Travelogue: Jack and Dan's Most Excellent Adventure (Part 1)
This year’s trip is a bit different for me than previous visits. Instead of my family, I am travelling with a friend named Dan. He has never been to Europe before and we will be going to many places with which I am already familiar. While it will be neat to share many of my favorite locations with this friend and watch him experience Europe for the first time, it is also a bit odd as Deille and I are a great team on these trips. Also being away from my daughters for almost two weeks makes is a bit strange.
The Start of a Grand Adventure
We traveled the same route that I did with my family last summer. Starting from Phoenix, we flew to Denver on Southwest Airlines and then from Denver onto Keflavik on Icelandair. We had an extended layover in Iceland for about 36 hours allowing us to tour a bit of Iceland before heading onto the Netherlands. This year I got to fly Icelandair’s Saga class, which is billed as their equivalent to business class, but I do not think it can be honestly compared with the international business classes on other airlines. I would say the seats are similar to what you would get flying US Air business class within North America, but the service is better on Icelandair. The best part was that the cost was less than flying premium economy on British Airways from Phoenix to Frankfurt and the amenities were also better.
The weather in Iceland was a bit dreary, but compared to the possibilities it was not that bad. After landing at 6:45 AM we headed to our hotel (The Keflavik Airport B&B) which is 5 minutes from the airport. We were able to do an early check in, stow our luggage and get a shower before hitting the road in our rental car. We knew that we would eventually get tired and so we decided to head straight for Geysir and Gulfoss. I had seen both of these natural wonders just last summer but that did not bother me at all.
Geysir is the name of the largest geyser located at an area of geothermal activity on the famous Icelandic Golden Circle tour. There are also several smaller geysers, mud pots and areas were hot water just seems to be seeping from the earth also located in the same area as Geysir. Geysir no longer erupts on a predictable schedule but it’s slightly smaller brother Stokkur does and we were able to see it erupt several times.
From Geysir we headed a very short distance up the road to Gullfoss which is a double waterfall made up of water from the glacier upriver. You can see the glacier off in the distance and that in itself is incredibly impressive and beautiful. This had been my favorite sight last year and I believe it thoroughly impressed Dan as well.
After leaving Gulfoss we had to make the two hour drive back to our room. It was at this point that I realized how flawed our plan was. I was incredibly tired and so we had to stop several times so that I could get out and stretch to refocus myself. We also stopped for a late lunch of soup, which seems to be a common lunch in Iceland. In the end we made it back to our room about 3 PM and decided we had to take a nap, but not too long as we wanted to get our sleep scheduled adjusted as soon as possible.
After a 3 hour nap we decided to head a short distance up the road to the town of Harnarfjöður where they have a Viking themed hotel and restaurant. Unfortunately we had arrived one day too early for their annual Viking festival but we could still enjoy a traditional Icelandic dinner. When the waiter came to take our order I asked him what his suggestions were. He suggested several of the lamb dishes including one call sheep’s head. Yes this dish is named exactly as it is. I asked the young man if he enjoyed sheep’s head and the look on his face was all I needed to see to decide on the lamb filet. Dan had the lamb shank and we both enjoyed our meals. The German at the table next to use did have the sheep’s head and I could not resist asking him what he thought of his hearty Icelandic meal. He told me that it was the first time he had ever tried it, and that he did not think he needed to try it again. I also noticed that they had a whale dish on the menu as well as a native bird called a gullimot.
After our meal we walked outside to where they were preparing for the Viking festival. Several younger men and a few women where practicing their form of combat. It did not look choreographed, but it also was not full speed or contact. I thought of striking up a conversation with them, but it was getting late and decided it was time to head back to the hotel for the night.
