Day 9: Once Again…Welcome to My House

Today we were up pretty early and out the door to catch a tour.  We signed up with Viator to see Bran Castle, Râšnov Fortress and Peleš Castle.  After a bit of a kerfuffle, we met our tour guide and driver Manuella (Manu) and the four others on our tour.  We loaded up the mini bus and were on our way to the town of Bran, where Bran Castle lies.

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Bran Castle was built by the Teutonic Knights in 1212 and belonged to various Saxon and Hungarian kings until the 20th century when Transylvania, Wallachia and Moldavia finally united to become the country of Romania.  The castle became a favourite residence of Queen Maria who spent a lot of her time there.

The castle is probably more famously known as Dracula’s Castle.  There is no evidence that Bram Stoker spent any time there whatsoever, but in the 1970s the Romanian Communist government discovered what a big money maker vampire-related things were, so they funded a bunch of research to see which castle beloved Wallachian monarch Vlad Dracula probably spent the most time in, and their findings (???) were that he probably spent the most time at Bran Castle.

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The weather was appropriate for the castle – some blue sky, by mostly rainy and misty.  Our tour guide Manu talked to us about the history of the castle on our drive there and how the Romanian people LOVE Vlad Dracula as he had the courage to stand up to the aggressive and ever-expanding Ottoman Empire.  She also explained his name, as he is known as Vlad Dracul, Vlad Dracula, Vlad the Impaler and Vlad Tepeš.  It turns out that his dad was Vlad Dracul (the Dragon) and as our Vlad was the first born son, his was known at the time as Vlad Dracula (son of the Dragon).  He wasn’t called Vlad the Impaler until 200 years after his death, and Tepeš is Romanian for Impaler.

We parked the bus, walked a gauntlet of cheesy chachki, trinkets and trash and climbed the steep, slick stone path up to the castle.

The interior of Bran Castle is not spooky or gloomy at all.  The decor was pretty tasteful and walls were all painted white.  We filed through a sunny courtyard, secret passageway (claustrophobics BEWARE), library and bedrooms.

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Manu advised us that the best time to visit the castle is in November as crowds are the most thinned out and that in July and August it’s an absolute nightmare – people shuffle through so slowly the halls and passages become unbearably hot and stuffy.

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After about 30 minutes inside we headed back down the hill to a trail crossroads where Manu said is the best vantage point to take photos.  By that point the sky had really opened up and we were caught in the downpour.

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We all loaded back in the bus and sped off to our second visit, Râšnov Fortress.  The fortress is about halfway between Brašov and Bran Castle, perched high on a hill and, like Brašov, boasts its own Hollywood-style sign.

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Râšnov was again built by Teutonic Knights in the 1200s and Romanians boast that it is the only undefeated heavyweight champion of fortresses (they don’t count the time in the 1600s when an Austrian ruler heard that fact, decided to conquer it out of pride, almost gave up, but then found the fortress’ water source and blocked it, effectively making the fortress surrender.  They say that it wasn’t technically conquered in “battle”.  Semantics…)

Anyway, we parked the bus again and climbed aboard a tractor headed for the top of the mountain.  On the way up we passed by a Dino World.  There have not been any dinosaurs dug up in Romania, it was just another money-making idea.

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Most of the fortress is in ruins or in various stages of deterioration, but we climbed all the way to the top over some jagged and precarious rocks for a pretty stunning view of the forested mountains around and green valley below.

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After we had had our fill of the fortress, we hopped back on the tractor for the ride down the mountain.  Then we were back on the road, stopping at a gas station for a coffee and a snack.  Turns out gas station food in Romanian is really fresh and tasty and a popular place to get snacks, unlike the Russian roulette of “meat” and “sandwiches” and “sushi” that Canadian gas stations offer.

We then headed to our final stop, Peleš Castle, which was a 40 minute drive.  On the way, Manu told us about Romania’s relationship with their favourite animal, the European Brown Bear.  Romania is one of the only countries left in Europe where you can find a lot of wildlife, including bears, and they are very proud of that.  She told stories of how there used to be so many bears on Mount Tampa in Brašov that people were routinely getting attacked and that the bears would often wander into town looking for food.  They also joke about the “Brašov Friendship Test”, stemming from a bear attack a few years ago (two American students went hiking on Mount Tampa after 1800hrs, which is advised against, when they startled a bear and started running.  The bear chased them, and one of the students tripped and fell and the bear attacked him.  The other student came back for his friend, kicked the bear and got his friend to safety), as well as their bear sanctuary that rescues bears from circuses and zoos the world over.

