Thursday, September 30, 2010

From the Dizzying Heights of Austria to Studley, VA

It's been a great trip with memories that will last a lifetime. We've met some really nice people, walked the ground where so much history was made, and learned a lot. This little town of Igls is really charming, and we can just imagine what it must be like under a foot of snow with some of the best skiing in the world just a short ride away. On our 17th day of the trip, both of us have awakened "under the weather." I don't know about you but for me when I'm not feeling well, I want to be home, not facing a 5 hour car ride, overnight in a hotel, and 13 hours of air travel. But that's not the case and we are going to make the best of it.

Thursday - September 30, 2010

What a difference a day makes. I awoke in a cold sweat at about 3:00 am in a pitch dark room that was spinning round like the teacups at Disneyworld, thinking I was going to be sick to my stomach. That's the bad news. The good news is that I've had this experience before (in fact twice before), so panic didn't set in. It's all about these little calcium crystals that break loose and float along in one of the little tiny fluid filled ear canals that tell your brain when your body is in balance. As you move the fluid moves little hairs in the canal and the brain then interprets how to move the body to keep you in balance to the floor. Gravity works wonders. When a crystal starts bouncing around whacking those little hairs all hell breaks loose, and you're in for the worst roller coaster ride of your life (and I hate roller coasters). The medical term for this is Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo (BPPV). It's idiopathic and just one of the potential joys of getting older.

The key to not having the symptoms is to keep your head as motionless as possible and seek medical therapy. Like a statue I counted the minutes until the alarm went off at 7:00. On the other side of the bed Kat awoke with a full blown head cold, poor kid. I commiserated, she commiserated, and together we figured we would make the best of our situation until we got back to Virginia. With me walking like a robot, and Kat doing all the bending and turning, we checked out, retrieved the car, and went for a test drive. Our little VW had good seats, good mirrors, and great visibility, requiring very little head movement. Enough about the bad stuff, we were on the way home.

Down the hill from Igls we went, and fifteen minutes later we were in Italy. It was a gorgeous day with bright blue sky and big puffy clouds floating by the mountaintops. We stopped for a snack and gas (about $90 if you're interested) and settled in for a pleasant 3 hour drive south. Traffic was really sparse on our side, really dense going the other way, much of it large trucks. Does that mean Italy exports more stuff than they import from the north? Something to Google when we got back.

The approach to Venezia was easy, finding our hotel for the night: NOT. We wanted to be close to the airport, but didn't want to spend the big bucks at the major hotels for what would be about six hours of sleep. So we found a little hotel (The Feel Inn - I liked the name), in Compalto, which is part of greater Venezia and only 3 kms. from Marco Polo airport. I defy anyone to find this hotel, ever. It took us three tries by car, asking directions twice along the way. It is tucked in a building that is on the side of the town park, next to the church. There is no sign outside. Good luck.

Our room (Mare) was modern, clean and comfortable, and decorated in a nautical motif with a Murano glass clock (that was not inexpensive) and an interesting wall light that gave off fish shadows. It's not as tacky as it sounds, though it made me think that I was in an aquarium and felt a little seasick. With our bags (and Sacher-Torte) safe in the room we headed to the local pharmacy for some cold pills then on to Marco Polo where we returned the car. They didn't seem as glad to get their Italian car back as Mr. Azevedo in Berlin was to get rid of it. They nicked me another 25 Euros and I didn't even feel up to complaining. That's a first. The only thing left to do was to find the bus number that would return us back to the airport at 5:00 the next morning. Have I mentioned we'll never do a 7:00 am return flight again?

Right next door to our hotel was a small cafe where we ate dinner and chatted with the proprietor. It is small town at it's best. About the only thing we felt up for was a stroll in the park to watch the little kids play soccer. As we get older, we find this simple experience of watching kids to be very enjoyable. The pick-up game was co-ed and it was a scream watching the boys pick the girls and the girls showing the boys that they were the better players. Give them six or seven years and all the rules will change.

Friday - October 1, 2010

In the very cool dark of 4:30 am. we rolled our suitcases to the bus stop. The way they click-clacked over the cobblestone sidewalks we feared we would awaken the whole town. By the time the bus came, there were about 10 of us waiting, and we wondered if this might not be a bad place to stay if you were visiting Venezia and didn't mind a bus ride in. It clearly doesn't compare to the Lido, though.

