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Trip Report The Netherlands (and Brugge and a German castle) Family Trip Report

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Last fall we realized that our frequent flier miles were going to expire soon--collectively we had sufficient miles for almost 3 tickets to Europe—and it would be a tragedy to waste them. But where to go for spring break? Or more accurately, to where would our miles take us? Family discussion and research ensued; and on a pleasant football Saturday in September we gave up watching our alma mater being beaten badly on national television and logged on to United.com. Istanbul? Nope, only “1” ticket left for FF mile users. London? Nope, only “2” tickets left. On and on we played the game until I gave up and decided to chat with an online United Representative to help me. Soon, four tickets to Frankfurt, Germany were ours, at a cost of one ticket and change. Now, where to go? Two years previously we had toured Bavaria and the Romantic Road, so that was out. Touring the Rhine or Mosel regions was not quite a family trip. What about Amsterdam? Our trip was born!

Fast forward to late April. We arrived at Dulles to find a Wednesday-before-Thanksgiving length check-in line at the United counter. After standing in the line for 5 minutes, I finally thought to ask if we needed to be in the line at all given that we had printed boarding passes (but needed to check one piece of luggage), and we were sent to another line that had practically no wait. So far, so good! Getting through security used all the time we gained checking in, though, so we had little time for our traditional crummy pre-flight meal in Terminal C.

Our seats on the plane were in the two rows immediately behind the (empty) Emergency Exit row. Spying his opportunity for comfort, my 6’7” DH asked the flight attendant if he could move to the row if it remained empty. She replied that she was going to offer it to him because he was so tall, and the deal was sealed. Once cruising altitude was reached, another chap made his move on the seat but was smacked down by the stern, but friendly, German flight attendant. DD moved up next to me, and we left The Teenage Son to luxuriate in the two seats behind us. Dinner on the plane was as delicious as the traditional Terminal C meal--a chicken-ish dish with semi-roasted potatoes and a rosemary(?)-tomato sauce. At least the salad tasted fresh. The pre-landing snack was a bag containing yogurt (full fat European style--mmm, good) and an icky, cold piece of banana bread. Once through immigration at Frankfurt we paused to feed The Teenager before catching our train to Amsterdam at--where else--McDonald’s. The self-order kiosk was cool, and DD liked that the pancakes had little syrup bits in them. (After breakfast we walked over to the train terminal only to discover a market with fresh breakfast offerings. Of course.) We had reserved a private compartment on the train, which gave us a table and a little space to spread out, a wise decision as that allowed us to nap a bit. Our train arrived in Amsterdam somewhat later than expected but we made good time getting to the apartment; the owner gave us the brief tour, and then we regrouped for some light sightseeing before returning for an easy supper and an early bedtime.

The first morning after an overseas flight is always a little challenging--you wake up slightly disoriented, you’re not sure what time it really is, and for us there’s usually a foreign coffee maker to figure out in the rental apartment. Adding to the challenge was that I ended up on the sofa at some point during the night because DH made it his mission to deforest all of The Netherlands in his sleep, so I was a little groggier than usual and forgot to put a coffee filter in the basket, resulting in coffee overflow all over the counter. Sigh.

The night before we stopped at the market and purchased what we thought was thickly sliced bacon to have for breakfast, a little out of character from our usual holiday breakfast of sliced meats and cheeses, fruit, and bread. Turns out it wasn’t bacon at all, but rather a package of oddly shaped pork chops. Insult was added to injury--if cleaning the counter wasn’t enough, I now had to actively cook breakfast. I sighed just a little louder, however, and my lumberjack awoke and came to the rescue. The children, meanwhile, were quite content with buttered toast sprinkled with hagelslag. This gave me a few minutes to pull myself together, which I really needed because my European hairdryer has the wattage of a toaster, and taming my mane takes a few extra minutes when we travel.

