A Travellerspoint blog

Welcome to Prague!

And a really warm welcome it was.

sunny 4 °C
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Hello all,

We arrived in Prague yesterday. We are staying in an apartment arranged by a local guesthouse/bed and breakfast called Lida (owned by two brothers, Jan and Jiri, who have been very helpful in our planning for our visit to Prague). We arranged for Jiri to pick us up at the train station and he was right there when we got off the train. Jiri has been extremely helpful in showing us how to get around, where good local restaurants and grocery stores are, etc. We are having breakfast at the guesthouse and using their computer (so we need to keep this short!). Breakfast was delicious. We are now trying to figure out how we are going to see and do all that we want to-- and get our laundry done tomorrow (oh, the laundry has been a problem! I won't bore you with the details!). We are not sure when we will be able to post photos again, but we'll see what we can do.

It's very busy at Lida, and in the area, since the Germans are on holiday and there is an exhibition NHL game (games?) going on this weekend. When we first saw the signs announcing a game between New York and Tampa Bay, we excitedly thought we might see an NFL game. But, alas, it was just hockey. Probably better that way. I don't really want to be reminded of what's going on with the Patriots!

We'll up-date again soon, at least with words. Maybe we'll share with you the family travel opera that we started to put together yesterday, which includes a lament, "Why Am I Not Traveling with Grandma?" Guess who sings that?????!!!!! John will declare his love of castles. And Joe will sing the last song of the first act, "It's All Part of the Adventure!" The refrain that has become the theme of our trip.

Hope all is well with you!

Na Shledanou!
Susan

Posted by jrreisert 00:08 Archived in Czech Republic Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Happy German Reunification Day!

Delightful Dresden

overcast 12 °C
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Hello friends,

Happy German Reunification Day!

We have had a great two days exploring Dresden, including today which is German Reunification Day.

We weren't sure what to expect in Dresden. In our planning, Dresden seemed a good place to go as we moved from the Middle Rhine to Prague, but our guidebook "friend," Rick Steves doesn't pay much attention to Dresden. He advises an afternoon, maybe an overnight. (For the record, we saw none of the Rick blue books during our time here). And we had booked three nights and two full days.

Well, Dresden has been a wonderfully pleasant surprise. Here's a shot of the old Schloss, substantially reconstructed since reunification — and indeed, still under major reconstruction work:

Schloss_Dresden.jpg

The museums and sights (except for one; see below) have been great. The transit system is sophisticated and easy to use. And the people (most of them) have been friendly and helpful. Despite the fact that Dresdeners seem utterly perplexed by an American family exploring their city, they have been very nice, although many do not speak much English. In fact, several have asked if we are British! We have been getting by pretty well with Joseph's grad school German, lots of smiling, and interesting hand motions. We trust that we haven't offended anyone!

For a small city that was fire-bombed in 1945 and part of East Germany, Dresden has a lot of interesting things to see. The museum complex, several different kinds of museums in an enormous building, has a lot to offer. The "Old Masters" part has a couple of Vermeers, a few Rembrandts, and that wretched Raffael with those two angels at the bottom.

Yesterday, we headed first for the "Historic Green Vault." The Vault is a popular tourist destination, holding most of the precious treasures gathered by Augustus the Strong in the 1700s, and his descendants. Tickets must be booked months in advance, although 200 tickets are held each day for those who wait in line. We managed to get tickets, after waiting in line for about thirty minutes.

Before visiting the "Historic Green Vault," we visited the "New Green Vault"-- more priceless treasures, just not as priceless as the "Historic" ones. We all came to some consensus that the "new" part was better than the "historic" part. The HGV provides an audioguide that seems to want to tell you how to think and feel about the display-- this part is "overwhelming," that part is "sumptuous," etc. It got annoying after awhile.

