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From the Rhône to the Rhine: Colmar

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Miraculously enough I had found an Airbnb in Colmar with both off-street parking and air conditioning, so we were able to pass a comfortable night despite warm and humid weather. It was a little more than a comfortable walk to the old town so on Wednesday morning we hopped into the car to visit Colmar's small covered market. Although the market was open hardly anyone was inside and none of the small restaurants were serving yet. We decided it would be better to return for lunch and drove to the west side of the city for the Marche du Quartier Ouest weekly market. Driving through Colmar was quite a difficult task because many of the roads in the center had been closed for construction and neither the car GPS nor Google Maps had been updated to reflect it, which meant I had to continuously ignore the directions and navigate away from all the direct routes to our destination. The market extended along one street and there was a strong emphasis on Arabic food and clothing with a corresponding customer base, which surprised me a little in Alsace. We didn't see anything particularly unusual or interesting so we got a few bites to tide us over until lunch and got back on the road to resume attacking our list of Alsatian villages.

Eguisheim was so close to Colmar that it was practically a suburb, if Colmar could be considered urban enough to have suburbs. The old town was laid out as series of concentric rings with the outermost road following the outline of a city wall that had been torn down long ago. Only residents were allowed to bring their cars into the old town so we parked in the designated lot and walked inside to explore a maze of ancient cobblestone streets. It was similar to Riquewihr in that we could randomly choose a direction each time we came to a crossing rather than just walk the length of a single long main street. The old town was compact enough that there was no danger of getting lost. One spot that was particular popular was at the place where two parallel lanes converged into one. At the apex of the fork was a tiny, narrow half-timbered house that was extensively festooned with plants. One small drawback of our random walk approach was that we missed the beautiful square in the very heart of the town, a fact I only discovered once we had returned home.

We returned to the covered market in Colmar for lunch and found that all the food stalls had opened. We had pho at a Vietnamese place and then oysters and shrimp at the seafood market. There were a few other places to sit down which we didn't try, an unusually large selection of restaurants for a small French market.

The market belongs to a small section of the old town known as Petite Venise, an ambitious description even with its diminutive modifier. Colmar is traversed by La Lauch, a small tributary of the Ill, that was enlarged into a canal in the mid nineteenth century. Petite Venise consists of a short section of this solitary canal that is lined by idyllic, postcard-perfect half-timbered houses that epitomize the Alsatian aesthetic. The views from the short bridges that cross the canal are featured in almost any article about travel in Alsace.

Colmar was a delightful town to explore. Virtually every place in the old town rivaled the most beautiful parts of the medieval Alsatian villages and we didn't run out of streets to explore after a half hour. Although Colmar was smaller than Strasbourg I probably could have spent the whole day walking in Colmar because it was so colorful and there was so much fascinating architecture. There were gourmet food stores and restaurants everywhere and everything looked to be of very high quality.

At the center of the old town is the Gothic church Collégiale St-Martin. The interesting pixelated effect created by using multicolored blocks of sandstone reminded me of the Dom in Trier. Another singular building in Colmar is La Maison Des Têtes, a historic mansion that is now the home of a boutique hotel and Michelin-starred restaurant. The building takes its name from the eccentric masonry boasting dozens of carvings of faces and heads. The impetus behind this unique decoration has long since been lost to posterity.

Once we had completed our exploration of Colmar's old town there was still plenty of time left in the day. We could have relentlessly plugged away at the medieval villages but the kids had grown somewhat tired of them and even Mei Ling and I were beginning to have some difficulty telling them apart. There was only one left that I felt was essential so we decided to head to a small lake with an artificial beach than I had discovered from online research. It proved to be quite a popular place on a humid July afternoon and the kids had a blast. I even joined them in the water for a game of tag. I was glad we had chosen a swimming break over yet another Alsatian village.

The last of the essential Alsatian villages on my list was Kayserberg. The familiar exquisite buildings were surrounded by lush hills partially terraced with vineyards. One distinguishing feature of the town was the small river that ran through the center and another was the ruined castle that overlooked the town from a nearby hillside. We knew this would be our last time experiencing this particular vibe and we made sure to absorb our surroundings as completely as possible. After Strasbourg, Colmar, and six smaller villages we definitely felt as though we had accomplished our goals in Alsace but we knew that we would begin feeling nostalgic for this dazzling corner of Europe as soon as we had returned home.

