Tuesday, 9 October 2007

This morning we packed up and crammed into the car to head south on the Romantic Road. Our duffels never seem to fit in the limited amount of space in the back of the Fiat, we really have to shove to make them stay. Somehow we always manage it, and with a bag of snacks at my feet and the kids’ backpacks handy we were ready to set off.

Clay has one regret about leaving this area of the country. He never figured out what something was, something we had passed on our drive into Rothenburg. We passed some fields which appeared to have large piles of smooth, round rocks in them. At first, I thought they were rocks that had been dug from the freshly tilled fields, but upon further inspection, and Clay’s insistence, we decided they were some sort of tuber. What sort of tuber, we weren’t sure. They were bigger than potatoes, but definitely came out of the ground so they weren’t a squash. Clay’s regret, we didn’t get a good picture.

We were hoping to hop on the Autobahn for a bit, then veer off and take the Romantic Road we’d read so much about the rest of the way to Hohenschwangau, our next destination, at the foot of Neuschwanstein Castle. This Romantic Road that we’ve heard is so clearly marked. Although we couldn’t miss it, we did, and ended up driving down a road that was slower than the Autobahn and not nearly as romantic as we’d hoped. When we finally found it in the middle of a big city, Clay said “unless you’re in love with fast food, this road is anything but”. The best thing we encountered along this little stretch of road was a “refreshingly different WC” (as a nearby sign stated). This was a very efficient bathroom, very German, smart. You paid .50 euro to use the bathroom, which was a .50 credit towards food upstairs. You entered by putting your .50 euro in a money slot, then receiving a ticket voucher and going through a turnstile. After flushing the toilet, the seat rotated entirely around in a circle, getting sprayed by some sort of cleaner as it spun, getting it all spic and span for the next customer. Quite impressive!

We followed the small brown signs that said “Romantische Strasse”, and eventually it became what we hoped it would, green pastures and cows with bells around their necks and mountains rising in the distance and forests with carpets of orange and red leaves. We passed through cute little town after cute little town. And, we even passed a tractor pulling a load of those mysterious tubers! I snapped a picture, and if anyone out there wants to chime in and tell us what in the world they are, Clay would be very happy.

“Final destination, 1 kilometer on your left,” said the computer lady. So I shut her down. Unfortunately we missed our destination while gaping at the Disney castle up the hill, otherwise known as Neuschwanstein, and drove around for another five minutes with my bursting bladder before we finally pulled in. Ahhhh.

Our hotel has no naked ladies or otherwise inappropriate pictures on the wall. It has little wood sculptures on the walls, faces carved into tree branches, and there’s a very pretty statue of Jesus with a baby pulling on his beard (I always like the artwork that shows Jesus looking like a real person). Although the lampshades remind me of the ones we had in my house growing up in the 80’s, the kids could care less about décor. There is room to spread out with newly acquired legos and Alayna’s bed is set apart from the boys and she immediately hid on the windowsill behind heavy drapes and read a book. I was overjoyed to find a cool fold-out laundry hanger on our private balcony, and we have a view of the famous castle. Tomorrow, we see it up close and personal.


Wednesday, 10 October 2007

This morning Clay declared that this day was someone’s favorite day. We puzzled over this newest riddle (Clay loves to stump us with these things) while we ate breakfast. I got it first. Today is 10/10. Tin Tin. Our kids are quite fond of the Belgian Tintin comic books, as well as Asterix. We saw plenty of them in England, but not so many these days.

After breakfast we got our tickets and headed up the mountains for a twenty minute hike to Neuschwanstein Castle. A little history, it was built by Mad King Ludwig who took seventeen years to build it but only lived in it for 172 days before he was declared “mad” and taken away from the castle. Two days later he was found dead at the bottom of a lake, along with his doctor. Mystery still shrouds his death, was he killed? Or was it suicide?

The hike up the hill was just beautiful. The leaves were all red and orange and yellow and green, and they had fallen to create these thick leaf carpets that we scuttled through. We hiked all by ourselves, the tourist season is slacking off and we were there early. The kids found walking sticks (a giant one for Clay that was taller than he was), took “short cuts” and slid down inclines on their bottoms. Once at the castle I was impressed by the efficiency. Our ticket gave us a time to be there, and at the castle were digital number displays that showed when your tour was ready to begin.

This castle is criticized because it isn’t really a castle. More like a palace that was built to look like a castle, it was never a real fortress that had to defend itself against an enemy like Burg Eltz or Rheinfels. Disney took one look at it and decided to copy it for their castle. It’s that castle-ish. And the me that loves children’s books and fairy tales and happy endings and sappy movies loved it. It looks down on this huge valley, a waterfall, and in the distance a bridge you can hike to that spans across a big gorge. Inside it’s extravagant, everything a castle in my writer’s mind should be.