Friday was our designated Museum Day; a few days earlier the forecast called for a strong chance for rain, so we decided to purchase tickets for the Van Gogh, the Rembrandt, and the Anne Frank House. The forecast changed in the four days since the tickets were purchased, though, and we had nothing but mostly blue skies and temperatures in the low 60s. There were no complaints from us! We set out first for the Van Gogh and breezed right past the long, long, long lines of Those Who Do Not Plan and walked right into the museum. We all loved the Van Gogh, and enjoying the museum occupied us until our tummies signaled that the “bacon” and sprinkle-covered toast breakfast was no longer sustaining us, and then decided to walk over to the Albert Cuyp Markt area in search of lunch. The market is Amsterdam’s version of a street market that stretched for at least four or five blocks. Flowers, toothpaste, vegetables, cheese, underwear, shiny gold skirts, and all sorts of knock-off imported bric-a-brac were available. The people watching was unparalleled, as well. We stopped at an Indonesian/Surinamese/Chinese restaurant suggested by Fodors; the menu in the window was entirely in Dutch and as long as a standard Asian carry-out menu. I can read and understand German and could recognize a fair amount of similar-looking Dutch words, so in we went. It was only after we’d deciphered most of the menu that the waitress asked if we would like an English menu, and we were pleased to discover that we’d correctly translated just about everything! Lunch was delicious (and also memorable for DS, because it was the first time he was permitted to legally consume beer in public.) Ah, the short-term goals of a teenager!

Following lunch we went to the Rembrandt museum; although we had our “FastPasses” there was no line and we went straight in. Sorry to say, but we were underwhelmed with this museum. With so much of the museum under renovation, we thought it ridiculous to still have to pay the full admission fee to see so little of the collection. We were in and out of the museum in about an hour. Not expecting to have the extra time, we sat for a bit in the museumplein with the guidebook, trying to find a way to spend a couple of hours before our timed entry tickets for the Anne Frank House while the children climbed the whimsical “Iamsterdam” sign. We hit upon the Bloemmarkt, Amsterdam’s floating flower market. If there were 10 tulip bulbs in that market, there were 10 million! Blue bulbs! Black bulbs! Striped bulbs! Every-color-of-the-rainbow bulbs! The temptation to send hundreds of the beautiful bulbs home was overwhelming, but I knew that I wouldn’t have time to plant them when I returned, and even if I did, I wasn’t in the mood to feed our neighborhood squirrels international cuisine, as they’d inevitably be dug up.

While we girls ogled the tulips (and lots of other flower bulbs), DS asked if he could wander across the street to the gift shop screaming “T-Shirts” to look for a t-shirt. Oops. The gift shop was more of an adult “gift” shop—the innocuous-looking t-shirts were only in the window. I left it to DH to answer any questions that arose from that awkwardness! But even our 9-year old DD was not entirely immune from the overt explicitness; across the bike lane from the flower market were stores offering all kinds of t-shirts and eroticwear (do men really buy crocheted roosters to, ahem, wear?) At one point I gave up trying to answer her questions and just said, “If you have to ask what the saying on a t-shirt means, just look away--you probably shouldn’t be looking at it.” We left the market with only my dreams of fancy tulip beds at home and headed for the Anne Frank House, where our timed entry tickets helped us bypass another very long line of Those Who Do Not Plan. We enjoyed the Anne Frank House a great deal, insofar as much as one can enjoy the somber tenor of the tour. By now the hour was late, so we stopped at the market and picked up the provisions for a simple pasta meal at home. The children indulged in the apartment Wii while we cooked, and our tired heads hit the pillows just after 10, as we planned to catch an early train to Belgium for Saturday. Or so we thought.

Saturday was our second day with sun and mild temperatures in the forecast. No complaints. And no spilled coffee, either. We dragged the children out of bed in time to catch a 9:00 train to Belgium. (They’re such cooperative travelers.) Thalys tickets were 245 Euros and the Dutch hi-speed train tickets was 92 Euros (but took an extra hour). An extra hour on the train would give us time to enjoy the Dutch countryside, we decided. Upon arriving at the train station we proceeded to the ticket counter, requested tickets, and was given a cost of 178 Euros. How could this be? The 92 Euro cost was an Internet special, we discovered, although the clerk at the train station was quite adamant that such a low fare did not exist at all. What to do? Those Who Do Not Plan may have handed over the additional 86 Euros, but we are not Those. We quickly regrouped and decided to head to Keukenhof; after all, it was only the annual Flower Parade Day of the annual spring tulip festival on a warm and pleasant Saturday--how crowded would it actually be?