The airport was crowded, the flight full, we were tired. Flew to Amsterdam. The airport was crowded, the flight full, we were tired. Flew to Philadelphia. Same story, you get the picture. At 5:15 pm we arrived in Richmond, very glad to be home again.

Monday - October 10, 2010

We are enjoying a beautiful early autumn day in Virginia. Kat's cold is much better and I've just returned from physical therapy with a clean slate on my "ear rocks." They have apparently settled back where they belong and now I just have to do my habituation exercises twice a day. Last time it took about 3 months for all the symptoms to disappear. Thank God we don't work.

This morning we had our first discussion about our trip and agree it was one of the best. Germany was such a pleasant surprise. The sites were interesting the scenery beautiful, and the art great. We would certainly return. We enjoyed everywhere we went, but doubt we would return to Venezia unless it was to accompany someone who had never been (like the grand kids). We cherish the time we spent exploring Venice with Rich and Lu and our stay on the Lido. They are so generous. Berlin has a nice feel to it. We were surprised how empty it became at night.

We tried some new food - Kat in particular. She may be developing an appetite for Bavarian white sausages, flame cake and Nuremburgers. For me, the tasty beer did the trick. We'll remember our discussion with the ladies on the train from Dresden and the kindness of Angelika in Igls.

More than anything we'll remember the time we spent together.

One last picture. This is the view of the "other" castle up by Neuschwanstein (it's called Hohenschwangau) - not a bad setting.

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

After Dachau - Our Angel of Innsbruck

Another cloudy meadow in another little Alpine inn. This time we are tucked away in the southeast corner of Germany, just a few miles from the Austrian border. It is very damp outside, but we refuse to let the experiences of the previous day dampen our mood. We still haven't quite figured out these duvet blanket/covers but kind of like them. They certainly keep you toasty warm at night, and making the bed in the morning is a breeze. Like the chalet outside Reutte, we have a little balcony adorned with window boxes filled with flowers, and a beautiful view of the mountains (though this room comes with a fair amount of road noise). Wondering how yesterday's tête-à-tête (or should that be kopf an kopf) would manifest itself on our bill, we headed down for breakfast (we were driving straight to Munich) ready to eat the house out if necessary to even things out.

Wednesday - September 29, 2010

Mrs. Whackjob (Gisele - wife of Hans) met us at breakfast (it was OK but not worth 7 Euros) and couldn't have been nicer, wishing us a good trip and safe journey. It's not often that you run into someone in the hospitality business who isn't. So I doubt we'll be staying at the Hoher Göll again. (Ed. note: We usually write a review on TripAdvisor upon our return and were a little surprised at some of the other traveler comments. Seems we were not the first to have a go around with Hans. We should have read them more carefully before we booked.) The bill was in order.

It's only one and a half hours from Berchtesgaden to Munich and most of it is by autobahn. With the rain coming down the suggested speed was reduced from 130 kms/hr to 120. Made no difference. I had the cruise control set at 140 and was being passed regularly. I'm going to make a bold statement: the drivers here are just not that good. With everyone rushing to go as fast as they can, every entrance and exit creates a back up creating plenty of near misses, as if they are surprised people are slowing down. At least in Italy you know everyone is paying attention to the driving, here it seems almost an afterthought. Just my opinion. Fortunately we drove out of the rain as we approached Munich and onto nice dry pavement.

This has been a fascinating trip with a lot of interesting themes; a beach vacation with family on the Lido of Venezia, the history surrounding the Berlin Wall, Hitler's rise to power, the Nazi party and it's awful cast of characters, East Berlin's "ideal" communist experiment, the Stasi oppression, cities rising from the ashes of WWII, and now the beauty of Bavaria. At the tail end of our trip we have only one thing on our agenda left to see: the Dachau concentration camp, just outside Munich. Unlike the Eagle's Nest, we've read a fair amount about this camp. It was the first one built and the model for future camps. Not many (how can I even write that) people died here in the context of the total number of civilians killed during the war (42,100 v. 40 - 50 MILLION). This is where a lot of the medical experimentation took place, and many political prisoners were housed here. If your goal in life was to become a death camp administrator this is where you came to be trained. Dachau will forever be associated with this camp and what happened here, as Dallas will forever be associated with the assassination of JFK. It's unfair to the 40,000 residents of this very nice, very neat suburb of Munich.

