wikipedia:

With all the visitors coming and going – having a nice place to entertain was important. And so the Palace was built using part of the Monastery of St. Emmeram. It’s been maintained because the family still lives on the upper floors and is reported to be one of the wealthiest in Germany!

Their story doesn’t end badly – despite eventually losing all the lucrative postal business to the government starting in 1806 as Germany was increasingly centralized. They recovered part of the business for a while by creating a company (Thurn and Taxis Post) – but eventually the entire thing became a government monopoly.


Because the Palace and the Monastery are in fact co-joined – a visit to the Palace includes a tour of the remaining portion of the Cloister – primarily the hall and the church. Outside of the Palace compound, but also part of the same complex is the Church of St. Emmeran – also worth visiting. It’s wooden painted ceiling is hundreds of years old. When we were there – they were setting up for a wedding – a combination of old and new – with music ranging from ‘You light up my Life’ to ‘Somewhere beyond the Sea’. Blue and White balloons contributed to the festive air!

If the Palace were just a museum – it would be interesting. But what make the Palace special, as I mentioned before, is that current Princess of Thurn and Taxis (Gloria) still lives in the Palace, along with her son and 2 daughters. She has her own line of jams, jellies, and wines – and has written (with maybe some help) several books on what it is like to be a member of royalty. She was quite young when she married the former prince – so it’s not a huge surprise that today she’s the regent for her son. If you check out her history – she had quite a wild youth (from a being a waitress in St. Moritz to becoming the wife of a hugely wealthy, much much older man has to have been a challenge), but when hit with inheritance taxes (by some reports – over $2 billion), she quickly settled down into a remarkable business woman. Check her out in detail at:


Until 1998 the family owned a brewery, and despite selling the ‘firm’ to the Paulaner Group, they still have their own brand – Thurn and Taxis of course.

They even have their own board game.

On the walls were several outstanding pieces of modern art – nestled along side century old tapestries, glorious inlaid tables, and magnificent ceiling paintings. My favorite painting is of one of Therese, wife of Karl Alexander, 5th Prince of Thurn and Taxis – painted in 1811 – and showing her sporting the new style of ‘undress’ or Regency Style clothing made famous by Josephine, wife of Napoleon!



My favorite part of the house? The ballroom of course. Decorated extensively in high fashion Rocco gold and gilt – and fitted with electric lights (the family still lives here – remember) – you can easily envision elegantly clad men and women dancing the evening away.


Beer and my long lost tea pot – Color me Happy!

Sometimes a little imagination can go a really long way – and that’s pretty much sums up the art of Friedensreich Hundertwasser – or Fred Hundred Waters. I first saw his work in Montreal – the Museum of Fine Arts mounted an exposition – and I was totally blown away. Known for his outstanding use of colors and design – and lack of anything resembling straight lines – I promptly invested in one of his posters.

Several years later – in around 2005, I saw his tea cups – well, not really his tea cups – but tea/coffee cups that one of the high-end German porcelain producers made featuring his art. It was love at first sight. But I could only afford 6 mugs and saucers – the tea-pot that matched just seemed an impossible purchase. Naturally – I’ve mourned that decision for years – and have carefully been keeping my eyes out for it. Never saw it again.

Fast forward to October 2013 – Our wonderful German hosts suggested that we visit one of the best and oldest breweries in Bavaria – Kuchlbauer. Being rather keen beer drinkers – and always fond of the lighter ‘Wheat’ beers – we promptly agreed. Now imagine our surprise when we found out that not only are they known for their beer, their copy of the last supper (full size and painted in a grotto), and their singing dwarfs (I kid you not) – they have an amazing Hundertwasser designed tower. Beer and probably my favorite artist – it’s a plan!


So we drive to the brewery. Next to the parking lot is the newest work being built life-sized from his plans – I think it’s a church – but you can judge for yourself.


After taking a long hard look at this newest example of art on the loose, we enter and sign up for the tour. It’s a bit pricy as these things go – but the gal selling tickets promises us it will be worth it. Things don’t start off that well – because it’s German Unification Day – there are no workers to observe – so while we can admire the equipment – it’s not really functional.


Things go from ok to weird when we enter a grotto and are serenaded by dwarfs that represent the steps to beer making. Or at least I think that’s what they were singing about – it was all in German.

From there it was out into the daylight – and finally our look at the tower. It’s pretty cool.


Inside the brewery there were demo versions, at least one built by Hundertwasser himself, the rest built by local artists following his designs. But for the real thing – you must go outside. Wow. What a tower. We climb the 150 steps to the top – admire the view of the totally solar-powered brewery below us – and then climb down.