The vendors in Riquewihr had told us the town they would be catering to on Wednesday evening but the evening market I had discovered during my research was closer. If the Marché des Saveurs d'en-Haut in Orbey proved to be weak or nonexistent we would have an excellent back-up plan. Orbey was an interesting place because it was our first chance to see an Alsatian village that didn't have a preserved medieval heritage for tourism. It was a pretty town with a distinctive Alsatian character but with modern homes and regular businesses that catered to locals. We parked on a small lot off the main road from where we could see people sitting at tables on the other side of a narrow chasm with a stream at the bottom. We found a footbridge over the chasm that led us to the park where the vendors were located. Like Riquewihr it was a buy-and-cook market and it seemed to be just as good as what we had found the previous night. The back-up plan wouldn't be necessary. The crowd here seemed to be even more local than in Riquewihr and many of them seemed to be familiar with each other. Grilling our own meat and washing it down with glasses of Alsatian wine was a blast. At one point we saw a very happy-looking lady using a walker who appeared to be on her own and looked to be at least eighty. She was searching for a place to sit and we jumped up to make room for her but someone else beat us to it. It was a very positive, communal atmosphere and once again I wished I lived in a place where communal dinners like this were the norm.

The next day we would be leaving Alsace and France on Bastille Day, the French national holiday equivalent to Independence Day in the United States. Missing Bastille Day was somewhat intentional on my part because I figured that the widespread closures of markets and restaurants would have a net negative impact on our traveling experience. My only regret was that we might miss some celebrations that would have been interesting to see and fun for the kids. As we ate I remembered how we had missed Luxembourg's National Day by arriving on the day itself rather than the night before when all the festivities had taken place. I began researching if there were any events on the eve of the holiday and found that they were distributed almost evenly between this evening and the next. As it turned out one of the most promising Bastille Day celebrations for this night would be in Kayserberg, the town we had just departed that was only ten minutes away. As soon as we were done eating I bundled everyone back into the car and we retraced our steps to Kayserberg. As we drove out of Orbey I saw the elderly lady from the evening market cheerfully making her way down the street with her walker. Sadly the car was fully packed or I would have offered her a lift, despite the risk that Mei Ling would have kidnapped her. As soon as we drew close to the center of Kayserberg I could see that the main road was completely lined with parked cars and that it would be pointless to try and find a spot in one of the tourist lots. As we passed the main lot we could see it had been converted to a festival ground with rides and attractions for children and pounding music. I pulled over quickly and let Mei Ling and the kids out before driving onward in search of a parking spot. I didn't find anything for another kilometer and eventually found something in front of a modern apartment complex. Praying I wasn't in a designated residential spot subject to ticketing or worse I made the long walk back to where I had dropped everyone off. I found the kids having a great time with fistfuls of tickets and some very unhealthy looking candy. Mei Ling had clearly taken full advantage of my absence. The kids spent some time with the bumper cars and the bungee trampoline but most of the rides were geared to even younger kids so once the first batch of tickets was used up they were ready to move on. We returned to the center and got an entirely different perspective of the beautiful town in the glow of sunset before I went to retrieve the car.

There were two Thursday markets in the old town of Colmar but as I expected they were nowhere to be found on the morning of Bastille Day. On the bright side we had the atmospheric streets of the old town almost completely to ourselves and we did find an excellent place for breakfast. After this we were headed straight for the German border so it would be our last experience of France for at least a few years. This had been our fourth time exploring France as a family and it was impossible to say which had been the best experience. All I knew for sure was that we would keep coming back to this incredible country again and again until I was no longer able to travel. Despite our repeated forays into France we still had left Brittany, Normandy, and much of the center unexplored. I imagine in four or five years we will remedy most of that deficit with a long summer road trip dedicated almost entirely to France. After that we'll be able to step back and decide what part of the country would be optimal for a second visit.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:01 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family alsace family_travel travel_blog eguisheim tony_friedman family_travel_blog kayserberg orbey Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Sélestat and Riquewihr

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Sélestat's weekly market was praised so highly online that I made it an anchor point of our itinerary in Alsace. It worked out perfectly that we were able to have breakfast at the Marché de Neudorf in Strasbourg before getting back on the road and arriving in Sélestat at about ten on Tuesday morning. The town is well regarded for its preserved medieval heritage in addition to the market so we allotted ourselves plenty of time to explore. Sélestat adhered strongly to the half-timbered aesthetic although there were some buildings where the familiar dark lattice appeared as though it might have been painted on the facade. The town was large enough that we had to wander around and even ask for directions a few times before we found the market on the opposite side of the ornate thirteenth century clocktower, a beloved landmark.

The market wasn't as large or awesome as the champion in Annecy but it certainly justified its important place in our itinerary. All the beloved French delicacies were present and there was a good selection of prepared food. Even though we had already eaten in Strasbourg we still found room for some more rotisserie and fruit. The high energy atmosphere along the beautiful main street of Rue President Poincare was exhilarating. Aside from the racks of modern clothing it felt like we could have enjoyed the same ambiance five hundred years earlier with the same array of colorful half-timbered houses lining the street on either side.