Knowing only that we needed to head to Haarlem to catch the relevant bus to Keukenhof, we got off the train and dutifully stood around looking for big signs that read, “THIS WAY TO THE TULIPS.” Not seeing any, we approached the ticket counter and asked to purchase bus tickets to Lisse. The kind clerk pointed across the station hall to the GWK Traveler office, which was unexpectedly closed because of a “security issue.” Back to the clerk we went, who at first looked puzzled, and then suggested we buy tickets at the convenience store adjacent to the GWK office. The poor clerk at the store wasn’t sure how many ticket strips we needed (bus trips are zoned?) but another kind person offered some mathematical equation in Dutch to us and then the clerk handed us the equivalent of 45 strips. Off we went.

Our guide book said that either Bus 51 from Haarlem or Bus 54, the “flower express” from Leiden, would get us to Keukenhof, so we and many others boarded Bus 51 and alit for the countryside. We ambled through small towns and about a half hour later the bus stopped at a residential-looking bus stop. The driver announced that this was the “tulip stop.” We all got off and looked around at the houses, not seeing any tulips at all. At this moment I composed the travel report in my head: “We Went to The Netherlands, But Didn’t See a Single Tulip.” Someone in our group of stranded tulip-peepers started walking, and the rest of us lemmings followed. A good 15 minutes later we connected with other lemmings, and we all swayed together toward Tulip Mecca. And then--what a sight it was--as far as the eye could see were tour buses of every color, disgorging tulip peepers of every shape and size! We had arrived!

Skirting around the swarms of peepers, we purchased tickets and entered the gardens. The pathways were crowded, yes; many of my photos include other people (this journey was not for those who wanted idyllic tiptoeing-through-the-tulip photos for their holiday cards); and being stranded more or less in the middle of these flowers meant we paid 20 Euros for 4 “American hot dogs” at a stand in the garden when our tummies rumbled rather than attempt to find a sit down table at one of the cafes (we might still be waiting!), but a great time was had by all. A “tulip express” bus to Leiden pulled in just as we were leaving; this was by far the preferred way to travel--the bus delivered us right to the train station, where we walked past long, long, long lines of tulip-peepers patiently waiting their turn to board the bus to Keukenhof. Back in Amsterdam we wound down the day down with a stroll through the Waterlooplein, one of Amsterdam’s flea markets (where I found the cutest skirt!) before attempting to find what our Fodors book named one of “the prettiest bridges in Amsterdam.” Maybe there was too much tulip pollen disrupting our internal navigation system, but we don’t think we found the darned bridge. All in all, though, it was a great Plan B Day. Later that evening I was determined to purchase the 92 Euro tickets to Brugge, not only because we had decided we wanted to go to Belgium, but because the weekday ticket cost rose considerably. Of course the online system was experiencing difficulties, so we prepared a Plan C--to go to Den Hoge Veluwe, The Netherlands National Park. But early on Sunday morning I was finally able to purchase the tickets, with one catch--the online system would only allow me to choose the “print at home” option rather than allow me to collect my tickets at the station. Small matter, I thought, I’ll just print them from the kiosk at the station using the confirmation number.

So we once again dragged the children out of bed early to get to the station. Of course, the ticket machine would not print the tickets. “Your tickets have already been printed,” it read. “Please see a station attendant.” Guess who that station attendant was? The same attendant from the previous day who refused to believe tickets only cost 92 Euros. I attempted to explain that I could not print the tickets because I did not have a printer, and soon the whole matter required three attendants to resolve. Not one of the attendants were the least bit familiar with the online reservation system. Eventually (and 5 Euros later, a fee I think they made up), we had the printed tickets.

Our train to Brugge stopped at Schipol, so there were many passengers with suitcases on board, all of whom (I thought) felt that their suitcases deserved their own seat, and many of whom felt it was their right to occupy the four-seat sections (two seats facing each other, with a small table) with their suitcase, handbag, newspapers, food, etc. I expect that at home, but was surprised to observe the behavior here). The Dutch countryside was sprinkled with the stripes of the tulip fields and lots of livestock and other interesting things for us city folk to look at. We had two 5-minute connections in Antwerp and Gent to keep us alert, and before we knew it we were packed cattle-style on the train to Brugge. I was a little concerned that Brugge would be too crowded and therefore unenjoyable, but we had survived Keukenhof, and so we would survive Brugge, too.

Brugge has its marketing down pat. Yes, some of the streets have familiar stores (Kathe Wolfhart has expanded to Brugge!) and restaurants (Pizza Hut? Really?) nestled in between chocolate shops, but the atmosphere is not kitschy, and there isn’t tchotcke (or chocolate samples) spilling out from the store fronts like some streets in popular tourist cities. Instead, Brugge is a little bit country (Tuscany and Bavaria) and a little bit rock-and-roll (Paris), and the added charm of cobblestones and canals made it a very pleasant day.

