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Europe Vacation June 30, 2023

Like millions of others around the globe, when the COVID masks came off I inhaled two lungs full of wanderlust! Our Hawaii vacation in December was initially supposed to be a once-a-decade event, but before we even boarded the plane home I was dreaming of the next one.

Where else can one get around exclusively through public transportation, communicate mostly in English, and find ample green mountains and fields of flowers to photograph? In Europe, of course!

Initially we planned a 2-week vacation for our anniversary, because crossing the Atlantic is expensive and a big to-do. Unfortunately I had work obligations, and I didn't want to leave the cats alone too long. So Sweetie took off first for a week of outdoor adventures in Switzerland, and I joined a week later to sight-see in Belgium and Germany.

Sweetie's Swiss adventures included:

1. A stop in Bern to walk around the UNESCO-designated Altstadt.

Bern rooftops
Bern rooftops, river, and tree-covered hilltops

2. Two days in the car-less mountain town of Mürren to hike and climb the Via Ferrata.

Town at the foot of the mountains in Switzerland
View of Lauterbrunnen valley from Murren, Switzerland
Fox statue in Murren, Switzerland
Flowers in Murren, Switzerland
Sweetie on the Murren Via Ferrata

3. A trip to Zermatt, at the foot of the iconic Matterhorn.

Street in Zermatt, Switzerland
Sweetie on Gornergrat
View from Gornergrat
Horse-drawn carriage in Zermatt, Switzerland
Flowers in Zermatt, Switzerland
View of the Matterhorn from Zermatt, Switzerland

4. A day taking scenic trains from Zermatt to St. Moritz, following the same route as the ridiculously overpriced Glacier Express.

Train windows in Switzerland
Cows grazing in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Tall train bridge in Switzerland
Village at the foot of mountains in Switzerland
Lake in St. Moritz with view of the town

5. A self-guided walking tour of Luzern.

City on Lake Luzern
Wooden bridge on Lake Luzern
View of Luzern from Hotel Gütsch
Street in Luzern
Lion sculpture in Luzern

6. A train break in Luxembourg, on the way to Brussels.

Bridge to Luxembourg
Entrance to Luxembourg
Grande Duchess Charlotte Memorial in Luxembourg
Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Interior of Nortre-Dame Cathedral in Luxembourg
Luxembourg train station
Stained glass over timetables in Luxembourg train station

In the meantime, I sewed clothes and bags in preparation for my own adventures.

Sunday, June 18 to Monday, June 19

At 6:30 on Sunday I said goodbye to the cats, locked up, and walked a half hour to the single bus station in town. Though we have an airport 15 minutes from our house, tickets between Redmond and Frankfurt cost a few hundred more each way than between Portland and Frankfurt. So I took the CO Breeze bus to Portland, which cost $60 per ticket instead.

My plane that afternoon took off two hours late. The frustrated captain announced that the plane was on time, the crew was on time, they just needed fresh water and had been waiting for PDX to bring it for hours. Eventually the staff did bring the water, and my first ten hours of hell commenced.

It wasn't hell because anything else went wrong; the trip is simply hell by nature. Ten hours of trying to sleep in a cramped upright seat while people talk too loudly, and crunch on snacks from crinkling bags, and watch movies on bright flashing screens, and you can't use the bathroom without climbing over your neighbors. Each hour of flight took me forward an additional hour in time, so I landed in Frankfurt at 11 am Monday.

I thought I was finally out of hell then. Actually, they'd just dropped me off at the entrance to the next circle down.

The high-speed train to Brussels arrived an hour late. That's okay, I thought, determined to be zen about it. These things happen. Besides, the vending machine gave me free chocolate snacks without asking for payment.

Share chocolate snack from Frankfurt airport train station vending machine

For a minute I wondered if European vending machines operate backwards—the snack drops down first, and then you pay for it? No, that machine was unusually generous. It must have sensed my suffering and wanted to make me feel better.

With a stomach full of free sugar, everything seemed to be back on track...until we reached the next station in Cologne. There the operator announced that the air-conditioning units had broken down in two cars, and everyone in them had to move. Of course, I was in one of those cars. Dozens of grumbling people squeezed themselves into sweltering train hallways, leaning against windows and crouching on hard floors, to wait out the rest of the journey.

Crowded Deutsche Bahn ICE train after AC breakdown

Still, I was determined to be zen. This is an adventure! Disasters always make better stories than, "Everything was perfect."

Then the train stopped moving.