Now it’s time for beer tasting – and in German a taste is at least a 1/2 litre! They give us 4 bottles of beer and 4 wonderful tasting pretzels, my favorite part. We enjoy the beer, scarf down the pretzels, and then decide to buy 4 of the very unique beer glasses they are using. Victor sends me into the shop on my own – and what do I see? My tea-pot! Finally – I found it. Or perhaps better said – it found me.


We have an emotional reunion, and I leave the proud owner of the most amazing tea-pot – and 4 beer glasses – gift from the owner of the brewery who was delighted to finally sell the tea-pot!

Great tour, Good beer, and my tea-pot – I’m happy!


Octoberfest to the Max – Beer, Beer, and More Beer!

I don’t know about you – but my image of Octoberfest was mostly ladies in Dirndls, horse-drawn carriages, and beer barrels. Having now done a day at the Munich Octoberfest with some german friends (Helmut and Andrea), I can tell you that there is a lot more to Octoberfest than those cute pictures.


My friend above is a local who lives just minutes from the Octoberfest site – and after gleefully posing for this picture, showed us a picture of him as Santa Claus!

Like most ‘locals’, we arrived by metro. And the Munich metro, while dating from the 72 Olympics, is very nice. Comfy seats, nice and quiet both inside and on the tracks waiting for the train to arrive, and pleasantly frequent. My only negative – unlike the Metro in Seoul, you don’t know how long to the next train. Is that so very hard to do Munich? But it is still so much better than trying to find a parking place!

We could have saved big had we realized that the ‘partner’ day ticket was good for up to 5 adults. But we paid for and used a 10 ticket strip before reading the signs posted inside the metro station. Next time I travel with a group in Munich – I shall be much smarter.

But on to Octoberfest.


We were visiting on a Friday – and arrived around 2:00 in the afternoon – planning on eating lunch before wandering the site. Surprise – all the 14 Giant Beer tents were already packed – with waiting lines even. Left to our own devices, Vic and I would have just patiently stood in line, but Helmut had a better idea. There’s a section of the Octoberfest area called “Oide Wisen” – which my friends translated to mean – traditional area. You had to pay 3 Euro’s each to enter – but once in side, the Traditional Beergarden there had room – and no waiting lines. Plus the rides were much much cheaper – 1 Euro each rather than the 4 to 6 Euro’s demanded by the rides in the main part of the site.

So we entered, found our selves seats outside and were quickly greeted by our dirdal clad waitress. Hint 1 – don’t try to order 1/2 a litre of beer. They laugh at you. The one and only size is a litre – and in this Beergarten, the beer was Augustiner. In our professional tasting experience, it’s the best. Light, tasty, and even better – served in a stoneware mug! My confidential source (Helmut) says that most of the Beergartens use glass – but this is the Traditional Hall. They use traditional ceramic/pottery/stoneware mugs! Heavy – but who cares.


Our meal choices were meat and potato heavy – Ox Goulash, Schnitzel stuffed with wild mushrooms, BBQ Chicken – and the best course – BBQ Duck. Sides were also traditional – red coleslaw, cold potato salad (yummy), and potato noodles (large round balls that looked a lot like Matzo Balls – but were clearly Potato in origin.

While it’s hard to complain about any food served with effectively unlimited beer – I have to say my Duck was clearly outstanding. A huge portion – I think it might have been a whole duck – delightfully seasoned and cooked to perfection. Oh it was yummy.

We sat, ate, drank, and chatted – and then the band arrived. At least 10 members strong – what followed can best be described as the quintessential Octoberfest production – complete with dancing couples, feet and pant slapping by the guys – and finally a whip cracking exercises that was performed on the tables. The band then invited everyone to dance – and dance we did. A modified Polka like dance – with much laughter!


After lunch, we wandered back to the main area to admire the idiots that ride on the rides. After a lunch fueled by at least 2 litres of beer – would you want a ride that flung you upside done and then shook the money out of your pants? I think not.


The ‘midway’ area had its share of crazy options: haunted houses, rollercoasters that looked like runaway mine trains complete with 40 foot high waterfalls, loop-the-loop coasters that resembled Olympic rings – and plenty of opportunities to try your luck at busting balloons, firing cross-bows, or hammer tossing. There were also plenty of strikingly beautiful girls.


But there were things I had never seen. My top favorite – and we must have watched the action on this one for at least 20 minutes – was a wonderfully simple contraption.