We chose one of the many cafes in the Markt offering moules et frites for lunch, and embraced the warm sun on our faces at a markt-side table. (A Belgian colleague told me that it rains 2 out of every 3 days in Belgium--I guess we lucked out with the third day of sun and blue skies.) I’m not sure the children appreciated the simple pleasure of outside cafe dining; they will someday when they’re roaming Europe as poor college students and have to share hot dogs from street vendors, though. I ordered the mussels, of course, while the boys ordered a Flemish beef stew and a rabbit stew. DD went all-American with Kip Nuggets; I think she reaches her threshold for new foods a little sooner than the rest of us. Strolling the town was the best way to work off the calories; DH and the children got in an added workout with the 732 step climb up and down the town’s Belfry. (I opted to shop for chocolate while they climbed.) All too soon it was time to catch a return train to Amsterdam. In retrospect, although we enjoyed Brugge, I think we may have enjoyed going to Den Hogue Veluwe more. On the way home we all decided that a holiday to The Netherlands that didn’t include bicycle riding would be tragic, so we decided to rent bicycles in Amsterdam for Monday to see the few remaining sites we’d wanted to see, and then head across the Amstel for a leisurely ride through a handful of small towns that exude “Storybook Holland.”

So on Monday we rented Orange City Bikes, and off we cycled on yet another blue skies and warm sun day, first to see the old city gate, and then to find once and for all one of the “prettiest bridges in Amsterdam” that had eluded us the other day, the Magere Brug. We found it, but to my great dismay it was far from the prettiest. Maybe at night it sparkled with the lights on, but in the light of day it only provided me with a view of a prettier bridge further down the canal. The bridge in its current incarnation dates from 1969; whereas the original bridge (which was probably prettier) dates from 1691. No matter. The sun was shining, the sky was blue, and I was on holiday. From the bridge we cycled to Vondelpark, stopping for beverages and small snacks at a pleasant water-side café in the park. We rode the path through the entire park, passing by gracious homes and the beautiful Film Institute. Nearby the park is also one of Europe’s few remaining city riding schools, and one that was fashioned after the Vienna Riding School, so DD and I toured the stables, the arena, and the oh-so-lovely Viennese-styled cafe with balcony where moms were enjoying a coffee while their daughters took lessons--very different from the barn where she rides at home! We bid a farewell neigh to the horses and cycled toward the train station, stopping for photos at Amsterdam’s narrowest house (1 meter wide!), our plan being to grab a quick lunch and take the ferry across the Amstel to bike through “Storybook Holland.” The Albert Hejn near Centraal Station provided the makings for delicious sandwiches while waiting for the IJ. Once across the river, the closest “Storybook Holland” city, Broek-in-Waterland, was a mere 12 km away--how long could that ride possibly take us?

The area north of the Amstel is ideal for cycling--well-marked paths stretch for miles across very, very flat land. The first few kilometers were more “Suburban Amsterdam” than “Storybook Holland,” and the many detours because of construction (like the one that sent us in a circle) seemed determined to keep us from our storybook, but before long the buildings gave way to winding paths that wove between fields dotted with cows, sheep (and little lambs! so cute!), and horses, and laced with tiny canals and dikes. We cycled along, enjoying the warm sun, and listening to the sound of Mom’s front bicycle tire going flat. We all stopped, looked around at the vast “storybook-ness” of it all, and uttered a collective, “Oh, no!” At most we were 2 km outside Broek-in-Waterland, so at the very least I could hobble into the city to find a bike repair shop (good luck!) open on a Monday (good luck!) during the school holiday period in The Netherlands (good luck!). And, no, of course I didn’t think to note the telephone number of the bike rental place before we left.

So, the boys decided to cycle on ahead in search of a repair shop while DD stayed with me and walked toward the town. Along the way I flagged a woman cyclist and asked if she knew of a bike repair shop nearby. She shrugged and replied that all Amsterdamers carry emergency repair kits (oddly, though, she did not have hers); when I laughed and said that we were just unprepared Americans, she also laughed and added, “It is a bit of a handicap, isn’t it?” I wasn’t sure if she was laughing at us or with us at first, but then she shared a story about some “silly German tourists” who decided to ride that route on a rainy and windy day, and a bus driver who took pity on them and let them put their bikes on the bus, and then suggested that once we arrive in town, we look very sad (and maybe cry) and perhaps a bus driver would be kind and take us and our bikes back to the ferry. That’s when I decided she was laughing at us.