After that, it was off to the Zwinger, where the kids particularly enjoyed the exhibit of ancient weaponry. Here they are enjoying the fun of jousting, without the unpleasantness of getting skewered in a high-speed collision):

Jousting.jpg

Here's another shot of Susan standing outside the Zwinger:

Queen_Mom___subjects.jpg

Today, we woke up to German Reunification Day. I had stumbled upon this fact in our planning, but, again, we didn't really know what to expect. Well, about every business (except restaurants) closes down for the day. Museums were open, so we took advantage of that. We also climbed a tower, visited the old fortifications, and stood in line to see the recently rebuilt and reopened Frauenkirche. The Frauenkirche initially survived the firebombing of 1945, only to collapse two days later. For years, the rubble stood as a reminder of the war. In the 1990s a group decided to try to rebuild. The money was raised and the church, a Lutheran church, was rebuilt (between 1992 and 2005) using the relatively few stones that had survived the firebombing (you can clearly see some of the stones are different than the others).

Here's a shot of Susan with her "idol" Martin Luther, with the Frauenkirche in the background:

Mom___Martin_Luther.jpg

After visiting the church, we decided to indulge Joseph in one of his requests-- to visit "The Blue Wonder." It's a bridge that was a marvel when it was built and opened (a long time ago) and, for some unexplained reason, painted "blue." Well, the bridge isn't much a marvel anymore. And, though it claims to be "blue," it really isn't. It looks like a plain greenish bridge. Just like in Maine!!!

Blue_Wonder.jpg

[For the record, we had an unlimited travel card anyway, and there's a tram line that goes right there. It was an excuse to take a ride through a part of Dresden that we might not otherwise have seen -- and there are, indeed, parts that have not recovered either from the Allies or from the Communists. Still, I agree that the bridge could have been bluer. — ed.]

But, and we'll give some points to Joseph, on the way back we somehow found our way into a street fair. We are assuming that it was linked to German Reunification Day. Although Margaret was very doubtful about spending any time there, we convinced her to give it a try. Here she is, warming up to her surroundings:

Beer_Garden.jpg

For the record, the off-brand Sprite Margaret is drinking here cost as much as the beers did (2.50 Euros). We also had to pay a 2 Euro deposit on each of the plastic cups we were using — we think, probably to limit the mess, though we're not sure. Also, since Joseph didn't know the word for "deposit," it took him quite a while to figure out why he had to pay extra to get the first drinks!

At the fair, we found some good food (bread with cheese and other stuff on it; pasta; sausage on a bun; sausage in a spicy sauce), some okay beer, a nice man who helped us find some forks, and "good" music — how else would you celebrate German Reunification Day, but with hits from the late 80s?? For dessert, we sprung for some crepes with Nutella. A great way to wrap up a great day!

Now, it's time to pack. We're off to Prague tomorrow!

Auf Wiedersehen!

Susan

Posted by jrreisert 12:28 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Two More Castles, Two Long Train Rides, and Dresden

Our travel mojo is back!

sunny 13 °C
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Dear Friends,

We have arrived in Dresden!

We had a great time exploring the Rhine, although it was a little disconcerting to be so isolated from the outside world (no internet access). I’m not sure which I missed more: internet or washing machine. It was not easy trying to keep up, at least to some extent, with laundry when we didn’t have a washing machine. And, our clothing was getting quite dirty as we explored castle after castle, sometimes walking for a very long time in the woods.

But, we had a delightful time. On Tuesday, despite the drizzle, we explored two castles. First, we explored Rheinstein Castle, two train stops from our sleepy little German town plus a rather long walk along the bike path that runs along the bank of the Rhine.

We were practically the only ones there. The castle is quite high up, built into a cliff overlooking the Rhine. The kids, of course, liked getting as high up as possible. I, on the other hand, spent most of my time not quite so high up in the tower, yelling at John and his father to be careful.

Burg_Rheinstein.jpg

After exploring the castle, we found a great wooded path to another castle not far away (about a mile). Germany has an excellent network of hiking trails, which are generally well marked. Here's Joe consulting the map.

Map.jpg

Margaret was eager to climb the steep path and walk the lonely wooded trail from Rheinstein Castle to Reichenstein Castle—NOT! Oh, how that girl can complain. We’ve had to exact penalties. She gets three “free” complaints per adventure. After that, we deduct from her pocket money. So far, the system has worked pretty well, although we may have to penalize for moaning as well (not to mention making excessively dramatic facial expressions of misery). Margaret misses the posh, posh traveling life of the QM2. But, we also can’t wait to hear how Margaret tells these stories when we get home. We are absolutely, positively sure that she will claim that it was HER idea to climb to the top of the ridge to travel the path in the woods from one castle to another.