The Montagne des Singes is an animal park on a forested hilltop a short drive from Sélestat. The park is dedicated to the conservation of Barbary macaques which have become endangered in their native territory of the Atlas Mountains in Morocco and Algeria. We had seen Barbary macaques in Gibraltar eight years previously but of course the kids were too young to remember that. There were hundreds of macaques in the park and they were quite acclimated to humans so we could get quite close when they came to inspect us. They generally seemed more curious about the kids although I made sure there was still a respectable distance between us and the animals.

The fascinating thing about monkeys is how similar they are to us in their social behavior despite our obvious differences. The play with their young in more complex ways than other animals, they groom each other and show affection, they even argue. Watching monkeys interacting in a comfortable, semi-natural environment is almost like looking in a funhouse mirror.

From one spot in the park there was a clear view of our next destination, the hilltop castle of Haut-Kœnigsbourg.

Château du Haut-Koenigsbourg is an early twentieth century rebuild of a medieval castle that was burned to the ground during the Thirty Years' War. Ever since the painful tour of Burg Eltz our family approach to castles was to either admire them from afar or to check out the courtyard, but interior tours were a no go. This approach saved us plenty of time, money, and boredom. Once we found a parking spot near the castle we approached it from the wrong direction which resulted in a circuitous tour through the woods surrounding the perimeter before we found the entrance.

Although the castle is not regarded by historians as particularly authentic, our untrained eyes would never have distinguished it from a well-preserved medieval castle. It was built from the same local red sandstone we were familiar with from the cathedral of Mainz. Of course it wasn't possible to appreciate the castle's complex design or majestic presence atop the hill from the entrance or the courtyard. There's a reason why every photograph used to illustrate an article about the castle is taken from a drone. The closest we could get to that view was the bronze model within the courtyard. There was a pleasant view of patchwork Alsatian farmland from the cafe across the street from the castle.

We had been to two historically-preserved Alsatian villages near Strasbourg but the most renowned were between Sélestat and Colmar. The next on our itinerary was Ribeauvillé, a perfect little town adjacent to the foothills of the Vosges. The traditional houses seemed even more colorful and idyllic than the ones in Obernai. We went straight to a restaurant in the main square which featured a tall oblong tower called the Butchers’ Tower. Afterwards we stopped by a couple of market stalls in the square and bought some cheese and bread.

We walked the length of the Grand Rue through the center as far as the Place de la République at the western edge of town. From here we could see the vineyard-covered foothills and one of the three ruined castles that overlook the town. A walking trail leads up to the castles and probably would have been a fascinating hike if we had a week to spend in the area rather than just two days.

When I was doing my research on Alsatian villages before the trip one name that came up again and again as an unmissable destination was Riquewihr. Riquewihr was the first Alsatian town we had visited that still had a medieval town wall that was largely intact. As soon as we parked in the crowded lot outside the wall we could appreciate the colorful and verdant landscape that was the epitome of Alsatian beauty. The town was laid out like a small rectangular maze rather than a single long main street which made it more fun to explore. There were some busy areas and also some quiet little alleys where there were no other pedestrians. The one constant was that every single building and street was postcard perfect. Riquewihr was without doubt one of the most beautiful towns we had ever seen.

One of my favorite aspects of French culture is the summer evening markets that we originally discovered on our trip to the Dordogne. These are actually communal dinners rather than markets, somewhat similar to food truck gatherings in the United States except with better quality food and more elaborate dining areas. The Dordogne is the only region famous for evening markets but we found a good one in Bordeaux when we put the work into our research. I hoped we would be equally lucky in Alsace although I was largely dismissed when I inquired about them on travel forums. I was haughtily told not to expect disparate regions of France to have the same culture. I did have one promising lead for Tuesday evening in the village of Sainte Croix-au-Mines not far away, something called a buy and cook market the meaning of which was a little unclear. I didn't really expect to find it and figured we would go on and have dinner in a restaurant. Once we got back to the parking area in Riquewihr Mei Ling noticed there was an unusual rumble of voices coming from an area above us. We had parked at the base of the town wall and a staircase led upward to an upper level where we found exactly the kind of evening market I had imagined just getting rolling. It was also a buy and cook market, which meant that the main vendors were butchers selling raw meat to be cooked on communal barbecues. There was also a crepe maker, cheese and fruit vendors, and plenty of Alsatian wine. It wasn't the incredible spread of regional delicacies that we had enjoyed in the Dordogne but it was tremendous fun and best of all it was mainly locals and domestic French tourists with a smattering of expats thrown in, not a tourist scene at all. Mei Ling and I took turns grilling our sausages and brochettes and we stuffed ourselves at a communal table in the shade.