We entered the town of Sinaia, a beautiful resort town, popular in the summer for the cool and refreshing air and popular in the winter for the mountains and skiing.  Like a Romanian Whistler.  There were stunning hotels and guests houses lining the streets, and at the end of a cobbled road arose the exquisite Peleš Castle.

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Construction on this Neo-Renaissance masterpiece was started in 1873 after King Carol the First fell in love with the alluring surroundings and fertile hunting grounds.  It took just over 40 years to complete and sadly King Carol could only enjoy the castle for a short time as he died a few months after construction was completed.  Eventually in 1947 the monarch of the time King Michael was forced to abdicate the throne and the castle was seized by the Communist government and used for government meetings and functions. After the Romanian revolution in 1989, the castle was deemed a heritage site and re-opened to the public.

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The castle boasts a lovely manicured gardens, complete with statues and fountains.

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We gawked at the pretty exterior until it was time to start the guided tour.  We don’t often do guided tours when we travel, and today was another reminder why we made that decision – although the castle was beautiful and well worth seeing, we hate getting corralled through, everyone together, most people rude or pushing or not following the rules.  Nonetheless we put on our blue protective booties, paid our photography tax and started shuffling through with the rest of the group.

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Although I haven’t been to many castles, Peleš is definitely the stand out – sumptuous woodwork and elegant glass and mirrors highlight the rooms.

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There is even a beautiful two storey library with a spiral staircase and a secret passage (it’s the cabinet on the right, where the books look flush with the glass).

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After 40 minutes in the castle, our tour of not only Peleš was done, but so was our grand tour for the day.  Manu dropped us off right in front of Drachenhaus and recommended a restaurant in the old town called Bistro de l’Arte for dinner.  We said our goodbyes and headed for dinner, enjoying our meals while watching the clouds roll in.  We got back to our hotel just in time to enjoy another thunder and lightning storm for our final night in Brašov.

 

Germany, Day 11: Some Day My Prince Will Come

This morning we got up bright and early as we had to get to Munich by 0900hrs.  We had arranged for a tour of possibly Germany’s most famous landmark: Neuschwanstein Castle.  Neuschwanstein, although it looks medieval, was actually built in the mid 1800s by ‘mad’ King Ludwig II (although he probably wasn’t mad…more on that later).  Because it is such an icon it attracts an enormous amount of visitors and can only allow a certain amount of people in per day, and had read that you can book a tour with a ‘jump the queue’ ticket so you are guaranteed to get in.  In Vancouver we booked a tour with Viator and were ready to see this structure at the station at 0900hrs.

Our tour group was about 20 of us – an Australian family, several Americans from North Carolina and Arizona, a Malaysian and a Chinese couple, us being the lone Canadians.  We were met by our tour guide, an effervescent Spaniard named Carlota dressed in a tyrollean hat and lederhosen.  Carlota counted us all to make sure we were all present and accounted for and shepherded us onto the train for our 2 hour train ride towards the border town of Fussen.  While on the train Carlota told us the story of Ludwig II and his dysfunctional family of absentee father Maximillian I and schizophrenic brother Otto.  Ludwig II’s family were not ‘actual’ royalty, his grandfather Ludwig I having been pronounced King of Bavaria by Napoleon.  Ludwig II first heard an opera by Richard Wagner at around the age of ten and soon became enamoured with Wagner and German mythology.  Ludwig II and Wagner became pen pals and fast friends, a friendship lasting a good amount of time (until Wagner stole a prominent politician’s wife and then things got awkward).