It was cool and breezy when we passed through the wrought iron gate with the infamous words Arbeit Macht Frei (literally - Work Makes Free) woven into the grill-work. It was not work that "freed" many of the poor souls who died here, but brutality, neglect, starvation and mostly sickness that took their lives. It is a large sprawling complex with stone outlines marking the location of each of the single story barracks. Two have been rebuilt and you can walk through passing row after row of wooden bunks, stacked three high, more like oversize book shelves than beds. It does not take much to imagine 32,000 starving and sick inmates packed into these spaces. It is frightening.

Inside the administration building (the original intake facility) there are many exhibits, always in English as well as German. The pictures and descriptions are brutal - there are no apologies or excuses. They use the word "murdered" to describe some of what happened here but not all of it. Clearly this was a prison camp as well, not a vocational school. Most of the inmates walked into Dachau every day and worked (as slave labor) in the armament industries. There are drainage trenches in the cement floor and overhead patches in the ceiling where shower heads were once plumbed. Speaking of plumbing, even the bathrooms seem designed to humiliate. People would be brought in by the cattle-car load, told to undress, be washed down, then issued prison garb. It was cool on this September day, cool enough to need a jacket. Twice a day, every day, all prisoners would have to line up in the courtyard for roll call, standing for hours at a time. There were rules, lots of rules. No water spots were allowed on your soup bowl, for example. There was a nasty little wooden bench over which a prisoner could be bent and whipped if discipline was meted out.

Many of the exhibits spoke of the Sinti and Roma populations that were (like the Jews) to be rounded up and eliminated from the country(deported or worse). We assume these are people you think of as gypsies - from Romania? The Jews wore yellow stars, the Roma/Sinti wore either a black or brown triangle on their prison uniforms. A large percentage of the prison population was Catholic, including many priests who were directly opposed to the Nazi philosophy.

We walked to the rear of the property to the crematorium building. This camp was a concentration camp, not an extermination camp (like Auschwitz for example). The majority of the bodies that were burned here died of sickness, or medical experimentation (less than 100?). After liberation in 1945 the camp was used for a variety of purposes and finally turned into a memorial. We know that this camp was not the scene of many of the atrocities that took place at other camps, but it still gives you the willies and we were glad to be leaving. (Ed. note: For a detailed look at Dachau go here. It is an amazing website that has a very balanced explanation of what happened there.)

With everything on our "to do and see list" checked off we began our journey back toward Venezia for the flight that would take us back to Ole Virginny. We enjoy road trips (particularly in Europe) and had decided to split this road trip into two overnights - one outside of Innsbruck, Austria the second, minutes from our hotel near Marco Polo airport (we had an excruciatingly early 7:00 am flight our departure morning - we won't do that again). With the sky brightening and no expectations we glided south towards the Alps.

As soon as we hit the Austrian border I changed the cruise control from 140 to 110 kms. (87 to 68 mph), and like magic, all the tension dissipated. Even the drivers were acting better (which may have something to do with the number of police we saw on the road). It was like a drive in the park, and what a fantastic park it is. We agreed that everyone who enjoys beautiful mountain scenery should add the Munich to Innsbruck drive to their bucket list. It is spectacular. (Plus there's a handy Burger King on the highway with great views, and an excellent selection of beer for the trip.)

Our abode for the evening was the very nice Hotel Batzenhäusl in the small town of Igls, just up the hill from the city of Innsbruck. Even in the early dusk you can tell this is a very charming little town. And what made this hotel special for us was the charming young woman (Angelika) at the desk who greeted us and patiently explained how to get into Innsbruck by bus (once I got our car into their tiny little garage, it was going nowhere until the morning). Our angel annotated a good map for us, with bus schedules, which side of the street to stand on for the bus (important), and what to see on our visit. "And make sure," we were told, to sit on the left on the way down to get a peek at the Birgesel ski jump, barely visible around one of the corners. She was so pleasant and welcoming we wanted to take her with us.

We hadn't made any sightseeing plans for Innsbruck as we figured it would be just a convenient stopping point on our way back to Italy. We did know that it had been the site of the winter Olympics back in the sixties or seventies. (Ed. note: in fact it was both - 1964 and 1976).

