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!