Reichenstein Castle was fascinating. There is a hotel there and a restaurant and, then, in the main part of the castle, there is a “museum.” It really isn’t much of a museum. It is more a display of castle stuff, including lots and lots and lots of tiny antlers belonging to some poor, small animal that people in castles seem to like to hunt. Could there really be a jackalope? Anyway, it was possible to get pretty high up into one of the towers and that was cool. Here's Margaret displaying one of her rare smiles:

Burg_Reichenstein.jpg

Although Joseph started to show signs of going “castle crazy” (he wanted to squeeze in yet one more castle that day), the kids and I resisted and demanded to go back to Bacharach. [I'm sure I could have hiked the 14 km from Burg Reichenstein to Bacharach — I don't know why they were complaining! — ed.] When we got back, Joe worked on his column. The kids played. And I fell asleep at the kitchen table. [I wish I had taken a picture — ed.]

When I woke up, the kids and I gathered supplies at the food store. Then, it was off to sample some of the local wine. We had been looking at grapes far too long not to try a full sampling. We headed down the street and tried a wine “carousel.” We tried six wines, from slightly sweet to very sweet. Very delicious. Can’t wait to host a reisling party when we get home!!!

We also sampled some local sausage. Even John tried some.

Then, it was off to have some real dinner at the flat and then lots and lots of packing.

In all of our exploring of castles, John developed a rating scale. Castles in some state of ruin scored higher. John really doesn’t like any castles (or any tourist attraction) that requires a guided tour. His favorite castle was Rheinfels. His least favorite, Burg Eltz (sorry, Rick Steves).

Here are Margaret’s thoughts on Burg Eltz: “At Eltz Castle you get a good view on why being in the middle of the forest is a good thing. [Burg Eltz is indeed in the middle of the forest; we walked 90 minutes from the nearest train station.] First of all, you barely get attacked, Napoleon can’t get his lazy bum out of his chair and go attack you and you get scenic scenery. The hike to Burg Eltz is a long one, but it’s worth it. You get scenic views of the overlooking forest. The inside is very beautiful and old.”

So, now we are in Dresden. We are staying in a very nice hotel, with adjoining rooms, attached to the Dresden World Trade Center and a small mall! We have great internet access, but alas, still no washing machine (no laundry room for guests; we can send out, but the hotel charges by the “piece”!). As has become our mantra in all such things: It’s all part of the adventure!

We ate last night at a Saxon/Bohemian restaurant in a restored cellar in an old market. It may have been a Dresden version of an Applebee’s. Joe, Margaret and John all had some form of schnitzel. I had chicken wrapped in bacon, because, well, shouldn’t everything be wrapped in bacon (or, breaded and fried)?? Yes, it’s all part of the adventure!

We hope all is well where you are.

Auf Wiedersehn!
Susan

Posted by jrreisert 22:35 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Welcome to Germany

Great apartment... but no internet! (New pictures added)

semi-overcast 17 °C
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We arrived successfully in Bacharach, Germany on Friday -- after making no fewer than three train connections (Haarlem to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Dusseldorf, Dusseldorf to Bingen, Bingen to Bacharach). We're now beginning to feel pretty good about our ability to manage the train network here.

Bacharach is a picture-postcard medieval town on the Rhine, not far upstream from the famous (albeit somewhat disappointing to look at) Lorelei stone. Upon our arrival here on Friday, we went to the small market here, bought some provisions for breakfasts and lunches, and some frozen pizzas for Friday's dinner, and then took a look at this town. We did the Rick Steeves self-guided walk, and have since then seen at least three other groups of American tourists doing the same thing! We've taken to counting the number of blue-covered guidebooks we see on each outing.