DH rang on the cellphone (if nothing else, “Storybook Holland” has great cell coverage!) to say that he could not find a repair shop in town, and had sent DS back to meet us. As we walked toward the town, DH rang again to say that he had now found a bike shop, and the owner could repair my tire in about an hours’ time. It was going on 4:00, which meant there would still be plenty of daylight for the return trip...

While the bike repair shop owner was repairing my bike (was that a smirk I detected when I confessed that I did not have the telephone number to the bike rental shop?), we repaired ourselves at a local restaurant with cold beers and ice cream. By 5:15 my bike was repaired and we set our return course, laughing along the way over the “bit of a handicap” that capped our wonderful day. Knowing the route (and in particular, the detours), our return took a mere 45 minutes. Our 35 km cycling trip on Monday meant we awoke on Tuesday with great zitspajn (sore butts). Cycling back to return our bicycles to the rental place was a little painful, let’s just say.

On Tuesday we traveled to The Hague. The Hague is but an hours’ train ride from Amsterdam, with crazy-colored tulip quilts laid out along the landscape to enjoy. From the central station we followed the gold crane-topped signs to our sights of interest; namely, the Binnenhof, Mauritshuis, and Escher. Seeing Girl with a Pearl Earring up close was mesmerizing, we thought, and I am now inspired to read the book again. The large cow painting captivated us in that, “Just who decides that this is important art” kind of way. We happened to be near the painting during a guided tour (in English); we are not art historians or art fanatics, but, really? Oversized (anatomically incorrect) cows in a pasture, complete with flies and a steaming cow pattie is important art? And someone likely commissioned this for their hunting lodge? Still, fun, fun! We also chuckled a bit at Rembrandt’s self-portrait versus the painting of him by someone else. Clearly Rembrandt saw himself as young and svelte. Others, not so much.

The Escher Museum received a Family Thumbs Up. Three floors of the former Queen Emma’s palace are filled with his works; and each room of the palace is lit with an eccentric chandelier-- a sea horse, a violin, and even a skull and crossbones. As an added treat there is a narrative about the palace in each room, along with photos and other mementos of the royal family. This was definitely a “glad we went” destination.

It was about that point in our holiday when we all just naturally seek “American” food, and so we selected an upscale markt-side Italian outdoor cafe at which to enjoy very Italian pizza and awesome Dutch beer. Well, America is a melting pot, right? And funny, but our pizza choices are about as diverse as they can get--cheese and pepperoni for the least adventurous eater; four cheeses for The Teenager; proscuitto and peppers for Dad; and Pizza Tonno (tuna, capers, and olives) for Mom. From lunch we dashed to the Binnenhof for a guided tour. The compound has a fascinating history (probably even more so than the English audio guide offered!), and we were able to see the Knight’s Court, where Queen Beatrix formally opens the new parliamentary season, among other official events. The Binnehof is a dramatic former hunting lodge, but we still didn’t think the cow painting would have worked in there.

I have to say that I loved The Hague. The city is as refined as Vienna and as charming as Paris; I felt like I should have been wearing fine clothes and speaking in hushed tones as we walked along the shaded promenades and cobblestone streets. In contrast to this refinement, however, and a mere 10 minute tram ride from centrum is the seaside resort of Scheveningen. We’re but a four hours from Atlantic City at home but have never been, yet dipping our toes in the North Sea and strolling the boardwalk appealed to us. Within moments of stepping off the boardwalk of the Nordstrand I spied a, shall we say, traditional European sunbather, and quickly informed the children that there may be more such sunbathers and to not draw attention to them.

The air temperature was around 75 degrees (yet another beautiful blue skies and warm sunshine day); the water, not even close, but still we dipped our toes in. Nearby were a couple of moms whose very young children were frolicking au naturale in the water and we were cold just watching them! The kids played in the water, DH napped on the sand, and I collected a pocket full of beautifully striped North Sea shells. We strolled the boardwalk a bit while enjoying ice cream, and then returned for a last-night-in-Amsterdam supper of the various leftovers from the week. Sadly we packed our bags and set the alarm to catch an early train to Oberwesel and our night at Burg Schonburg.