Leaving the main bus line street we headed toward "The Golden Roof", the most famous building in town. Three stories tall the roof is capped with 2,600 gold-plated copper tiles. Constructed for Emperor Maximilian it was his royal box where he could sit in luxury and enjoy tournaments in the square below. With the mountains for a backdrop the setting is breathtaking. It reminded us a little of Chamonix. The gem called Innsbruck is tucked in a Tyrolean valley and split by the Inn river as it courses it's way towards the Baltic sea (Innsbruck translates to "bridge over the Inn"). Though cool and getting dark we ambled along admiring the beautiful buildings and doing a little people watching - a nice mix of punk youth and fashionably dressed townsfolk. The town has a very modern vibe to it.

After a stroll along the river, we decided to eat at the Café Sacher, just off the main street. Ah sweet mysteries of life, that we had inadvertently settled into a place where I could experience a real Sacher-torte. Being a sucker for all things sweet I have become a connoisseur of pastry (at least in my own mind) and the opportunity to have a real one must be indulged. First, the description (from their website):

The Original Sacher-Torte has been the most famous cake in the world since 1832 and the original recipe a well-kept secret of our hotel. Only the Original Sacher-Torte is produced according to this original recipe: The basis is a chocolate cake, thinly coated by hand with best-quality apricot jam. The chocolate icing over this is the crowning glory. The Original Sacher-Torte tastes best with a portion of unsweetened whipped cream.

There is folk lore, and ritual involved, and everything that makes a legend legendary. So after a delicious dinner of smoked salmon I cleared my palate and mind, preparing to be one with the Sacher-Torte universe. The cake itself is pretty good, and the experience was grand.

We stopped at the pastry counter on the way out and left with a small one, all dressed up in it's special wooden box, inside it's special glossy burgundy bag with gold corners. We bused back to our hotel with our first real souvenir of the trip, and looked forward to sharing this treasure with Kat's mom and brother in celebration of our return.

Angelika was at her post and asked how our visit to Innsbruck had gone, what we had thought of the place, and if her directions were OK. We could tell she was sincere in her questions, not just being the good hotel employee. So we stood around chatting with her (there was no one else in the lobby) for about 25 minutes and had the most wonderful time. We learned that she had been born and raised in Moldova (an independent republic of the former USSR, bordered by Romania and Ukraine), had been a student in Austria for the past year, and hoped to have a career in healthcare management. Moldova (for our information) has both the biggest wine cellar and the biggest cemetery in Europe, though she doubts those two facts are related.

It's not often we run into someone who is as much a sponge for information as we are. We talked about families, travel, and what it was like for us living in the US and for her growing up and having to leave Moldova (to further her professional ambitions). She was as sweet as our torte, and she made our stay in Igls a very special one. We wish her the best.

As for us, it's back on the road in the morning - final destination - Studley VA, a world and a lot of timezones away.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

A Nest in the Clouds

We are snuggled in a cozy little Alpine ski chalet (10 rooms) called Pension Waldrast in the tiny village of Ehenbichl, just outside Reutte, (RRoy-tuh) Austria. From our bedroom balcony we can see what is left of the 13th century Ehrenburg castle, high on the hill behind us. This is ski country, and the people here look seasoned, in that good healthy way. Mrs. Huter (the owner), made us feel right at home the minute we walked in the door last night, and we are feeling spoiled this morning with our first included breakfast of the trip. The meadow we are in is filled with a light fog this morning, and it is so peaceful, and beautiful we're not sure we want to leave. But leave we must. On the way out the door, Mrs. Huter, unexpectedly shook my hand, and wished us a good trip. I asked her about all the ski pictures in the lobby, and she said that she and her husband were real enthusiasts who lived to ski. She pointed to one of the pictures on the wall and said "He's dead now" and that she didn't ski anymore. Just the wistful way she said it made me think back to the ladies standing in front Vermeer's necklace girl, and that universal loss we all feel as we get older. It was so touching.

Tuesday - September 28, 2010

Our plan for the day was a leisurely 3 hour drive east to Berchtesgaden to see Hitler's "Eagle's Nest", followed by dinner in nearby Salzburg, and an overnight in a hotel in the suburbs. Thinking I was smart, we headed north back to Germany, my theory being we could pick up the Autobahn just on the other side of the border. I wasn't smart, and it wasn't there. Instead, we ended up on lots of very picturesque country roads with lots of farm vehicles. By the time we got to the Autobahn I had perfected my passing skills. Lesson: like in airplanes, sometimes the nearest exit is behind you.