Before we left I made sure to inquire of the vendors where the evening market would be the following night. We drove onward through the beautiful Alsatian countryside to Colmar, watching the slowly setting sun light up the wheat fields in a pastiche of color.

Posted by zzlangerhans 18:58 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family alsace family_travel travel_blog riquewihr singes selestat tony_friedman family_travel_blog ribeauville haut-koenigsbourg Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Strasbourg

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Every time we enter some epic region of Western Europe for the first time I ask myself "How have we never made it here until now?" It seems like we've spent a good portion of our lives traveling in Europe. Then I remember how packed Europe is with diverse and unmissable places and how many of them we've already seen. In France we've done Paris, Provence, the Dordogne, Bordeaux, the Loire Valley, Bourgogne, and now we were entering Alsace. Even once this section was complete we still would have most of western and northern France to explore. Those last would have to wait for a later day. We had quite a substantial amount of ground to cover in Alsace over four days and our first stop was Strasbourg, the most significant French city we had never visited. Our Airbnb was another compromise, an apartment away from the center with air conditioning but no reserved parking, and of course it was cool enough not to need the air. Parking was obviously going to be an issue as well since cars had already packed into every available space including some that appeared to be illegal. Eventually I left Mei Ling and the kids in the car and schlepped all the bags into the apartment before immediately setting back out for dinner.

The old town of Strasbourg is located on Grande Île, a large oval island formed by the River Ill and the Canal du Faux-Rempart, a former arm of the river that was enlarged and provided with a single lock. I picked out a restaurant in the old town and we found a questionable parking space at the edge of an outdoor lot at the western end of the island. I ignored the loiterer who wanted to be paid to watch my car and we set off into the old town. We were immediately captivated by the warren of small cobblestone streets where it seemed like every building was a half-timbered beauty. Their facades were illuminated by the glowing signs of countless restaurants where diners packed the tables that spilled out into the streets. When we arrived at L'Oignon I expected to be turned away but they showed us to a long wooden table in the back that was miraculously available. The traditional Alsatian cuisine was excellent, a testimony to the utility of the review sites which had anointed the restaurant one of the best in Grande Île. After dinner we explored the small area of Petite France where three short canals are crisscrossed by bridges. The lights from the windows of the houses and the restaurant lamps were reflected beautifully in the still waters of the canals. Strasbourg was every bit as picturesque as we had hoped.

Monday is not usually a great day for markets but I was hopeful that in a large city like Strasbourg we might find one large enough that we could self-cater a breakfast. My best lead was the Place de la Gare in front of the main train station, but when we arrived we found nothing. I had a back-up at Pont du Marché just north of Grande Île but the closest thing we found to a market there was a mall. No one inside knew of any market in the area. This was quite frustrating since we had been off to such a good start in Strasbourg the previous night but there was nothing to do but strike back out into the old town in search of breakfast. We crossed the short axis of the island and soon arrived at the city's premier sight, the Strasbourg Cathedral. This massive church was the world's tallest building from 1674 to 1874 and remains the tallest remnant of medieval architecture. The red sandstone structure looms dramatically over the cobblestone square that surrounds it, defying attempts to photograph it via its height and the lack of space around it.

Another of Strasbourg's iconic buildings, the Maison Kammerzell, occupies a corner of the square. This ornately dedicated medieval house currently hosts a restaurant on its ground floor that has a reputation as a mediocre tourist trap as well as a small hotel.

We escaped the crowds around the cathedral and walked a couple more blocks south to another beautiful square called Place du Marché-aux-Cochons-de-Lait. This square derived its lengthy name from the suckling pig market that used to operate here. It was surrounded by beautiful and historic buildings and almost completely devoid of pedestrians when we passed through.

While searching for a place for breakfast I thought I found an indoor farmer's market, but it turned out to be a gourmet food store called La Nouvelle Douane that was a collaboration of local producers. It was still an interesting place to browse and we purchased a few goodies for snacking on later in the day. Across the street we found some small cafes one of which was suitable for breakfast. Afterward we spent some more time wandering through the streets of Grande Île until we found ourselves back at Petite France, just as beautiful by the light of day as it had been the previous evening.