Anyhow, the countryside went from relatively flat to the rolling green hills and craggy peaks of the pre-Alps.  Beautiful houses with geranium-lined balconies became the norm with clean little towns and ambling brooks dotting the land.  We all hopped off the train at Fussen and boarded a bus into the city of Schwangau where we disembarked amidst a sea of trinket shops and bratwurst stands.  We also caught our first glance of the castle:

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We were given a chance to have some lunch while Carlota checked the bus queue to see if we could all make it on the bus up to the castle.  We sat and watched the other tour groups while thoroughly enjoying a bratwurst on a bun and currywurst.  When time was up, we all wandered towards another bus stop so the bus could take us up the mountain, rather than taking the 40 minute walk up.

The bus dropped us off right by the Mariensbrucke – a rickety bridge overstuffed with tourists that offers the best view of the castle.  Unfortunately, you have to keep your elbows out and be a little rude to get a good spot for photos.  Getting off the bridge was also a bit of a battle.

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We left the bridge en masse and hiked further up the side of the mountain to a lookout, offering beautiful views of the Alpsee and Ludwig’s childhood castle, Hohenschwangau.

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We hiked up more and finally approached the castle proper.  There was no photography allowed on the inside of the castle, which was unfortunately as it really was magnificent.  As previously mentioned Ludwig II was a huge fan of Wagner operas and German mythology so each room had a different theme from Wagner’s operas, such as Tannhauser, Parsifal and Tristan und Isolde.  Ludwig also loved swans, and one of his salons is adorned with over 100 swan depictions – in the woodwork, wallpaper, flooring.

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Ludwig wasn’t crazy about the political side of being king, which he became at the age of 18.  He was more interested in technology, arts and culture.  He was obsessed with the idea of flight and of innovation, as well as design, having a hand in and inspecting almost every aspect of his castle and having insurance for every labourer working on the building.  His castle took 20 years to build and is not actually finished – there was to be another tower built.   Sadly he only lived in it for 2 weeks as politicians and other nobles thought that he was a liability and wanted to get rid of him as quickly as possible, so he was arrested in his chapel and declared insane.  Once declared insane he could no longer rule and moved to another family residence where he soon died at age 41 under very mysterious circumstances – Ludwig and his psychiatrist went for a walk around the lake sans bodyguards and were later both found dead in two feet of water, no water in their lungs.

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The 35 minute long tour ended and our tour group was given about 1 1/2 hours to make it back down to the bus stop.  We decided the most romantic way was by horse-drawn carriage.

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Once back at the bottom of the mountain we had a sit and Argie pulled out some chocolate, so we once again people watched and waited for the bus and then the train.  The train ride was actually a bit of a highlight as the countryside is so rich and beautiful.

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We finally returned to Augsburg around 2000hrs.  The whole day had been rather exhausting – essentially 11 hours for a 35 minute tour.  The castle was definitely a sight to see and I’m glad I went, but it leaves me with the same feelings I had for the Eiffel Tower – glad I visited and went inside, but I shan’t be going back.

Germany, Day 6: I Can See For Miles and Miles

Today was our first full day in Heidelberg.  We had planned to go to Stuttgart to visit the Mercedes Benz Museum, but we all woke up late, I had a, uh, headache, and Pa wasn’t previously as excited to go as he was before, so we made the decision to stick around Heidelberg instead.  Heidelberg is mostly famous for its partly ruined castle, Schloss Heidelberg, which is perched on the side of the high hills that surround the city, and is accessible by way of one of Pa’s favourite contraptions, the funicular.  We had a lazy breakfast in the hotel restaurant and ambled over to the funicular, conveniently located next to the square over from our hotel.

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There are actually two funiculars on the hill – a newer modern one that takes you from the bottom to the castle and halfway up the mount, and then a creaky wooden 125 year old one that takes you to the top.  We decided we wanted to see the castle first, so we exited the funicular and headed down the marked path, past a couple of small shops and cafes to the partly ruined castle.

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The castle is cool and different – its a mishmash of different styles as it was chronically being hit by lightning and parts of it got damaged.  Construction started in the Renaissance and eventually stopped, leaving half of it ruins and the other parts in differing states of crumble.  The castle overlooks the city and on a clear day (like the first part of today), you can see all the way to Mannheim.

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The castle is enormous.  We spent the better part of the morning and afternoon wandering around the grounds, with a brief stop in the castle cafe to have our standard beer/pretzel/apple strudel.