We got almost everything wrong this day.

First: we couldn't find the place. When we got off the Autobahn we followed our Google directions, but the road was closed with big signs denying auto traffic. We circled around, and finally headed to the train station where a couple of very nice ladies told us that that road has been closed long ago, and there was another one a couple of kilometers farther on.

Second: the "Eagles Nest" is not in Berchtesgaden. It's a building (that is now a restaurant) 6000 feet up the side of the Kehlstein mountain, a short distance from Obersalzberg, which is just outside Berchtesgaden. This building was a 50th birthday gift from the Nazi party to Hitler and he visited it a number of times (estimate is 10 - 14).

Third: it was not where much of the planning for the war was conducted nor where many of the state visits took place. That was at the Berghof down the hill in Obersalzberg (more about that later).

OK, so it's not the historical site we thought it was but it is a bit of an engineering marvel, had a restaurant, and since we were hungry, we decided to go up and visit. We parked down at the Dokumentation Obersalzberg building (3 Euros) and bought bus tickets (31 Euros - 15.5 each)and waited for our bus (number 3 leaving at 14:20). This was beginning to feel like Disneyworld. Right on time our caravan of 3 buses made it's way up the very narrow, 4 mile, winding road (which amazingly has only 1 switchback and very low side railings), to another parking lot. Upon exiting the bus (into a pretty good cloudbank) you have to take your ticket to a little booth where they stamp a return time on your ticket. (This is apparently really important, because we were told to do this every 2 minutes of our 15 minute ride). After quick consultation with Kat we had ours stamped with 15:35 figuring an hour would be more than enough time given the visibility was minus 2 feet.

There is a fancy stone cave entrance with a 406 foot tunnel that leads to a brass elevator that takes you vertically 406 feet to the chalet. If it wasn't so cold and cloudy, thoughts of figuring out the length of the hypotenuse would have kept us occupied while we awaited the elevator. All we wanted to do was to get upstairs. The doors opened, we were directed not to take pictures (why all these rules?), and whisked higher up into the cloud. Given the viewing platform was socked in, the only thing left to do was eat, and the only place to do it was the Kehlsteinhaus. The setting is beautiful, the service was excellent, and not too expensive (17 Euros). The menu reminded me a bit of a fancy Friendly's with beer. People kept coming into the dining room to take a picture of the famous marble fireplace that was nicked up by American GIs for souvenirs at the end of the war. Many of the WWII books and movies show this building and fireplace and that's why we thought this was where Hitler ran his dirty business. Not so.

An hour was more than enough time at the top on this day. We got to the bus stop before the bus, and landed a front row seat for the descent. An interesting little drama unfolded before us. There were 6 or 7 people trying to get on who did not have a departure time stamped on their ticket. Now how is that possible given all the warnings on the way up? After a considerable amount of lively discussion, these rebels (thankfully not Americans), were allowed to stand in the aisle as we descended. It was creepier going down than it had been going up. You could see where you would land.

Back at the bottom we headed to the Docu Center and looking over our shoulders had the best view all day of the Kehlsteinhaus, the clouds floating by. It was cheap money (5 Euros each including audio-guide), sits atop a vast bunker complex, and was built in the shadow of the ruins of the original Berghof. It was on this plateau that Hitler's famous chalet stood, where state visits were conducted and where he and Eva Braun spent most of their time together. Many of the buildings in Obersalzberg were bombed in the last couple of months of the war. Almost all the buildings of historical note were finally destroyed in 1952. From their website:

Based on the agreement between the Bavarian State government and the American occupational forces, the ruins of the Berghof, the houses of Göring and Bormann, the nursery, the SS barracks, the so-called Kamphäusl (where Mein Kampf, vol. 2 was written) and Hitler's teahouse were blown up.

Like Hitler's bunker in Berlin, the government did not want to leave monuments that could become pilgrimage sites to neo-Nazis. (For more details go to a fabulous site called "Third Reich in Ruins" to see before and after pictures. Ed.) The building closes at 17:00 so we had very little time to explore the center or the bunkers. For future visits, our recommendation is less time upstairs (if at all), more time down.

