Sometimes you need a rubber Viking helmet

We have been banging around Germany and Switzerland for several weeks now. Our backs are getting used to the heavy packs and our legs are shrugging off miles long hikes. Sure, the unplanned 9 mile (uphill both ways) slog in the Black Forest and occasional running to catch trains with full packs up crowded stairs are still met with slight resistance by the children. But we are backpackers now. Dirty, calloused, worldly, indefatigable…you know, hardcore.

So in the tradition of our hardcore predecessors we decided to get a hotel suite in Munich, unload our heavy packs and get some rest! Not to imply that it was all cushy. Kelly and I both took turns hand washing everyone’s laundry in the shower and hanging wet clothes on the radiator to dry. We declined room service as well as hotel cuisine… know, hardcore. Immediately upon entering the rooms Gherty, Che and Quinn excitedly discovered the complimentary robes, slippers, shoehorns and COMBS! What easy entertainment. TVs never glowed, e-readers stayed dark that evening. Instead they spontaneously put on a hairstyle fashion show dipping into hair gel and sink water returning each time to be judged and admired with ever more ridiculous hairstyles. A very funny introduction to Munich.

We decided to use Munchen as a 5 night home base so as to travel light on day trips and really dig into a place more so than before. Still as usual we had no plans per se. The first day we did our typical “let’s just find the city center and figure it out from there”. Of course, in keeping with our serendipitous luck we literally staggered into a massive festival in the center of town. There were 3 large stages spaced throughout. Beer and pastries rained from the heavens, a German rockabilly band thumped Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson and Elvis (really quite faithfully except for the thick German banter between songs)! “Fasching” means simply “German Carnival”. Far removed from Fort a France, Martinique where we Carnival-ed last year or Mardi Gras in NOLA where I have heard Kelly and I celebrated before that although we can neither verify nor deny that one.

Fasching was fun. We should have been tipped off when we started seeing grown men in purple stuffed animal costumes blocks before the party grounds but we’ve seen quite a bit in this trip and barely noticed. Once in the mix we bought all manner of silly decorative adornment. Gherty, chose a rubber Viking helmet because….sometimes you need a rubber Viking helmet. We partied like locals til we were out of steam. Another great day we had no plans for.

Munich is big and interesting. The weather slowly turned from unseasonably sunny and mild to GERMAN cold, rainy, grey and howling wind. Day trips on foot were ugly and hard earned. Oddly the kids seemed to lose their zest for looking at old buildings…imagine that?!

So Kelly and I read through the guide book and decided on a day in Nuremberg. Why not. A lovely city with a notable history we got cold, and a bit damp, and colder, and wet, and very cold and very wet. Basically we spent the day ducking into an Irish pub, a taco joint, used the bathroom at Starbucks, crossed the Hangman’s Bridge and finally in the pouring rain moments from saying “Uncle” in German and fleeing back to the train station we found a tiny bar called La Bas that has maybe seating for 15 and was jammed full. Upon poking my dripping wet head through the door to see if we were welcome the room hushed. The owner asked me some detailed question about politics or biochemistry in German and I replied “5?”. He quickly asked 3 locals to move from one of the 2 tables, they obliged smiling as I bashfully “danka shurned” em and 5 wet cold aliens were invited to eat and drink in the warm hospitable local gay bar. Hey, we travel for experience and experience we have in spades. The food was local and fantastic. The “Volk” were super friendly and we were rejuvenated and very full.

Back in Munchen we took clearing weather for a day at the zoo. The kids had been troopers of late and we figured a day entirely for them was in order. A good one for us all brought us back to life and ready for travel.

Farewell Deutschland. Danka for all the surprises. I’m writing this traveling backwards at 175 mph on a bullet train to Belgium. A couple days in Bruges awaits because, well, we don’t know anything about it.

Stay tuned.

Much Love.

Bavaria and Beyond!

Traveling by train is quickly becoming our favorite means for transport.  It is quick, efficient, convenient and we are very, very seldom terrified of all the things that could go wrong (Che will bow out of this sentiment).  Land plans mean something like:  Pick a place, put it in the train route gunculator, pack up the bags, strap them to the backs, note that all the children are thirsty/hungry/tired, follow google maps to the train station by foot, and hop on the ever timely train (which travels approximately 15 times faster than the boat).