We were not the only occupants of our reserved compartment on the DeutschBahn on Wednesday. A woman was occupying one of the seats when we boarded, but moved rather hastily once a stern German grandma gave her The Look--apparently the woman had squatted in the grandmother’s seat. The five of us settled in and enjoyed our respective breakfasts; we had sliced meats and cheeses, and rolls, and the grandmother had what I thought was a rather sad looking cheese sandwich. I wanted to offer her some of our breakfast, but I could only think up the phrase, “Do you love ham?” rather than asking “Would you like some ham?” in my learned but barely-used German. At a subsequent stop a college-aged student boarded and was sandwiched between the grandmother and DS. I offered him a napkin to go with his sandwich, but he declined. I’m sure his mom would have been mortified. Now that the compartment was full, DH and I decided to bail on our children and went to the bistro car to enjoy coffee and cake. DS reported later that the grandmother sprayed herself with perfume and made the entire compartment stink, so we had to continue on to Cologne with the compartment door open. Funny.

Once in Cologne we fed the mysterious luggage machine at the train station our four pieces and walked across the square to the KolnDom, one of the world’s most spectacular Gothic cathedrals and a UNESCO World Heritage site (no holiday would be complete without seeing a UNESCO site!) We were able to tour about half of the cathedral before the Cathedral closed for mass, and were disappointed that we wouldn’t be to climb the 509 steps to the belfry. So we walked around the exterior of the castle instead, admiring the structure against the blue sky. It being that our stop in Cologne was only to see the Cathedral, we retrieved our luggage from the underbelly of the train station, caught a RegionalBahn to Koblenz where we transferred to the MittelRheinBahn to Oberwesel. The trip along the Rhine was as spectacular as expected; castles and vineyards speckled the landscape, and we lost count of the many barges and cruiseboats on the river.

In Oberwesel “our” taxi was waiting to take us to Burg Schonburg, the town’s castle overlooking the city, and our lodging for the night. Another family had also requested a taxi to the castle, and since we arrived first, the driver loaded our bags into the minivan. This upset the other family, but the very bubbly taxi driver dismissed them with what was her signature line, “Five minutes.” She chatted on the “five minute” drive up the hill to the castle, and explained that she was the school bus driver during the school year, and also a taxi driver, one of the very few in Oberwesel. We learned that Germany was on school holiday, and thus the available taxi drivers in Oberwesel were deleted by 80%, leaving just 3.

We had Room 34 in the castle, the Rheinlandzimmer. The room was everything we’d imagined a castle room to be--nooks with draperies that could be drawn to make them secret, a balcony overlooking the Rhein, and a gorgeous bathroom hidden behind the bookcase! A carafe of Sherry was poured for us, and the pillows were adorned with chocolates that the children quickly consumed. DS and DD went off to explore the castle and the surrounds while DH and I sipped Sherry on the balcony, watching the barges and cruiseboats sail by. Aaah.

After settling in (and oohing and aahing a little more) we decided to tour Burg Rheinfehls in St. Goar, only “five minutes” away. Surprisingly, there were no taxis available to take us down to the train station, but “Heidi” at the front desk suggested a beautiful and easy “five minute” walk (ten or fifteen minute walk if we wanted to “enjoy nature”) along the Rheinsweg, a hiking path through the Mittelrhein. Little did we know that Heidi’s version of an easy walk should have included crampons and caribeeners. The children skipped along on the craggy rocks, peeked over flimsy railings at the “auspunktblicks” and generally left us way behind. I had not packed hiking shoes for this trip and thus had to navigate this mountain goat trail in my shiny red Dansko clogs, but at least I would look good if I fell off one of the unsecured drop offs.

Twenty sweaty minutes later we reached the train station and caught a train to St. Goar. The information provided spoke of a “Burg Express” trolley that shuttled between the Markt and the castle; we checked the schedule and noted that the next trolley was due in a few moments, so we gathered at the stop along with a couple of other people. When the trolley did not arrive anywhere near the scheduled time, we walked a little bit into town and asked at the Tourist Information office about the trolley schedule. The person at the desk said rather matter-of-factly, “The schedule varies, and the choo-choo has stopped for the day.” Awesome. Having just climbed down from one castle, we weren’t in the mood for climbing back up to see another, plus we would not have had much time to tour the castle before it closed. Back to Oberwesel we went.