There were a couple of places I wanted to see in Strasbourg outside of the old town. The Parc de l'Orangerie was established at the beginning of the nineteenth century to replant orange trees that has been confiscated from aristocrats during the French Revolution. The park was subsequently enlarged and is currently more famous as a refuge for white storks, a symbol of Alsace that almost disappeared in the late twentieth century due to overdevelopment. The storks were apparent as soon as we arrived. They were standing guard atop enormous nests that they had built in the crests of trees that surrounded the park. Once inside we let the kids burn off some energy in a playground and then took a walk through the beautifully landscaped gardens.

Strasbourg is situated at the border of France and Germany, which is defined by the Rhine throughout Alsace. On the opposite side of the river is the small German town of Kehl which is connected to Strasbourg via the Pont de l’Europe. Adjacent to the rather plain bridge that carries automobiles is the beautiful double bow-string arch Beatus-Rhenanus bridge which accommodates a tram and pedestrians. I played my favorite joke of the trip again by crossing the bridge and telling everyone that we were no longer in France, forcing them to guess what country we were now in. Since we had just left Germany they got it quicker than when I had played the same trick in Trier and Maastricht.

One of the main attractions of Alsace is the plethora of colorful medieval villages that dot the countryside. Having our own vehicle meant that we could see as many as we wanted but there were far too many to consider visiting all of them. I had carefully chosen the ones that seemed to be most essential and mapped their locations in order to drive between them as efficiently as possible. I had two on my list within a short distance of Strasbourg which fit nicely into our window of available time that afternoon.

Obernai was slightly further away so we drove there first. It was a good place to begin our tour of Alsatian towns because it had a full complement of exquisite and colorful half-timbered houses that were mostly arranged along one long street. If we ventured down one of the side streets the atmosphere was still charming but the colorful pastel facades and brimming planters quickly disappeared. We had some difficulty locating a restaurant that was still open at two thirty in the afternoon but eventually located a place that provided us with a satisfying array of Alsatian specialties.

Molsheim was a bit of a disappointment after Obernai. It was quite hot in the mid-afternoon and the streets were almost empty. While I'm not partial to crowds of tourists it's nice to see some signs of natural life in a town and here there was very little activity. The highlight was the central square, called Place de l'Hôtel de Ville, with a central fountain and carousel. There was also a medieval tower called Tour de Forgerons which was once a gate within the town fortifications that have long since been dismantled. It only took about half an hour to breeze through the small town center and then we returned to Strasbourg.

This time we parked at a subterranean garage we had spotted right in the middle of Grande Île, close to the cathedral. Place Gutenberg had a carousel and a bungee trampoline so we let the kids have a few minutes of fun before searching for a restaurant. This time we explored an area behind the cathedral we had missed that morning. It was quieter and seemed residential but still had those amazing half-timbered houses that were somehow dilapidated and freshly-painted at the same time. We discovered a hidden square called La Place du Marché Gayot which was lined with outdoor restaurants. We chose the one that was named for the square and watched the kids play on an enormous cast iron boulder that had been installed on the cobblestones. Our meal was as good as the one at L'Oignon the previous night, which meant we had had much greater culinary success in Strasbourg than in the gastronomic meccas of Lyon and Dijon.

After dinner we crossed the Ill for a stroll through Quartier Krutenau, a lively area filled with informal restaurants and bars that is popular with students from the nearby University of Strasbourg. Finally we crossed back onto Grande Île one last time to retrieve the car, passing an idyllic little park called Place des Tripiers. Strasbourg proved to be everything we had hoped when we had planned the trip. When we eventually need to choose a location for our one month French immersion a few years in the future, Strasbourg will get strong consideration.

Parking was of course difficult to find once we returned to the Airbnb. I drove around a few blocks and eventually came across a spot that was just large enough to accommodate our car. With the cameras and sensors I figured we should be able to manage and eventually I wedged the car in with just a couple of inches to spare on either end. Mei Ling couldn't open the passenger door because it was blocked by a lamppost on the sidewalk. Once we had all managed to get out I saw the door was actually pressed against the post. How does that happen when the car is parked on the street? I thought perhaps that we had escaped without damage but on closer inspection I could see the post was slightly indenting the metal of the door. We were now seeing the downside of booking an Airbnb without its own parking.

In the morning we were looking to recover from the pain of our fruitless search for a market on Monday. Although Strasbourg surprisingly has no daily covered market there is one in the Neudorf neighborhood that is open on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Once I gingerly eased the car out of its tight spot I saw the clear dent the lamppost had left. It was nothing terrible but it was definitely noticeable and I knew it would be an annoying issue once we returned the car. It was frustrating to have driven so far over a month without a scratch just to get a dent in the last week of the trip, but I refused to dwell on it. It wasn't until I put our destination into the GPS that I realized the market was just over a block away. Our Airbnb was in Neudorf as well. The market hall wasn't as large or atmospheric as some we had seen on the first French leg of this trip but there were plenty of real farmers inside as well as artisan butchers and other merchants of gourmet products. Best of all there was a rotisserie guy at the front who provided us with the foundation for a solid early meal. Since it wasn't a tourist market at all there was no bistro or tables but we found a park bench on which to enjoy our breakfast.