Not only were there technical problems within the train, but there were problems with the signals on the tracks too. With everyone packed into small hot spaces in odd positions, the train sat about 15 minutes away from the next station for 10 minutes, 20, 30... I lost count. A cheer rose up when it limped into the tiny country station of Aachen, where everyone was dumped out and left to their own devices.

For one hour, I commiserated with a young woman from Frankfurt who was flying to visit family in Ghana. She'd planned a 3-hour buffer to get to the Brussels airport, and it was all gone now.

At last, another train arrived 40 minutes late. Okay, I thought, I'll get there a few hours later than usual, but that's fine. Sweetie wasn't going to arrive from Luxembourg until 19:00. Now I'll get there at the same time, and we'll get dinner.

I helped the young woman carry her bags on board. Then, predictably, another announcement: "I am sorry, this train is too full. We cannot move with so many people standing. Please get off if you can."

So off I went yet again, to take an odd series of slow rural trains to Brussels. I finally arrived at 21:00.

At that point, the communication between my body and brain had broken down like the train signals. Was I hungry? Sleepy? No idea! I do know I was capable of walking 30 minutes with my luggage through the cobble-stoned shopping districts of Brussels. It was still light out, very warm and humid, the sidewalks crowded with hip city people speaking French and sipping drinks at bistro tables.

Sweetie was waiting for me outside the hotel, and he whisked me off for dinner at 22:00. I'd traveled 5,100 miles to eat hamburgers and fries with Coca Cola at a New York themed restaurant called Manhattn's Burgers, which was the closest restaurant we could find that was still open at that hour. It was, however, an extremely good burger. I selected the Brooklyn Falafel Burger, which had avocado, tzakiki sauce, and a spicy cheese mixture.

My original plan was to get to Brussels in mid-afternoon, see some sights, and struggle to stay awake until I crashed. With the late dinner, catching up with Sweetie, and dealing with luggage and laundry, the crash happened after 1 am. As it turns out, hell is an excellent remedy for jet lag.

Tuesday, June 20

I planned to spend our wedding anniversary in Belgium's self-styled City of Love, Brugge (or Bruges). But first, we made an obligatory photo stop at Brussels's Grand Place. All I have to say about it is that Belgian nobles must have had a lot of extra gold lying around they didn't have anything better to do with. The other 99.99% of their population must have been perfectly well fed and happy, so why not?

Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels
Grand Place in Brussels

Then we took a train to Brugge. The town is cute and romantic as advertised, but also an extreme tourist trap. On a Tuesday afternoon the streets were packed with guided groups and couples taking selfies. Every other storefront claims it sells the BEST Belgian waffles. Google says there are more than seventy chocolate shops packed in there. I commented to Sweetie that it felt like Disneyland's Main Street.

Of course, we bought two bags of chocolates and took tons of selfies.

View of Brugge from Minnewaterbrug
Climbing roses in Brugge
Horse-drawn carriage in front of a church in Brugge
Couple selfie by a boat tour landing in Brugge
View of Brugge from King's Bridge
Swan with babies in Brugge
Mallomar from chocolate shop in Brugge
Buttery truffle from chocolate shop in Brugge

The weather forecast said rain, but it patiently waited until we reached the very end of the Romantic Hotspots Walk. As soon as Sweetie snapped his last photo from King's Bridge, the light drizzle turned into a torrential storm.

We cinched our raincoats tight and bolted from awning to awning until we found a cafe to duck inside, which was so little I can't find it again on Google Maps. There we fulfilled our responsibility as American tourists to eat Belgian waffles topped with ice cream and drenched in melted chocolate.

Belgian waffles topped with ice cream, strawberries, and chocolate

The heavy rain continued back in Brussels. Our tongues loved the waffles but our stomachs protested they weren't real food, so there was nothing for it but to get drenched on our way to dinner at Roxi. I don't understand a single word of French, but we fumbled our way to alcohol-free cocktails and massive plates of food.

Wednesday, June 21

On Wednesday we said farewell to Belgium and took trains back into Germany, towards the college town of Koblenz. We stopped in Cologne to see the famed Cathedral, which is right outside the main station.

Cologne Cathedral entrance

Koblenz is an interesting city. Most of it is modern and commercial, with lots of cars and an enormous shopping mall. Then you turn the corner, and suddenly you're in 1800.

Street in Koblenz Altstadt
River walk in Koblenz
Fortress across the river in Koblenz
Roses and lavender in Koblenz
Fountain illustrating history of Koblenz

That night we learned how eating out in Germany works. In a word, slooowly.