In an effort to make the travel more difficult, I chose Bacharach after leaving Berlin.  The castle sits up a thousand steps from town.  We avoided any talk of distance or hike and instead focused on “you can see it from the train station”.  My sister, Pam, and I had traveled to Bacharach almost 25 years ago.  I remembered the ridiculously steep climb with our backpacks, the stress of making sure we arrived before the draw bridge went up, and the bitter chill of the Rhine.  Leaving the station, Justin, the kids and I climbed the stairs over the tracks and back down to the town side.  The day was sunny and cool, but not cold.  Heavy with our loads (some more than others), we walked a short way to the base of the trail.  Unlike the time when Pam and I had traveled, this trail curved the steep hillside.  I had thought there were more stairs but the climb was the same (we later realized that this was an added trail and the stairway to the castle lay on the other side of the vineyard).  Lookouts, nearly vertical steel rails, goat trails and stairs led us up the way to the millennial castle.

I honestly think my motherhood is finished.  Kids staying in a castle?  Check.  Mic drop.

It is possible they think otherwise.

The hostel in the castle provided us with our own room of bunkbeds, all fashioned as castles.  Food and accommodations were well received.  The hostel had much changed in the years since my sister and I traveled.  What had been a youth hostel then was more of a hostel for youths now.  Family friendly and large young groups friendly (think high school bands coming for practice…”Billy Jean”, “Because I’m Happy”, mixed with some solemn German brass songs… and slumber).  The beer table room had turned more into a German school cafeteria, just with beer.  The toilet with an open air overlook of the Rhine had morphed into a steam room of sorts, with powerful showers and radiators.  The kids climbed along and up the towers and rocks by the sheer drops to the hillside until Justin and I minded them of the signs, “Verboten”.

We traveled the next day down to the riverside where the kids played (Germans love their kinder and provide amble and intriguing playgrounds).   We took walks into the vertical vineyards, dined at what would be quite a festive summer-time bier carnival tent, and watched the barges fight the Rhine’s massively swift current (I thought there might be a better way of moving cargo in the one direction but Justin did not hesitate to remind me that the pile of the one-way vessels might prove problematic).

We consulted the Fodors for our next destination and decided on Worms.  Tshirts are available upon our return:  “I dig Worms.”  “Vorms. It’s in the Vasser.”  Worms was a journey into a bleak but interesting history.  The city museum was closed.  We went instead to the museum on the epic tales of the underworld and their dark and creeping hold on early humanity, Niblungen.  How many myths and stories have sprung from these sordid stories of rich, young love, untouchable beauty, brotherly ambition, and massacre?! Tolkien was certainly well versed.

Justin may have caught a bit of the plague from the hostel (still the cleanest hostel I can remember…but all those children!!).  He rallied well for the bike ride about town and even managed to get a hat!  Once a key city coveted and crossed, trodden by Celts, Burgundians, Romans and Huns.  Names like King Gunther, Attila the Hun, Charlemagne, and Martin Luther dress the history and peek through the sparse but high standing architecture somehow left after years of war and destruction.  There is even treasure supposedly dumped in the swift running Rhine.  But I suspect the kids will mostly remember the hot chocolate.

From the grey impressions of history, we caught the train to Baden Baden.  We somehow secured a multi bedroom apartment right off of Leopoldstasse.  The town is known for its hot springs and baths.  The beauty of this mountainside village is found in its gardens, parks, and trees.  Shops and cafes abound around meandering streets and squares.  Trails stretch up the mountain and into the Black Forest, and yes we did hike them…a bit unintentionally (a closed down cable car shifted our walk up the steep townside, into the apple orchards, up to a view from the Devil’s Pulpit, a further climb to the great overlook at Mercur, and back down to a much delayed lunch in town resulted in a nine-mile aggressive ‘stroll’).  We probably should have done the baths the day after instead of the day before.

The train rides are first class.  Literally.  The Eurail Pass is phenomenal.  The two youngest travel for free and we get to travel 10 days over the course of our trip.  We find the first class cars from the platform signs (remind the kids to stop saying first class every two seconds) and settle into a scenic tour of these countries.  It is romantic.  It is simultaneously decadent and practical.  There is food and drink, sometimes we bring it and sometimes we purchase from the bistro on board.  At times, a steward comes along and takes our order while we sit in a private car that no one has reserved.  At other times, we get kicked out of said private car because we didn’t realize that car was actually reserved.  We do all this while hauling around our massive backpacks, trying not to look too dirty (we are pretty unwashed).