With 80% of the Oberwesel taxi drivers on holiday, there wasn’t exactly a queue of taxis at the train station when we returned. We stood on the street corner looking rather desperate when suddenly the bubbly taxi driver from earlier came rolling down the hill in a big van. We waved to her and asked about taxis to the castle. She said she could not help us as she was off to pick up a group of people, but was kind enough to call her friend, another taxi driver, who unfortunately was on her way to Koblenz to collect some travelers. However, since travel in the area only seemed to take “five minutes,” the taxi driver then said, “Get in!” We were saved!

With a little bit of time before our dinner reservation the children took off to explore some more, and we used a very 21st century castle feature known as Internet to plan our remaining half-day at the Dippemess Festival, the big spring folk festival in Frankfurt before heading to the airport. Thankfully we realized that the Festival was not open on Wednesday and Thursday, so we reverted to our failed plan to visit the castle at St. Goar the following day, instead.

Although the children were originally to have joined us for dinner, we decided they’d probably prefer room service in front of German cartoons on the television. I think I may have committed a castle dining faux pas when I asked that all three courses be brought together to the room, but the request was granted nonetheless. DS and DD each ordered the same menu of a local version of kartoffelsuppe, a chicken with spargel and noodles dish, and the dessert of an ice cream-filled KinderEgg nestled upon a chopped fruit salad, and we left them to their indulgence to dine with other adults in the Squire’s Room.

The Squire’s Room allowed for intimate dining; just seven tables fit into the warmly lit space, and we were strategically seated so as to be afforded a view of the entire room, and thus could speculate on the other guests (castle gossip--how fun!) At the table to our right was an American family with two teens who looked miserable, confirming our decision to have the children dine in. Next to them was an American empty-nester couple--little engagement with one another, the husband the dominant conversationalist. I felt sorry for them—the castle was so romantic and yet they seemed so sad. In the cozy booth across the room was a couple who partook of the Gourmet Menu, a pre-fixe menu of 7 courses--good for them! A quiet and fairly disengaged young German couple sat in another corner, barely making eye contact while they ate, and immediately to our left was a terribly underdressed but otherwise nondescript couple. The most interesting couple in the room was adjacent to Mr. and Mrs. Nondescript. Ms. Interesting appeared to be a sommelier, or at least a wine aficionado, and became excitable when the many, many wines brought to the table did not suit her. Wines were poured into carafes, corks were sniffed, the sommelier came out to the table twice--it was all very entertaining. Mr. Interesting, on the other hand, seemed to have another objective for the evening; namely, securing a more permanent relationship with Ms. Interesting. I can report this because at one point we all heard her say, “I am happy with my current relationship status.” The rest of the evening for the Interesting couple was probably a little less romantic than planned, alas.

We had selected the Schonburg Menu for dinner, and to begin our epicurean adventure we toasted with the Schloss Cocktail, a bright and (very) alcoholic drink of campari, cointreau, tonic water, and Reisling. The chef sent a complimentary smoked salmon tartlet with green apple jelly to our table to start, which was of course delicious. Next came a potato soup with wasabi-horseradish cream that was so delicate and flavorful that DH professed a new love for the spicy root; this was accompanied by a fried slice of blood sausage that added just the right texture to the course. The main course was a pot au feu of pike perch and crayfish atop fennel-scented spargel and carrots, in a buttery and pale white wine sauce; a plate of roasted tomato and thyme puffed pastry accompanied our dish. We enjoyed this with a half-litre of the recommended Reisling; it is a very good thing that we only had to walk upstairs after dinner, and not drive somewhere. Finally dessert was presented--thick eggnog mousse slices surrounded by tarragon-scented strawberries and accented with thin almond biscuits. DH gave high praise to the dessert with, “It’s not as gross as I thought it would be.” In between bites of our dinner we shared moments of the holiday and otherwise played grown-ups for an evening. Wonderful! We returned to the room two and a half hours later; I drew a bath in that glorious tub to indulge a little bit before calling it a night, and I’m pretty convinced my eyes had closed just as my head hit the pillow. Being a princess was fun!