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A relatively recent feature of the castle is you can get married in a sacred or civil ceremony there, so we got to see a few different bridal parties of varying fanciness.  I am a creeper at heart, so I had to get a couple of snaps in.

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We had had our fill of castle so we headed back to the funicular station and got on board ye olde funicular.  The funicular cars are adorable and shake and sigh through the 10 minute ride to the top of the hill.  The top of the mount didn’t have much to offer – a closed falconry, a derelict boarded up restaurant and more spectacular views.

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We decided that it was time to head back and got on our little shaky funicular, then the smooth modern funicular and headed to the hotel restaurant patio for beers and so that I could write out some postcards.  The next few hours were filled by dinner, ice cream, and a frantic shop at the Lindt chocolate shop and as the rain started, we headed in for the night.

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Germany, Day 2: Oh I Wish I Had A River…

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Cochem Train Station

Today we had to get up bright and early to catch the train to a remote location.  We hoofed it down to the train station, bought our tickets from possibly the most disinterested man in Germany and hopped on the train eastbound, our destination: Moselkern.  Moselkern isn’t really notable for anything, except for its proximity to our destination this morning.  We were met at the train station by Taxi Charly who charged us an unreasonable amount of Euros to take us inland, about 3 km from the river, up the terraced vineyard-riddled valley walls to a plateau, into a forest and dropped us off at a car-park.  Following the marked, steep, paved path, we walked down until the forest revealed to us its treasure:

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Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz.  Burg (castle) Eltz has been in existence since the year 1157, was never destroyed by war or invaders and is still maintained and sometimes lived in by the Eltz family, the current Count and Countess being in its 33rd known generation.  We took a tour with the very  knowledgeable Lisa who told us much of the history of the castle including armour, decorations and practicalities (all the staircases are counterclockwise spirals so that attackers going up the stairs would struggle swinging their sword in their right hand).

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After our excellent tour we decided the castle would be an excellent place to have our first beer of the trip.

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We headed to the marked muster point for people taking the shuttle up the mountain and encountered a rather large queue: as it turns out, the castle’s regular 20 person shuttle had broken down that morning so everyone was stuck with the 8-seater van.  In the line in front of us were about a billion senior citizens, all of us baking together in the 30 degree heat, waiting for the van.  The castle staff were lovely and brought umbrellas to shade us all from the sun and crates of cool mineral water to quench our parched mouths.  After about an hour, it was our turn to board the van and we zipped back up to the car-park where we met our cabby, sped down the valley, hopped the train in Moselkern back to Cochem, just in time to grab another beer at a bustling city centre cafe.

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The beer was delicious and our waiter looked like Sir Ben Kingsley.  He also told me my German accent was perfect (what).

We had heard that taking a Mosel River cruise was highly recommended so we had planned to take one westbound and get off at the tiny TINY village of Beilstein.  So at 1500hrs we shuffled aboard a boat with many of the same elderly tourists we had waited in line with at the castle (ah!  Die burg fraulein!).  We were able to snag a table on the upper deck where we ordered some drinks and drank in the scenery.

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It’s difficult to describe how many vineyards line the Mosel River.  Not just the sheer number of them is astounding, but also how they are laid out. From river bank to valley-wall peak, steep rows of grapes flourish on the sunny hill sides.

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At 1600hrs we docked at Beilstein, and right away we were smitten at how charming this tiny hamlet is.  It was nearly inaccessible for hundreds of years which left it pristine and untouched by more modern architecture.  These days it features mostly inns and cafes, with a ruined castle and now decommissioned monastery thrown in for good measure.  Ma was jonesing for some apfelstreudel which we quickly located at one of the bistros.

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We then had about 20 minutes to explore Beilstein before the last boat left, and honestly it was just about enough time.  The town is so small, there are no ATMS and probably not much to do, but I could honestly picture myself there for about a week just drinking wine and beer, reading, writing and pretending the rest of the world doesn’t exist as the peaceful Mosel ambles by.

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We caught our boat back and enjoyed some mineral water as the sun started the set and the valley cooled.

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We got back into Cochem at around 1830hrs where we headed back to our in and shared a sweet riesling on the shady terrace.

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Cochem

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