The apartment is great -- kitchen, full bath, a proper bedroom for us and two twin pull-outs in the living room for the kids. It seems to have recently been renovated and is well-laid out. There is even a tv with cable (on which we've seen the international version of CNN). Except that it has no internet and no washing machine. We've had a lot of success doing laundry in the sink, but the lack of internet has been a real pain (about which more later). We've also struggled a bit with the language. Our landlady, with whom Susan made the reservations and who speaks English, has been away -- at a family funeral, as I learned today -- and we've been communicating with her husband who speaks slightly less English than I do German. But he's been as helpful as possible, under the circumstances, and we're managing pretty well.

On Saturday, we took the Rhine boat cruise from here to St. Goar where we visited an amazing catle ruin (Rheinfels).

Here's a sample of what we saw from the boat:

Fairy_tale_Rhine.jpg

The ruin was everything John wants in a castle -- walls, towers, lots of emplacements for shooting arrows, dangerous precipices, and dark tunnels! We had not planned ahead to bring a proper flashlight (though, naturally, we have one in the flat) so we used Susan's tiny emergency light, which got us through and made it more of an adventure.

Here's a shot of John and Margaret standing among their favorite ruins:

Burg_Rheinfels.jpg

There was also an excellent children's activity, but it existed only in German. My German was not quite good enough to read the whole children's story that came with it, but the activity was to look throughout the castle for some hidden letters (the rooms where we were to look were marked with a little shield with a rampant lion). We found all of the letters, except for those that were in the great cellar, which was blocked off for a private event. When rearranged, the letters spelled out the name of the family that built the castle: Katzelnbogen. Anyway, the kids loved it.

The day ended with a wonderful meal in Das Altes Haus, a restarurant here in Bacharach in the oldest building in town (1536, I think). Turns out that John loved his schnitzel! Who would have guessed? We, on the other hand, are discovering a taste for Rhenish wine.

Sunday was more adventurous still. We took the train to Koblenz, then to the small town of Moselkern. Thanks to a friendly local at the train station and a bit of half-remembered German, we figured out that we could get a family ticket to visit the Rhein-Pfalz area and saved a bundle. After the train ride, we walked about a half hour through town then about an hour through the woods to Burg Eltz, which Rick Steeves claims in his guidebook is his favorite castle in Europe. As you can see, the hike was tiring:

tired_out.jpg

It is certainly very impressive, and it is definitely refreshing to see a castle here that was not destroyed by the French (anything Louis XIV didn't destroy, Napoleon pretty much did). John was very disappointed to find a castle not in ruins. Here's a picture of Susan and Me with the castle in the background:

Burg_Eltz.jpg

Dinner, however, posed a problem. We had not found a place to buy any food in St. Goar on Saturday, and all the stores would be closed in Bacharach when we returned, and we knew that the kids could not stay out for another late night. So we took the desperate measure of eating at McDonalds in the Koblenz train station -- buying the food was one of the few transactions we undertook entirely in German thus far. Good thing I took a couple of semesters of German in grad school. Too bad I didn't do more. (Having failed to bring a phrase book here, I ended up buying a German to English phrase book in a German bookstore in Koblenz, and it has been surprisingly helpful).

Today, however, we seem to have lost our German mojo a little bit. We contine having trouble getting the local cash machines to give us cash, and no one around here takes credit cards. They all seem to be on a new debit-card system using cards with built in chips like the Colby cards, but our cards are not useful except in the biggest places. We had hoped to rent bikes, but that place was closed today. So we had the kids spend the morning doing schoolwork (spelling and fractions for John, history and math for Margaret) and writing in their journals. After fighting over the journal writing, we have taken to paying them: John gets 1 Euro for 50 words, Margaret gets 1 Euro for 100 words (bonus Euros for lots more writing). Now that they have their own pocket-money, it is much easier for us to say no to impulse-purchases in gift shops, and since it is their money, they are being very careful with it!

In the early afternoon, we took a lovely hike around the old city walls and are contemplating some more serious hikes for tomorrow, or a bike trip if we can get bikes tomorrow.