Our last challenge for the day was to find our little hotel - the Hoher Göll, right on Berchtesgadener Strasse. This had to be easy, as it's got to be on the main street. Wrong again. It's on Berchtesgadener Strasse all right, but that's a main road that leads INTO Berchtesgaden, not through it. We'd still be looking if Kat hadn't spotted the TI where we got a great map and good directions (which took us back over the river and out of the town). It's a pretty hotel in a beautiful setting, very clean and obviously cared for with a great deal of pride. My only complaint is the ultra-miniature parking lot. After checking in desiring a light dinner rather than finding a restaurant we figured we'd head off to the local market and have a snack night. That's when this not so good day turned worse.

When backing out of the mini-parking lot I just barely bumped a flimsy makeshift barrier that was protecting a little flower bed. You'd have thought we had driven an 18 wheeler through the dining room the way the owner came storming out of the hotel wailing and carrying on. We were mortified and tried to explain that we would be glad to pay the Euro and a half it would take to fix the little 1x3 inch pine furring strip we had tickled. I pointed out to him that no damage had been done, and in fact this little wooden strip had been hit before and fixed (no doubt by him) with a piece of chicken wire. I straightened it out and as we got into the car he was still yelling and stamping his feet. I heard him volley "scheiße" at us, and we neatly returned a "kopf" as we drove away.

We found the local Tegelmann's (like a Kroger's) and bought some beer, cheese, bread, yoghurt, and fresh fruit, then drove around until it was dark. Upon our return, we parked on the curb in front, scooted in the front door, and hurried up to our room for dinner. We had a few laughs and chalked the day up as a good learning experience. On a three week trip not every day is going to be scrapbook worthy. With full tummies we relaxed into our duvet covered beds wondering what breakfast and checkout was going to be like the next morning.

(Ed note: Upon our return we went to the library and borrowed a wonderful book entitled "The Lost Life of Eva Braun" by Angela Lambert. We only wish we had read it before we went to Berchtesgaden, as we would have known the difference between the Eagles Nest and the Berghof, and might have spent our day on the shores of the Konigsee instead of up the mountain. It is a well researched book on Ms. Braun and her dedication and love for Hitler. We would highly recommend it.)

Monday, September 27, 2010

On the Altars of a Christmas Village

We slept the sleep of the dead in our old mill, and were a little shocked when our feet hit the floor and stuck to them like a tongue to a frosty pole. The little travel alarm said the air temperature was 65 degrees. That may be true but this old stone building in this little valley holds the cold rather well. And of course, it being September, way too early to put on the heat. We friskily made our way through our morning routine and were dressed, packed and in the car by 8:15 (which has a darned good heater we discovered). We really enjoyed our tour last night. Mr. Baumgartner is a natural and he kept the crowd (which numbered about 100 we think), engaged throughout. You can tell from this picture that everyone was enjoying themselves. Lots of smiles, and that is a really good thing.

Monday - September 27, 2010

Bavaria is a fascinating little corner of the world, and there is so much to see. We purposely limited the amount of time we were going to spend in the area to two days; just enough to get a taste and see if we wanted to come back in the future. Our plan included a return to Rothenburg in the morning, then a drive south to see Old King Ludwig's digs, stopping on the way either to take a luge ride or see an old church that was built in the Rococo style and was billed as being a little slice of heaven on earth. We decided to let fate decide, fate being the weather in this case, and the blue sky says there's a high speed mountain ride in our near future.

There are a number of parking lots outside the gates of Rothenburg, some of them free - we couldn't find those. The one we did find however was empty and there was just a 3 Euro charge. We entered through a little flowered gate and since it was not yet 9:00 am. we found our little town still empty, and still charming. What better place to start our pilgrimage than at Saint Jakobskirche (St. James Church), a stop on the way to Santiago de Compostela in Spain. We keep stumbling upon these major pilgrimage sites on our travels, and wonder if it's by accident or something divine going on.

The keepers were just unlocking the doors so we had the church to ourselves. The morning light coming in through the beautiful stained glass windows filled the interior with color. It was really something. Our first stop took us up the stairs by the entrance to the Altar of the Holy Blood. Billed as the finest example of woodcarving in Germany (and that's saying a lot), it doesn't disappoint. It's about 35 feet tall and was carved right around 1500. There is so much going on you're not sure what it is that you are seeing, but you can tell you're in the presence of a masterpiece. Right in the center is a rock-crystal capsule that contains the relic: a tiny piece of a communion table cloth with a drop of wine in the shape of a cross circa 1270.