To Switzerland, we go!  Snow in the Alps!!  Anyone who knows me knows that snow is not exactly my calling.  When I think snow, I think pretty.  I do not like to be cold.  Luckily for me, but not for the planet, the days were incredibly warm.  We still had snow in the mountains but we also had the fortune of blue skies and lovely sun.  We had picked Zermatt.  We had no idea how exclusive this place was.  We were delighted to find a hostel where we could stay for $150 a night (compared to $1500 per night for a hotel room!).  Oh what a contrast to our first class living!  Raising kids with an appropriate amount of disappointment, check!  I immediately went into my “don’t touch anything” mode.  We brought silk liners for sleeping bags which helped offset the woolen prison blankets.  The wardrobe ‘lockers’ were unlockable and falling apart but the hostel was gracious enough to allow our family of five to stay in a six bed room with no other guest.

It is hard to imagine how much money it takes to spend even a day in Zermatt.  Everything is expensive.  Traveling with five people certainly exasperates that issue.  Skiing for this group of novices (Justin excluded) was not even a real thought.  We would have had to get lift tickets and skis.  We did opt to take the gondola up to Klein Matterhorn to the great height of 12,739 feet!  We went into the caves of a glacier, which was mind-blowing (not to mention dizzying).  We walked very slowly and tried not to pass out.  The view was unreal.  The air was so thin.  We descended to a more reasonable level, had a quick lunch (cafeteria style, $150), and then outside to play in the snow and sit in the sun (beers were much more reasonably priced!).

We decided to stay a few more days in Switzerland but escape the “high-end” living so we picked Interlaken.  Justin found a great treat for all: night sledding.  Our guide picked us up down the street from where we were staying (apartment with multiple rooms, same price as hostel) and brought us up to the mountain.  A gondola, that accommodates 8 people or 1 cow, took us the final stretch.  With sleds in hand, we trekked along the farms and crunched snow deep into the woods.  The only light to guide was the moon (which was nearing new) and small beacons on each person’s back.  The sleds were fast and the cliffs unforgiving.  Dragging feet to turn, slow or stop, we accelerated down the runs.  Stopping periodically to make sure we all made it.  The wolves only get the stragglers so the kids were happy to have me take the rear.  At one point, Che stopped to reposition his sled and I waited with him. He started back up but we had no light in sight.  Only the rushing river to my right gave me any indication which way not to go.  Che, with his uncanny ability to see in the dark, had no issue finding the path.   I followed blindly and we caught up.

A day train ride to Thun the next day followed.  The weather turned cold and rainy.  Still we walked the streets and found the buildings, shops and cafes surrounding the lake and rivers amazingly carved into the landscape.  Walking shop lined streets suspended over smaller stores with stone stairways and patios wound through the village.  A cathedral and a castle overlooked the town. Their paths were winding stairs and covered bridges.  We took the train back to Interlaken to feast on fondue (my dish but most tried) in an old tavern in town.  Switzerland was officially concluded.

The elegance of our train ride from Switzerland back to Germany was briefly interrupted.  We were dining in the car when the conductor informed us that “we have a problem.”  We were in Austria.  Our pass for travel includes only Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxemburg.  24 kilometers of error.  The remedy was 32 Euro and unfortunately no stamp on the passport.  But they didn’t throw us off the train!

Much love and stay tuned!

Ich bin ein Berliner

High speed rail in Germany is what you’d expect. 150 miles per hour hurtling through fields and backyards with a delicate pint glass of perfect beer on your private table. Neither a wave nor a ripple in the foam as the bullet train flies eastward. Glass doors open automatically as you approach while stewards and stewardesses serve fusilli bolognese and chocolate in the dining car. Really.

We were having such fun in our private glassed in room with our music playing, bucolic pastoral Germany whizzing by. I saw a dog chasing a hare in a field, his owner far behind. I saw a woman who had fallen in a ditch. Her companion standing over her presumably figuring her rescue but who can actually know the whole story? Giant windmills and solar farms spread out over manicured farms and tidy hamlets. No evidence of poverty, or decay. Just sheep and ponies, dormant winter fields and community gardens. North western Germany and eastern Netherlands looks like Pennsylvania to me. No wonder the Germans moved right in and brought their culture with them so long ago. I’m curious if the Amish and Mennonites all went to the states though as there were no signs of horse and buggies or truck stops rife with delicious pies. Ah well. Another mystery to solve another day.