We expect better access in Dresden. At the moment, I am writing in a church youth center basement with German rap music playing loudly in the background, and am surrounded by German teenagers. It has a certain ambience, but it's not quite like working at home! Especially since the German keyboard switches the keys for y and z and has a host of other minor, irritating differences. Where is a Starbucks with a wi-fi hotspot when you need one?

cheers,
Joe

Posted by jrreisert 07:25 Archived in Germany Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

Haarlem

Amsterdam, check. Time to move on!

sunny 19 °C
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Dear Friends,

Yesterday, we decided to spend the day in Haarlem, the little town near Amsterdam where we are staying. We had done about as much as we wanted to in Amsterdam (we'll try to say more about day 2 in Amsterdam later).

I was a bit skeptical about spending the entire day in our sleepy little town, but we ended up having a really lovely and educational day.

We should also say that blog comment from Sander was spot on: the bicyclists in Haarlem were much more pedestrian-friendly than those in Amsterdam (though it may also have helped that, by our third day here, we are beginning to develop a kind of "bicycle sense" that enables us better to anticipate where the bikes are going).

We began the day with a few lessons. The kids hadn't done much school work since we arrived in the Netherlands. Doing lessons in the morning was a good thing, since things don't open up around here until 10:00, at the earliest.

Our first stop on our Haarlem tour was the central church. it's a Dutch Reformer church, which meant that it took a beating during the Reformation, with the Protestants stripping it down. It was still beautiful, though. Some lovely windows. The floor is made up entirely of tombstones. The best part is the organ — remarkable, huge organ pipes that dominate one end of the church. Both Mozart and Handel played the organ at this church. The organ is pictured, here:

Church_Organ.jpg

John, it turns out, has at least one strongly Catholic inclination — despite his Protestant mother's best efforts: he insists on lighting a candle in every cathedral we visit. We've allowed him to do this (and yes, we come up with the Euro or whatever offering is required) but on the condition that he say a prayer. As you can see, he is very serious about it:

candle.jpg

After the church, we wandered down to the local canal and enjoyed a picnic lunch. After lunch, we went to the Frans Hals Museum, which is housed in a building that was used both as an old men's home and as an orphanage. We liked this museum a lot. They had a good kids activity that could be used by children who don't read or speak Dutch: there were a series of fifteen pictures of faces on a sheet of paper, and the kids had to identify the rooms in which the paintings were hung — which inspired them to look closely at all the paintings with human figures in them. (On the other hand, they breezed past the still lifes and landscapes — oh, well). The museum overall presented a nice display (with a lot of English signs) of a great period of artistic awakening in Haarlem.

Our art senses on overload, we headed next to the local windmill museum. Here's a picture of the mill — a traditional-looking Dutch windmill, though it was actually reconstructed only a few years ago.

Windmill.jpg

We were not sure what to expect. We found that the entry fee bought us some quality time with a tour guide (and a couple of tourists from Texas), who explained the windmill in great detail. Since Margaret's class back at home is studying energy in science, this was a great stop. We learned more than we ever thought we could know about windmills. The tour guide was a completely charming man, who had a good command of English and also allowed the children to participate in demonstrations of how the windmill works. They even got to use the winch the miller would have used for hoisting grain up to the mill to lift their father a few feet off the floor — a highlight for both kids.

Random fact: traditional Dutch windmills all spin counter-clockwise; modern wind turbines spin clockwise.

With all of this new knowledge, we stumbled back to the center of town and found a nice cafe with an outdoor table in the sun. The kids worked on journals, as they sipped hot chocolate. And, Joe and I enjoyed sampling some local Dutch beer, though we did not catch its name.

Here's a shot of the market in Haarlem and another of the Cathedral:

Grote_Markt.jpg

St_Bavo_Cathedral.jpg

We then went back to the room to rest a little and change our clothes. And, then, off to dinner — out and in a restaurant! We took Rick Steves' advice and ate at a place just around the corner from where we are staying — the Jacobus Pieck Eetlokal. Our waitress was a little rusty on her English (but it was still much better than our Dutch!), but was patient and helpful with us. She suggested a kids plate with some beef, frites and salad. Joseph ordered some Dutch stew and I ordered the white fish on raviolis. Everything was delicious.

Now, we're packing for our train trip to Bacharach — let's hope we have better luck with the trains today!

cheers,
Joe

Posted by jrreisert 22:21 Archived in Netherlands Tagged family_travel Comments (0)

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