We were leaving Strasbourg on a high note but there was no time to waste. Our next stop would be Alsace's most celebrated Tuesday market and from there we had a full agenda of amazing sights before we were to arrive at our next overnight destination.

Posted by zzlangerhans 13:40 Archived in France Tagged road_trip family orangerie alsace family_travel travel_blog obernai tony_friedman family_travel_blog molsheim krutenau Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Heidelberg

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Our apartment in Zornheim had seemed like a drab basement when we had arrived after dark but daybreak brought substantial improvement. It was our first Airbnb that provided breakfast which was welcome as there wouldn't be any markets on Sunday. It was just bagels, jam, and cereal but it saved us the trouble of a stop. We also realized that what seemed to be a basement from the front was garden level at the back and we had a very pleasant view over a patchwork of fields in the surrounding countryside. Our hosts had taken a great deal of care in making their garden a pleasant spot to enjoy the morning sunlight and we could hear them upstairs enjoying breakfast on the rear balcony.

I included Heidelberg in our itinerary because I had been there almost thirty years previously on my spin through Germany after completing medical school. The visiting student from Germany I had befriended at medical school wasn't there at the time but I was hosted by two close friends of hers who were medical students at the University of Heidelberg. My memories of the visit are a little blurry but I have fond recollections of downing one silty hefeweizen after another on a bar crawl in an old town that seemed alive with energy, all beneath the glow from a beautiful castle above us.

The main road into Heidelberg passes along the southern bank of the Neckar, a long tributary of the Rhine. Soon after we turned inland onto Hauptstrasse to look for a garage in the old town I came across an unexpected parking spot. We walked the rest of the way to the center of the old town past a series of attractive cobblestone plazas underneath the majestic ruins of Heidelberg Castle on the hill behind the city.

By the time we arrived at the red sandstone Church of the Holy Spirit in the Marktplatz the streets were busier with tourists. Despite its small size Heidelberg is one of the most visited cities in Germany, thanks to its preserved architecture and romantic literary history.

One of the most enjoyable features of Heidelberg was its variety of beautiful and elegant Baroque and Renaissance architecture. It was a sharp contrast to the medieval and half-timbered style of the Rhine cities which we had enjoyed but were starting to tire of a little. Many of the buildings in Heidelberg were more reminiscent of Florence or Paris than they were of other cities in Germany.

We continued on Hauptstrasse for a few more blocks but the atmosphere grew very commercial and we became surrounded by midrange clothing stores and fast food outlets. We doubled back toward the university but I was unable to find anything resembling the warren of small streets I had wandered on my first visit. Perhaps I had romanticized my memory of the city, or perhaps the area looked entirely different on a Sunday morning versus a Saturday night. There was certainly plenty of broken glass and other detritus lying about the street suggesting a raucous party scene the night before. We headed back through the center to the eighteenth century Karl Theodor Bridge, known affectionately as the Old Bridge. The entrance to the pedestrian bridge is marked by the Stadttor, a red sandstone gate flanked by white towers that was once part of the city fortifications. From the bridge we had an even better view of the castle perched above the town.

The opposite bank of the Neckar was much quieter but had its share of interesting sights. Adjacent to the bridge is the Liebesstein, a sandstone block with a central hole through which one can view the castle and the old town. The outer surface of the sculpture is festooned with love locks that have completely obscured the metal bars they are attached to. Lack of space has not dissuaded lovers seeking to formalize their attachment as they now simply attach their locks to the ones already in place.

Close to the bridge is the Snake Path, a winding footpath that leads uphill to the famous Philosopher's Way. I was tempted but we were on a tight schedule if we wanted to make our next stop. Instead we walked back east along the Neckar enjoying the impressive classical buildings on the northern bank and the views of the old town across the river.

The true jewel of Heidelberg was the castle. Ruined as it was, it was a magnificent sight amidst the dense trees of the hillside. This was one of the greatest castles of Germany before it was destroyed in a fire cause by a lightning strike in the eighteenth century. Only one building of the castle has been restored and the rest has been preserved in the same state it was in after the fire. If I had been on my own I would have taken the funicular up to the ruins but everyone else was done with castles for the time being and I did want the kids to have a decent amount of time to enjoy our next stop.