A towering glass and stainless steel train station startled us into realizing we had arrived in Berlin. I never planned to go there. Never really had it on my list but, man oh man, the places life can take you! It was getting dark and we were in a huge city with no real bearing so we took the easy way and Ubered to our hotel. A 4th floor walk up in a run down building replete with crumbling moldings, cracked stained glass and intricate woodwork worn smooth by use. The room was split with a door so we piled 3 single mattresses in the front room and shut the door to our drafty palace in back. It was great. No cheesy watercolors on the walls, just stark utilitarian Berlin white. We found some food around the corner for dinner and a closing grocery for provisions. Walking under the half smashed “Remembering Church”, the steeple gone and huge holes blown throughout from the war I was struck by a sobering thought…this was the only old building as far as I could see. Everything else has been leveled in the bombings….a hair raising realization. Another day upon closer inspection we saw the countless bullet holes. It’s incredible to think you are standing in a spot that was at one time literally hell on earth. As it turned out this would be the first of several times I had that thought in Berlin. This would be a very important learning experience for the children and for kelly and I as well. We had big plans for the next few days.

The Berlin zoo is one of the largest anywhere. Kelly and I remembered the story of what happened there during the Second World War but decided we’d enjoy the animals and leave that story alone. The children were delighted and we zooed until we could zoo no more. Hungry, and ever in search for extra school educational experiences for the children we did what any thoughtful parents would do. We dragged 3 hungry and exhausted children across Berlin on foot to the gay district for schnitzel! Rainbow flags were everywhere. We re-explained the significance frankly and open mindedly as usual skipping the explanation for the storefront advertising “skin, latex and leather”. It figures this sign would be in English. The food was magnificent. We all left stuffed and had late night cold schnitzel during a movie back at the room. Hard sleep awaits after days like this. Rest up children cause we’re putting you through “das” ringer tomorrow!

Strudel is a unanimous favorite. We rented bikes and hit the streets. Like everywhere we’ve traveled outside the states there are bike lanes, bike traffic lights and drivers looking out for cyclists. We flew through the west side, past the golden angel in the center of the city. Parks stretch out in all directions. Then through woods on a long, straight boulevard due east to the Brandenburg Gate. We did our best to explain the history and significance of this amazing site. We talked about Reagan and his speech. We talked about Kennedy and his speech. There was a circle of people meditating on peace, the buildings were stone and looming. We were definitely in east Germany now. My emotions did not ask permission. This stuff is heavy and really really important. I think, I hope at least, kelly and I struck the right balance between teaching just how important, sad and terrifying the history here was and how wonderful a place it is now. One can find a Starbucks or a stone facade riddled with bullet holes. It just depends on what interests you.

Fantastic rides through the east to the Berlin Wall memorial. Quinn and Gherty shed some tears…because they crashed their too big rental bikes. I had my moment standing in “no mans land” looking at the monument with photographs of men and women, old and young, small children and elderly all shot to death trying to live. A lesson (Quinn likes to use the word “lecture”) on the history here with the children reminded us we just may not be short changing them by homeschooling. Quinn and Che both learned the lesson that you must cross trolley tracks at an angle on a bike or you will meet the pavement. No blood no foul. Time for lunch.

Lebanese food in Berlin was incredible. I just love saying “shawarma”. I told Quinn that Kelly and I debated naming him “Babaganoush” but he wasn’t buying it.

We toured the east by bike all afternoon. Biergartens are not lively in winter but some are open and the beer is big and delicious. Kelly and I are finding that exercising this much and hydrating with Pilsner seems to abate hangovers. See? Another lesson learned.

The architecture is East or West. There is a difference you don’t need a sign to notice. The people are friendly on both sides. Likely because A. They are friendly in Germany and B. They don’t see Berlin as east and west these days. See kids? There is definitely a parallel to be drawn between united people and happy people. Quinn stole Beck’s melody and jammed his own version of “Where it’s at….I got 2 flip flops and a winter coat”! They’re definitely learning something by hanging around us so much.

We happened upon the holocaust memorial by accident. Each giant stone monolith represented countless lives lost, a labyrinth between them. Truly a striking sight. Another lesson. We think it’s sinking in but who can blame kids for wanting to play hide and seek in a holocaust labyrinth? They’re kids after all.

OK kids, this concludes our lesson on mass genocide. Let’s go to Legoland!! Welcome to the madness that is the Walling family traveling circus. Billions of plastic bricks, mind bending miniature LEGO Berlin and a repeating glockenspiel soundtrack that made my brains leak out of my ears. I’d say we had done a good job with Berlin.

One last night then we jammed the laundry into the backpacks and onto the train south through Frankfurt to Bacharach to stay in a medieval castle that now is a hilltop hostel. I’m writing this lying on my back with aching legs from roughly 4,000 steps up and down and back again. We’re off to a town called Worms tomorrow and will catch you up on the Rhine River Valley next.

Stay tuned. Much love!