Ludwig loved Wagner and he has scenes from his operas painted on many of the walls. In fact, the castle itself is copied from a set from one of the operas. Everything is over the top. Ludwig even had a realistic-looking cave built into the castle from one of the operas. What a nut, but it’s pretty cool and the kids loved trailing through it. Chandeliers shaped like crowns, hidden doors, and winding staircases abounded. There was a mosaic floor made from more than two and a half million tiles.

After hiking back down we ate a picnic lunch in the car outside a local “Spar” market, and then found ourselves a luge. (Nate keeps called it a “Louvre” and we keep telling him, no, that’s the place with all the artwork). There are some great luge slides in this part of the country, near ski runs that aren’t open in the summer. I guess this is how they can make some money. We each took three turns sliding down this great run that twisted itself down the mountain, and then the kids played around on a nearby playground. One of the things on the playground was a concrete enclosure with lots of little kiddie motorcycles on it. You could “feed” the motorcycle half a euro and it would turn on. They had little rubber bumpers on them so if the little tikes accidentally ran into the side of the concrete enclosure they wouldn’t crash too hard. Our kids thought these little motorcycles with rubber bumpers made great little bumper cars and had a ball taking a ride. Alayna was hilarious, she had to fold herself up on hers to fit.

We spent some time just chilling out at the hotel that night, and drove into nearby Fussen to get dinner. Alayna has dubbed our car Fia Theresa (Fiat=Fia T=Fia Theresa). We parked in the same spot we found last night, it’s always nice to find something that works, like a parking lot that always has spots next to lots of restaurants. Pretty soon they’ll be calling us by our first names around here . . .


Wednesday, 11 October 2007

This morning Benji sat next to his favorite goldfish at breakfast. There is a small fish tank behind “our” booth in the breakfast room with one lone goldfish in it that Benji loves to watch while we goad him into eating his breakfast. The breakfast here is not too exciting, bread, lunch meat (including some unidentified smooshy sausage-like substance), and some Swiss cheese. No fruit or yogurt or egg, but then someone else made it, someone else will clean our dishes, and we didn’t have to think about what to put on the table, so we can’t complain too much.

After doing some school this morning, we headed out to Zugspitze, the tallest mountain peak in Germany. On a clear day you can see four countries (see if you can guess which ones). To reach this high peak, you get on a speedy gondola that seems like it will never stop. Ten minutes of climbing sends you above the clouds, the trees began to look like toothpicks, a turquoise lake appeared on the horizon, we began to scale craggy rocks, and still we climbed. I could hear the wind whistling around our car, sometimes we began to sway, and I began to envision exactly what I would do if our line snapped.

We finally made it to the top where the kids found a snowy patch and proceeded to have a snowball fight. We explored the summit on different platforms, marveling at how high we were. All we could see was peak after peak, stretching off into the horizon, we were in a city of mountains and we were king of the hill. The kids begged to play in the snow some more, so we went back down to “our” patch, where they made snowballs and used sharp slate rocks to made paths down a little hill that they could slide on. Alayna attempted to boil water by finding a rock with a depression in it, melting some snow, and putting it in a sunny spot. It never did boil, can we call that a science lesson?

After plunging back down the mountain, we headed back to Fia Theresa. The kids spied a path and we all decided to see where it led. It led uphill, and it was a wonderful path. Spongy green right now, we imagined that in two months time skiers would be shushing down it, whispering past trees laden with snow. We found a frog and a big spiky caterpillar and explored little side paths into the trees. Sometimes the side trips are just as good as the planned trips. Seeing the world from the highest point in Germany was just as exciting as finding that frog, though the pictures may not be as impressive.

On the way home I got some pictures of some curious little buildings we’ve notice. They are dotted randomly across fields where cows or horses graze, they are usually badly constructed with wood that lets the wind in through the cracks. There seems to be no order to them, and we have come up with all sorts of theories about what they might be used for. Food storage? Animal storage? Animal food storage? We really don’t know, and we have no guide to ask, so some expert on German countryside out there will have to chime in and enlighten us.

After parking in our favorite parking lot in Fussen, we ducked in for some Chinese food for dinner. We’ve started playing “liar’s dice”, a game Clay taught us. We decided to call it “challenger’s dice” because we didn’t like the way the kids kept calling each other “liar”. It’s a fun game that doesn’t require much table space, just five dice and a straight face.

Tomorrow we say goodbye to Germany and drive to Austria. We can see cows grazing near our hotel, and the bells around their necks sound like wind chimes. The castle is framed in a pane of my window when I lie in bed. This is a beautiful place.