We crossed bank to the south bank via another bridge that doubled as a dam. Our final stop before returning to the car was Karlstor, a triumphal arch erected in the eighteenth century to honor Karl Theodor, the leader of the Palatinate-Bavaria state to which Heidelberg belonged at the time. The monument looked practically new after having been renovated thirty years earlier.

Dynamikum is a children's science museum in the city of Pirmasens. close to the French border. It wasn't as large as Technopolis in Belgium but there were plenty of interactive exhibits to keep the kids occupied for a couple of hours. The biggest hit were a couple of metal slides between the two floors, one gentle and the other much steeper. It was hilarious watching the kids work up the courage to go down the steep slide from oldest to youngest. I finally had to go up to help Spenser and I could see why they were frightened. From the top it looked like a sheer drop. I had to force myself not to hesitate or I might have chickened out myself.

Aside from Dynamikum Pirmasens doesn't have much of interest to travelers. It's a modern residential town that was historically best know for shoemaking. We were in need of food and my research brought me to a brewhouse in the center where we enjoyed one last traditional German repast of bratwurst and weisswurst before our return to France. We ate n a breezy balcony overlooking the town's rather bland central square.

From Pirmasens we had an hour and a half drive along one lane country roads through the North Vosges forest to Strasbourg. It was a scenic but unremarkable drive except for one small town with a surprising and memorable name. It was the most irresistible opportunity to pose with a signpost since we'd been to Fucking, Austria six years previously. We were immediately feeling the euphoria of being back in France and drove on towards Strasbourg with a renewed sense of anticipation.

Posted by zzlangerhans 15:33 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family family_travel travel_blog pirmasens tony_friedman family_travel_blog zornheim Comments (0)

From the Rhône to the Rhine: Upper Middle Rhine

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I had to do a good deal of research before I was confident that I had identified the best towns to stop at along the Rhine between Koblenz and Mainz. To visit all the ones mentioned glowingly in guidebooks and blogs would have taken a week and we had just one day for this legendary stretch of the river. It was already afternoon when we left Koblenz and it only took us half an hour to reach Sankt Goar. This small medieval village is best known for the partially ruined hilltop Burg Rheinfels, a Rhine landmark. Across the river is an even tinier village called Sankt Goarshausen with its own castle. Burg Katz is a late nineteenth century rebuild and private property so it doesn't enjoy the same cachet as other Rhine castles but it was a beautiful and romantic feature of the landscape.

The old part of town was comprised of just three streets parallel to the river and the short lanes that connected them. As was typical of the small towns it was a fairly busy place in the midday but I imagined it would become nearly deserted by dinner after the daytrippers and cruisers had moved on. The most memorable building within the town was the Late Gothic pink and white Stiftskirche whose steeple dominates the town skyline.

It only took us another half hour to walk every block of the town. The side streets were more interesting than the main pedestrian drag which was clogged with souvenir stores. We almost missed one house that was painted black and festooned with ghoulish decorations, some of which were embedded in the facade. The word "Underwelt", meaning underworld, was emblazoned over the entrance but the door was locked. We never found out if it was some kind of museum or a store specializing in the occult. Mei Ling and I were skipping lunch after the huge breakfast in Koblenz so we just bought the kids some snacks in a cafe. The restroom was festooned with comic posters of various people engaging with the facilities.

We only had to drive fifteen minutes further upriver to reach Bacharach. Along the way we passed the landmark Ochsenturm defensive tower in Oberwesel but gave the town itself a miss.

Despite its size Bacharach felt like a more important town with elaborately decorated half-timbered houses and wider cobblestone streets. The town was notable in medieval times as the location where wine barrels were transferred to larger ships from the smaller boats that were needed to cross a shallow point in the river.

What made Bacharach truly beautiful and unique were the preserved pieces of its history that stood at various points of the surrounding hillside. The first of these was the Postenturm, a remnant of the medieval city fortifications that has been rebuilt as an observation tower. The tower stands on a steep hillside surrounded by vineyards and wild blackberry bushes. From its uppermost level we could see Bacharach's own pink and white church, Peterskirche, in the center of town with the curving Rhine as a backdrop. Above the main town were the ruins of a Gothic chapel and at the very top of the hill was another reconstructed castle. We had seen many beautiful views of the Rhine from Schloss Drachenburg onward but this one stands out to me as the most memorable and inspiring.

Once we had seen the chapel from the Postenturm we were determined to see it up close. We returned to the town and found a walkway from the upper level of Peterskirche to a steep staircase. At the top of the stairs was a platform on which stood the ruins of a medieval sandstone chapel that had been destroyed in some long-forgotten regional war. The ruins contained several open grassy areas where it appeared a classical music performance had just concluded. Another staircase led upward from here and this turned into a series of dirt switchbacks that ascended the hill. We weren't sure where this would lead us and almost turned back but some people coming the other way assured us that it wouldn't be long before we reached the castle at the top of the hill.