American restaurants are very concerned with turnover. More free tables means more paying customers. German restaurants, on the other hand, don't seem all that concerned about how much money they make. It takes about as long to get the attention of a waiter to order drinks as it does to complete an entire meal stateside. But we did get those drinks, and lots of tasty food.

Bratwurst and Wiener schnitzel at a restaurant in Koblenz

Thursday, June 22

Thursday was dedicated to a cruise down the Rhine to Bingen, to take photos of the many active castles and ruins along the banks.

The Goethe scenic boat on the Rhine at Bingen
Castle viewed from the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine
Castle and town along the Rhine

Castle and terraced vineyards along the Rhine

I discovered on this cruise that I'm very fond of schorle—a mix of sparkling mineral water and fruit juices.

Drinking apfelschorle

The food from the on-board restaurant was terrible, but the views and breeze were nice on the muggy summer day.

After disembarking in Bingen at 15:00, we were supposed to take a simple series of trains through Mainz and Mannheim to Baden-Baden, Germany. As you might guess from the concurrent presence of the words "trains" and "Germany" in that sentence, this was a complete disaster.

You can't assess the health of a system by how awesome it is when everything is peachy keen, but by how well it recovers when things go sideways. In the case of Deutsche Bahn, what happens is chaos.

First, something caused our train to Mainz to dead end at Uhlerborn, which is a station you might film in a movie to illustrate that the characters are hopelessly stranded in the middle of nowhere. I couldn't understand most of the train operator's announcement, but the DB website said something about fireworks. We walked 20 minutes into town to try to find a bus, but we couldn't buy tickets with our Visa cards. We had no choice but to go back and wait at the station, on the dirty concrete, with no WC and only some melted globs of Brugge chocolate for sustenance, until another train to Mainz showed up an hour late.

Then the train to Mannheim suddenly stopped at Worms during a hailstorm. "Continuing is not possible," the operator announced in German. "This train is going back to Mainz."

I asked the Deutsche Bahn staff how to get to Mannheim, expecting there would be alternate routes. "I don't know!" The employee threw his hands up. "Maybe the next train will have the same problem. Maybe not. There are trees on the tracks. I don't know."

Waiting at Worms was uncomfortable, not least because the station's only WC was closed due to vandalism, and we hadn't had access to one since leaving the boat. We considered going back to Mainz to take a long route around the obstructed tracks, but it was already past 19:00 and that would have taken 4-5 hours. Sweetie was optimistic. "I'm sure they're working as fast as they can. We'll take the next train."

The next train came in half an hour, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. The next one came a half hour after that, sat in the station hopefully, and was cancelled. None of the staff knew what was going on. The digital signs were all screwed up. One claimed a train was destined for Mainz but listed an intermediate stop at Mannheim, which made as much geographical sense as saying a plane from Los Angeles would fly over San Diego on the way to San Francisco.

"Nach Mainz oder nach Mannheim?" frustrated Germans demanded.

"I don't know!" the employees wailed. "Maybe first to Mannheim, then to Mainz? I don't know!"

Sweetie and I licked convenience store ice cream bars for dinner as the sun lowered and everything shut down around us, like two bedraggled travelers waiting for Godot.

After 21:00 a train to Mannheim arrived, sat in the station hopefully, and was not cancelled! And the main train station in Mannheim does have a WC.

We arrived in Baden-Baden at 23:30, about 6 hours later than expected. Luckily Baden-Baden is the Waikiki of Germany, where tourists go to relax in spas, spend lots of money on luxury goods, and drink in fancy bars long into the night. The buses continue running until midnight, so we were able to catch one to the hotel and get a little rest before our Great Black Forest Adventure.

Friday, June 23

Baden-Baden is on the northern edge of Schwarzwald, or the Black Forest region. The two highlights I'd selected for us were to hike part of the Panorama Trail and to visit the Roman bath ruins. The bath ruins have very limited hours, so they had to wait until the next morning.

Because it was a hot day that threatened rain, I picked a section of the trail that went through the dense forest, rather than the parts that went up high for views of the valley.

Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Digitalis in Schwarzwald
Mossy tree stump in Schwarzwald
Sweetie on overgrown path in Schwarzwald
Panoramaweg path in Baden-Baden
Pink blossoms on tree in Schwarzwald

The plants in the Black Forest are very happy. Too happy, in fact. Underbrush had grown over the path in many sections, and the estimated 2-hour hike to Geroldsauer Waterfall turned into a 5-hour session of voluntary trail maintenance.