I’m sure real Princesses don’t have a schedule to adhere to, or at least not one that calls for an early morning after the Schloss Cocktail and shared half-litre of Resiling the evening before. Nonetheless, we were all awake by 7:00. Breakfast was in the Gobelin Room, where we enjoyed thin slices of dilled salmon, smoked fish, various sliced meats and cheeses, tiny sausages, breakfast cakes and pastries, and my favorite, muselix with yoghurt. The St. Goar information indicated that the Tourist Information office would hold luggage for the day in order to allow sightseeing. Perfect! Our taxi, with the third of three available Oberwesel drivers, was promptly waiting to take us to St. Goar at 9:00. The Tourist office stored our bags, and we walked the twenty steps to the “Burg Express” stop. We waited. And waited. And waited a little more. No Burg Express. I walked over to the Tourist office again, and again the clerk replied, “The schedule varies.” She then offered the walking path to the castle, warning that “part of the path is steep.” Excellent. My shiny red clogs were up to the task, so off we went. The path was certainly better than the one down from Schloss Schonburg, but it’s all relative, and eventually we summited. The family ticket of 10 Euros to enter the castle was a bargain! We roamed the nooks and hidden spaces and dark tunnels for almost two hours--this was a far different castle-touring experience than we’ve ever had, and easily earned a Family Thumbs Up!

Now it was time to think about lunch and heading to Frankfurt for our 5:00 PM return flight. We just missed the Burg Express (of course), but the store clerk said not to worry, as there would be another one in 25 minutes. Of course there wasn’t, so we walked back down from the castle into town. And just as we sat down to eat at a lovely outdoor cafe, what should we spy but the Burg Express! Guess the driver had taken his own lunch break!
At 1:00 we finished lunch and walked the ten steps to the Tourist Information office to collect our luggage in time to make our 1:35 ICE train to Frankfurt. To our surprise the sign on the door read, “Geschlossen. Offnen Sie sich am 13:30.” One doesn’t need to speak the language to realize that the Tourist Office had closed for lunch. There was no way we could get from the Tourist Office to the train station in 5 minutes, so in a move of desperation we knocked on the door. Thankfully the clerk was willing to open the door, and we quickly collected our bags and reached the station platform at 1:15.

At 1:20 the MittelRheinBahn stopped at the platform. “Not our train,” we thought. At 1:30 our ICE train approached the station. And kept going without stopping. DH and I looked at one another with dumbfoundedness--did that just happen? We quickly regrouped and walked over to the timetable on the platform. Somehow we missed the important note that we were supposed to have taken the 1:20 MittelRheinBahn to Oberwesel, where we would catch the 1:35 ICE train. You know, the one that blew by the St. Goar station at 1:30? The next MittelRheinBahn was not until 2:20, which meant we would arrive at Frankfurt airport exactly 61 minutes before our departure. Did I mention ours was the last of 6 flights to Dulles that day?

So...we sat on the platform for another 40 minutes. The children were relatively oblivious to the matter, but DH and I were contemplating the what-were-likely expensive flight change fees if we missed the 5:00 flight, not to mention the challenge of trying to find a hotel room for a night. At 2:15 we were poised and ready to jump on whatever train rolled past; thankfully it was the scheduled MittelRheinBahn to Mainz. In Mainz we caught the 3:40 ICE to Frankfurt airport. On the train the conductor was checking tickets--we had not purchased the correct tickets and should not have been on the high speed train. Whoops! The conductor was forgiving, thankfully, and waved us on for the 19 minute train ride to the airport. Of course, the ICE train was delayed for some reason, and we reached the airport at 4:10. The next thirty minutes were a blur as we raced first to check one piece of luggage (OK. So I bought some chocolate, Italian tuna, Nutella, Speculoos, Cassis syrup, etc. It’s not my fault I can’t carry this stuff on the plane.), and then raced to passport control and through security (Rats! The Teenager forgot to put his full bottle of shampoo into the checked bag, so we lost time while the very brave security agent rifled through a teen boy’s suitcase!). At 4:40 we reached our gate and boarded the flight home. At home we got the boxes of contraband KinderEggs past the crack Customs and Border Patrol agents, even though I had written “chocolate” on the form. Ha. And when we walked in the house later that evening our lazy Foxhound, who had obviously been well cared for by the neighbor, barely lifted his head from the sofa where he was lounging to greet us. We were home.

This was the first family trip that was not mostly scripted, and in the end we all decided that planning holidays based on frequent flier miles was fun. Amsterdam is a fabulous city, Belgium and The Netherlands (and Germany!) are beautiful countries, and we wouldn’t hesitate to return!

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