The original castle above Bacharach was blown up by the French at the end of the seventeenth century. It remained a ruin for more than two hundred years before being reconstructed as a youth hostel in the early twentieth century, a function that it still maintains. The inner courtyard captured the traditional look of a Rhenish castle although the stone walls and flagstone floor showed clear signs of more modern construction. There was a snack bar where we bought some beer and ice cream before retiring to the upper level to gaze out over the Rhine.

We returned the way we had come until eventually we found ourselves back at the staircase leading down to the church. Many of the people we had passed on the way up to the castle had collected here and I realized they were all middle aged men, similarly dressed in black shirts and khaki shorts with yarmulkes. They were gathering around a photographic exhibit behind the church and then suddenly broke into song which sounded like a hymn. They may have been commemorating the lives that were lost during a pogrom against local Jewish communities in medieval times. We never did figure it out exactly but it was a very moving moment.

At this point we figured we would meet our Airbnb host in Zornheim, since he seemed eager for us to arrive early, but when he took a while to respond to our message we continued onward to Mainz. I had originally hoped to fit this city into our itinerary in such a way that we could have been there for the famed Saturday weekly market in the main square. Eventually I had to scrap this idea as it would have cut too deeply into our sightseeing plans for the Middle Rhine Valley. I was glad I'd made that decision as we had been to so many markets at this point that it was hard to see how one more could have made much difference. Mainz is the capital city and the largest city in the state of Rhineland-Palatinate, about double the size of Koblenz. We only had about an hour to whirl through the highlights of the town center before meeting our Airbnb host. Mainz was not shy about revealing its riches. The thousand year old Romanesque cathedral that dominates Markt, the main square of the old town, is a magnificent construction of reddish sandstone, quite distinct from the other massive cathedrals and churches we had seen on this trip. This same reddish color characterized many of the other buildings on the square similarly to the way that golden brown sandstone was used in Metz. The rows of beautifully decorated facades around Markt rivaled anything we had seen in Trier or Bruges.

The Altstadt of Mainz felt like the best of both worlds. It had all the beauty of small towns like Cochem and Bacharach with the energy and authenticity of a large city. This city had a purpose that was much greater than catering to the relatively small number of tourists that found their way there. It was a truly fascinating place to explore and I regretted that we had not made it an overnight stop.

Driving inland from Mainz was a reminder that we had not in fact traveled centuries backward in time during our exploration of medieval riverside towns. The atmosphere of the hinterland was utilitarian, suburban, and depressingly modern. Our Airbnb was set apart from the more populated zones in an area dominated by low hills and wheat fields. We met our host who got us settled in our lower level apartment and then turned our thoughts to dinner. I considered returning to Mainz where there had been numerous tempting restaurants with outdoor seating but I also thought it would be a good idea to get a city on the next day's itinerary out of the way to have more time in Heidelberg. It was a forty minute drive to Worms but it was still early so we chose that option. The kids thought I was joking when I told them we were going to a city called Worms, and even more so when I told them the most famous thing about the city was the Diet of Worms. By the end of the drive I had them half-convinced that all the restaurants in town served various preparations of worms and there wouldn't be much else to choose from. Honestly, it probably wouldn't have been the most bizarre culinary ingredient I've thrust upon them. We parked close by the Cathedral of St. Peter in the center of the city. This twelfth century Romanesque cathedral is mainly distinguished by four belltowers at each corner of the structure.

I had hoped the surrounding area would be similar to the Altstadt of Mainz but instead it was surprisingly drab and deserted. The older houses were rather plain and they were overshadowed by modern commercial buildings. There were few restaurants around but I believe we found the best option, a grill that offered local specialties of Flammkuchen and enormous brochettes that were hung from a ring above the table. I'm not partial to the German rendition of pizza but the meat was well-received. Afterwards we got the kids ice cream at a small cafe with the cathedral as a backdrop.

Worms was quite disappointing in comparison to Mainz. The downtown had no atmosphere at all even though it was a Saturday evening. Determined to make the most of our short visit I drove to the Luther Monument in a small park just west of the center. Bronze statues of Martin Luther and several of his contemporaries commemorate the founder of Protestantism. With this I was satisfied that I had justified the long drive to Worms as much as possible and we returned to our Airbnb in Zornheim for the night.

Posted by zzlangerhans 04:35 Archived in Germany Tagged road_trip family worms mainz family_travel travel_blog bacharach pirmasens sankt_goar tony_friedman family_travel_blog Comments (0)

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