Down below at the main altar there is another type of artistry at work. The high altar, though not ranked number 1, has to be very high on the list of top altarpieces in Germany. We've seen lots of these fold out altars in our travels, but usually they are in a dark, dusty setting and look like they need a good old fashioned cleaning. Not the case here. This beautifully carved altar (1466) is painted and gilded and stands enrobed by the brilliant stained glass backdrop. It sparkled in the morning light. If you really want to see one of these in your lifetime, we would recommend this one. Walking around the back we stopped before the face of Christ on Veronica's veil. We wondered how many pilgrims over the past 5 centuries had stood where we were and marveled at this painting. With people trickling in the spell was broken and we headed out the back and right into a very nice little cafe for breakfast. It was only 9:45 and we had already had a great day.

Back in the center of the town things were just starting to heat up. The Councilor's tavern in market square (the Ratstrinkstube - good name) looked particularly splendid in the morning light against a dark blue sky. Once in a while (check the schedule) the two little doors beside the clock open and the "Meistertrunk" legend is shown to the camera ready crowd below. First show 11:00 - will try to miss it; I've seen enough of that stuff in Disneyworld, didn't enjoy it there, and not a real big fan of cuckoo clocks either. What I could enjoy was sitting in the square with a good cigar while Kat did what EVERY other person who comes to Rothenburg does - visit the Käthe Wohlfahrt store. It is nothing short of amazing to me that I could have lived all these 63 years completely ignorant of the existence of this edifice. I know so little. World famous (certainly more famous than the altars we had just witnessed) it is a modern pilgrimage site, whose flow of tourist bus delivered visitors is dwarfed only by the hajii at Mecca. There was a line waiting to get in. A store. And it's in a perfect Christmas village setting. What could be better? For me sitting in the square having a cigar contemplating life, and enjoying the beautiful day, fountain, half-timbered buildings, and people watching. By a wide margin.

Kat is the atypical shopper and one of the many reasons I adore her. She is usually in and out of a store in record time, and we typically avoid places on our travels where the lure is "a shoppers paradise." We don't have much but it's everything we need or want. It takes about 45 minutes to have a cigar, and I was a little surprised that I had finished before her return; lost maybe? I wandered around the square then went to check out the cool cast iron bars mounted on the outside of the old town hall (which in case you're looking for it is right across the street from "The Store"). Back in the day Germany was a federation of about 300 little country-states, and each had their own measuring standards. The rod, the shoe and the ell were standard measures and here is where you could check to see if you were getting gypped.

I finally summoned enough courage to stick my head into the doorway of KW (which prior to this always meant big mean trucks) and saw Kat about 5th in line at the cashier. Total spend: 20.15 Euros for a refrigerator magnet, some chocolates for Mom, and a couple of tree ornaments. I figure we got off easy. The town was beginning to fill up so it was time for us to make our exit. We climbed up the nearest set of wall stairs and stayed above the fray all the way to the gate which led to our parking lot. It was very picturesque and we were glad to have had this little town to ourselves this morning.

It was just about noon, and our beautiful blue sky was quickly filling with gray-white clouds. No sooner had we started our 266km drive south than a light drizzle began. Fate says we're going to another church and the luge run will have to wait for a future trip. Not crazy about the idea to begin with, there was no way I was going to try speeding down a mountain on a little sled in a concrete gutter filled with water. Not this time. This was our first real experience on the autobahn and it was fine. We averaged 130 km/hr (about 80 mph), with peaks of 175 (about 110), so the trip was pretty quick. We couldn't help but think that Adam and Edward would love this. Our destination was Wieskirche (Vice-ker-kah),home to the much adored little church in the meadow.Tooling down the little country roads, we couldn't find the meadow, never mind the little church. After a couple of false starts (and Kat's sign language discussion with a bus driver, we pulled into the parking lot.