The stuff I'm attacking is stinging nettle, and it is vicious. Supposedly the leaves are nutritious and medicinal, but if the needles on the stems touch your bare skin, it feels like carelessly burning yourself on a hot cookie sheet. If we'd been wearing thick jeans, coats and gloves, it wouldn't have been a problem, but because it was such a hot day I was in thin yoga pants and Sweetie in shorts. On the bright side, the effects of stinging nettle are temporary and went away after an hour or so.

On the journey to the waterfall, I felt like a fairy tale character travelling through the woods and stumbling on magical huts in clearings. Sadly, no ageless witches appeared to offer me a slice of gingerbread.

Hut on road in Schwarzwald

The waterfall itself was underwhelming. The area is beautiful, and if it were near my house I'd happily walk the loop every day. But as a destination, the best I can say is it did indeed have water that was falling. From about 1/30th the height of Multnomah Falls, which is what we Oregonians envision when we hear "waterfall."

River under foot bridge at Geroldsauer waterfall
River at Geroldsauer waterfall
Geroldsauer waterfall

By this point I was exhausted, starving, whiny, and very badly needed to find a toilet. To my delight, signs pointed to a nearby grill called Waldgaststätte Bütthof, where the meat is abundant, the drinks are cold and bubbly, and the WC is free to customers!

As we were in the Black Forest, we had to try the Black Forest cake. It tasted more like red velvet than chocolate and was covered with plain whipped cream, with very sour cherries in the middle. I usually think desserts are too sweet and could use half the sugar, but this cake could have used double.

Black Forest cake from the Waldgastaette Buetthof

The buses to that area ran infrequently, so we made the trek back to town by foot, taking a shorter but less attractive route past houses and hotels. In all we walked 17 km or about 10 miles, and we had just enough energy left to find ice cream for dinner again.

Saturday, June 24

In the morning we visited the ruins, where we had the authentic experience of sweating in ancient Roman fire-heated baths. The heating for the modern-day baths above cranked up the temperature to probably the mid-90s Fahrenheit. I learned interesting things about architecture from the included audio tour, but I was glad to escape outside to cool off after 45 minutes. Photos weren't allowed, but they wouldn't have turned out well anyway in such a small, dark place.

From Baden-Baden we took a short train (without incident!) to Heidelberg, a destination I selected for its convenient proximity to Frankfurt airport. Like Koblenz, it's a college town, and most of it is a modern city. Unfortunately it's not the good type of modern. Lots of ugly highways, commercial construction projects, and vast boulevards with missing sidewalks and no trees. Cutting through it to the Altstadt was like walking down the infamous stroads of America—all glaring sun and gasoline fumes.

But the Altstadt is cute, and very busy on a Saturday night. Students and tourists conversed over group dinners on the cobblestoned streets, enjoyed an open-air concert, studied on garden benches surrounded by masses of blooms, and lounged on blankets on the grass by the river. If I were a photographer for Heidelberg University's website, I'd be having a field day.

Heidelberg Altstadt

We hiked up to Philosopher's Walk, which offers impressive views over the river and town beyond. From there, you can't see any of the ugly modern parts—only the romantic castle and quaint old buildings. The name stems from its supposed popularity with academics and other smart people who would walk and talk about smart things. Sweetie and I mostly talked about photo compositions and where the heck that loud concert music was coming from, but we did make sure to squeeze in a few sentences about Socrates at the end.

On bridge to Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg
View from Philosopher's Walk in Heidelberg

Along the path is also a wooden play structure for children. Naturally, I climbed it.

Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk
Climbing play structure on Philosopher's Walk

Sunday, June 24

On Sunday I took the train to Frankfurt airport and returned home to the cats and to work the next day. Sweetie stayed to fit in one more "must-do" tourist attraction: Neuschwanstein Castle, which famously inspired the Disney castle. Like in the Roman bath ruins, photos weren't allowed inside.

Neuschwanstein from below
Neuschwanstein courtyard
Selfie at Neuschwanstein

Now we're back together stateside and have finally stopped waking up at 2 am. The trip was a great experience, but I think it will take me about a year to recover the energy for another one. Or at least a month or two...


Sonja (June 30, 2023 5:55 pm)

What an eventful trip! I would like to thank you for sharing it.

Love the way that you write, and the pictures are also all so lovely.

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