The entrance was up a few steps – putting the start of the ride about 10 feet above the crowd. There was a ‘magic’ carpet that ran in an endless loop – at extremely high-speed – up a relatively steep incline. I’m guessing around 35 degrees. At the end of the ‘carpet’ was a circular staircase that led up to the top of a circular slide that you rode back down. Not much to it, right. Wrong! Riding that carpet was a challenge. There were 3 guys whose job it was to keep people from hurting themselves, and making sure that everyone made it up the ‘carpet’. For women and kids – that meant holding their hands and leading towards the top of the ride, while the rider leaned backwards. Not hard – the ladies managed to get up with little problem.

But for the guys – no help was forthcoming. Instead the guys were encouraged to leap onto the ‘carpet’ – which about 1 in 5 could do. For the remaining 4 guys – the ride up the carpet was done with legs flailing, arms whirling, and the crowd convulsed with laughter. More often than not, the guy would end up on back – feet uphill! The helpers would grab their necks, shirts, hair to make sure their heads didn’t touch the carpet – and up they went.

In a less drastic turn of events – the helpers would get on soon enough to just haul the guys up using their shirts and pants for leverage! It was a complete hoot! And from the crowds waiting to try their luck – a hopelessly addictive activity.

More our style was the giant slow-moving ferris wheel that offered a stunning view of the crowds, not to mention a stunning view over Munich.


I was fascinated by some of the very traditional ‘rides’ in the ‘Oile Wisen’ area – including a boat like swing that was human-powered. Food shops sold all the expected traditional beer drinking snack foods – candied nuts, bratwurst, 1/2 meter long thin dogs that I never heard the name of, a spicy thick sausage made with Bison, puffed up fried dough, chocolate covered fruits – ranging from strawberries to Kiwi’s and Bananas. Given the cold, I think the ice cream vendors suffered from a lack of customers, but the vendors of heavy sweaters, rain jackets, and hats did a land office business.

I bought a peacock and ostrich feather for my hair, but besides that – our money went for food and beer – lots and lots of beer.

One thing I didn’t buy – but admit I was intrigued by – were the giant ginger bread cookies. Iced and decorated – and each having a unique slogan (the ones in English were things like – I love you, you are my potato pancake), these are intended to be purchased as gifts from a guy to his girl – and then proudly worn. Well, not something I’d expected to see at Octoberfest.


After wandering the site, we headed back to the Traditional Hall for more music, more beer, and more pretzels. Freshly baked, huge pretzels, the only resemblance these goodies bare to the pretzels we get at home are the shape. These are soft on the side, well salted on the outside – and probably certifiable addictive. I stopped counting at 3. Given that each one is twice the size of my head – I didn’t stop too soon!

So food, fun, rides, beer, shopping, laughing people, and Cookies. Octoberfest is a local celebration that has taken on international importance, but remains resolutely local. Don’t be surprised if you are the only international face you see – this is a local party to which you are lucky to be invited.



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Best Movie on an Airplane – EVER! “Fly Away Home”

I can’t believe that this is my 5th long haul (over 5 hour) flight in 3 weeks. Nuts I tell you, nuts. But here I am – stuck in a tiny seat with no fresh air headed to Munich. At least I have one of those individual TV sets – nice they let the slobs in economy enjoy them too, eh?

My choices are not great – I watch Monster University – which is predictable but fun, and then I try several other losers. Honestly – what garbage. But eventually I happen on the best movie I’ve seen in quite some time – a surprisingly sweet charmer called “Fly Away Home”.

Remember – it’s a tiny screen and it’s the middle of the night. You want a memorable story that is easy to understand and visuals that are captivating. Action movies on a tiny screen are lost in translation!

And from this point of view – “Fly Away Home” delivers. The story is based on a true story – a young gal (13 turning 14 in the movie) from Ontario adopts 16 Canadian wild goose eggs. She manages to hatch the eggs, and the babies adopt her as their mother. So far – so cute. But the Canadian Goose migrates – and normally the parents take the children south the first time, showing them the route. From then on – the young geese find their own way back home in the Spring. So the gal and her single parent father must figure out how to get those geese south.

The solution – lighter than air airplanes that fly slowly enough to keep the birds company. Since the birds will literally follow their ‘mom’ anywhere – they follow her thru the air, heading south.

It’s a charming story – and the visuals are stunning. The rather silly confrontation with the developer at the end is pure movie imagination, they didn’t think that people would be happy with a simple happy ending.

Bottom line on this – don’t pay a fortune, but if this movie shows up on your local free channel – go for it. It’s way cute.