I've got to set the stage a little bit. Most of Germany was Catholic until Martin Luther started the protest movement in the north, and posted his 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences (didn't think they could be bought) on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. While a lot of the people in the north converted the southern part of Germany, known as Bavaria remained heavily Catholic. This little church is a testament to their faith and adoration. A statue that is said to have wept began to draw crowds, and before you know it, the Zimmermann brothers (famous Rococo architects at the time) designed this church and it became a major pilgrimage site. People who are ill come from around the world to pray here. For all the crutches and walkers we saw there is sparse handicapped parking. Very simple and beautiful from the outside the inside takes your breath away. If you are into this style there are five or six that can rival this church, but this is the best, and you will love it. Feeling pretty healthy, we spent about 15 minutes here and had it been sunny we might have been breaking our legs on a luge run.

About one half hour down the road (a scant 23 kms.), we approached the twin of Sleeping Beauty's Disneyworld castle - old Mad King Ludwig's "Neuschwanstein" (Noy-shvahn-stien). You get the same feeling driving toward it as you do on the approach to Mont. Ste. Michel in France. All of a sudden it's there in the distance, just beyond the cow fields. It sits atop a hill all majestic, and beautiful surrounded at the base by a village of souvenir shops and very nice hotels. We found a parking lot, grabbed our umbrellas (it was raining pretty hard) and headed to the bus stop to decide if wanted to take the 15 minute ride up for the tour. We were not as interested in seeing the inside as we were admiring the setting and determination it must have taken to build this castle on this hill. The long, slow bus line made the decision for us. We really had seen what we came here to see.

Comfortable in our decision we dodged the puddles (and the major horse droppings from the bus alternative), and parked ourselves in the Hotel Müller for a traditional German lunch. The place was packed (with a lot of Americans) and the while the service suffered a little and we were quite hungry, we savored this quiet time in this beautiful location. I had the vegetarian crepes and a salad with a König Ludwig Dunkel beer, while Kat (I am SO proud of her) blindly ordered the Weißwurst (Bavarian white sausages) and a side order of Käs' Spatzen (a cheese and spaetzle casserole), topped off with a Coke. The entire meal was delicious and I couldn't keep myself from ordering a Bayrisch Creme for desert.

While waiting for the dessert to arrive, the wife of an American couple at the next table excused herself for the restroom, and her husband immediately got up from his table and sat himself down at ours (we were at a table for 4 by the window). He couldn't wait to tell us about their trip and their attendance (with at least a thousand other people) at the once per decade presentation of the world famous Oberammergau Passion Play (We had read about it and had absolutely NO interest in going). His wife, upon returning from the restroom, grabbed their stuff from their table and moved it to ours at the same time she was ordering their post dinner coffee. We declined. We are not anti-social (even saying that makes it sound like we are), but prefer a more subtle approach. We (they) chatted for about a half hour and taking advantage of a lull in the conversation I suggested to Kat that if we were going to go up the hill, we better go. Now. We took pictures of each other (nice of them) and headed outside. The rain had stopped and the bus schedule announced that the last bus of the day was to leave in 3 minutes. Still undecided about going up, we figured we would leave it to fate. If the bus was still there when I walked to the car and back (I had forgotten to bring a cigar) we would take it. It was, and we did.

What a great ride. Up we went in an almost empty bus to the little parking lot just above the castle. With still no desire to tour the inside, rather than walk down to it, we hiked up to Mary's bridge. This is the spot where just about everyone takes the exact same picture of the castle. Swapping cameras we ritualistically took other people's picture and they took ours. Even on a cloudy day it is magical. To get back down there are a couple of options. You can take the bus (if it was still running), a horse carriage, or walk. We opted to walk, and taking the road less traveled followed the signs to the Pöllat gorge (above which Mary built the aforementioned bridge). Not taking anything away from the castle, it was the best part of our visit. It was green and quiet (except for the rushing water), and smelled just like you would hope a Bavarian forest would smell. At the bottom we came across a plateau in the stream bed where many before us had stacked stones, just to say that they had been there. We made our little monument, temporary as we knew it would be, and dedicated it to our families, past and present, wishing they were there to share this moment with us. Fate had dealt kindly with us today.

It took about 45 minutes from Mary's bridge to the car, and we were so totally relaxed and thankful. We laughed about our dinner guests and all the wonderful things we had seen and done on this trip. With only a couple of days to go, it was time to leave Germany for the night and head into ski country Austria. Our overnight was to be in the little village of Reutte (Roy-tah), and we were looking forward to it.