Converting the world one hot dog at a time
On Friday we awoke to a sunnier day in Iceland, yet it was still a bit chilly. We had to be back to the airport by 2:30 to catch our flight to the Netherlands and so we decided to spend the morning in Reykjavik, which is the capital of Iceland and about 40 minutes from the airport. We headed for the National Museum of Iceland, known in Icelandic as the Þjóðminjasafn Íslands. We arrived before 10 AM and the museum was not yet open so that allowed us to walk down and around a lake park that is located in the center of Reykjavik. It is amazing the number of different types of flowers and trees that call Iceland their home. We also watched several of species of birds either floating on the lake or diving into it in search of a meal.
At 10 AM we headed back to the museum and although I had seen it last year, I was able to spend a bit more time looking at some of the exhibit’s this year and I noticed some new things. While there we met an elderly American who had just completed writing a book about how we can trace earlier contact with the Americas than Columbus or even the Vikings by looking at disease migrations. While it sounds that it might be a dry read I am curious to check it out. If anyone wants the details, please let me know.
After the museum our time in Iceland was growing short but we needed to get some lunch so we headed into the heart of the city. I had told Dan about how good the hotdogs of Iceland are, but I think he was skeptical. They have kind of become the national food of the island. We headed for the actual stand that was visited by Bill Clinton when he was president. The only things that can be ordered from this stand are hotdogs and drinks. We decided just to have one each as an appetizer for our regular lunch. I had mine with everything, which included both fried and raw onions as well as several sauces, the only one I am sure of is ketchup. I think Dan only had his with mustard. Dan did like the hotdog, but I suspect he still thinks that my opinion of them is overblown. Maybe he would feel differently if he had one with everything…
After that we stopped at a café and I had a bowl of Icelandic meat stew (the meat was lamb) and Dan had a pasta dish. Both were good, but neither of us were able to finish on account of the hotdog appetizer. We then headed back to drop of our car and to get to the airport.
Acquiring an appropriate ride for an adventure
The flight to Amsterdam was very smooth and we were the only people in our section of the plane. As we flew over the Hebrides and Scotland I got a few glimpses of the landscape through breaks in the clouds. Both of these are place on my bucket list and I hope to see them from ground level some time.
By the time we landed in Amsterdam it was after 9 PM. We had to get our bags and then head to Hertz to pick up our car. I had secured a great deal on this car when I reserved it back in January, but I kept my eyes on rates as we approached our departure just in case something better came along. I never saw anything within 200 Euros of the rate I had confirmed. At the counter the agent tried to get me to upgrade to a car with navigation, but I declined as I did not want to do anything that would jeopardize my rate and I also had my Garmin navigation. After getting the contract we headed out to the actual lot. When we arrive we found that our car was a purple Mercedes CLA-200. Obviously the perfect car for two guys on a grand adventure! Also, the car had a built-in navigation system. I am convinced the agent knew this and was just trying to make extra money for the company.
By the time we reached the Courtyard Marriott it was almost 11 PM, and after a quick snack it was off to bed.
Crossing the Rhine
On Saturday morning we went to the home of our friend Tamalene and her Dutch husband Jasper to spend the morning with them prior to heading to Germany. They took us to a really neat farm where the family produces their own cheese. We were able to sample many kinds, and in the end we bought two small rounds to eat as we tour Germany and we also plan to return to this farm prior to heading to the airport to ship some home.
Before departing on our drive to Germany, Jasper made some changes on the car’s navigation to make it speak English. We then plugged in the address for the vacation rental in Germany and headed on our way. The drive was uneventful, but we made a couple of stops for lunch and some basic grocery shopping. After dropping off our luggage at the house we headed down the hill to the town of Bacharach and walked along the medieval wall and around the town before having dinner at a restaurant that now exists in the old Templar chapter house.
The Majestic Rhine
On Sunday, after having breakfast in our vacation rental, we headed north along the west side of the Rhine River a short distance to the town of St Goar and then up to the castle/fortress of Rheinfels. I have been to Rheinfels many times but I believe it is the most impressive castle on the Middle Rhine and so I am always willing to accompany those who have not yet seen it. As expected, Dan was impressed with the sheer magnitude of this ruin, and what remains is just a small portion of what was once the most extensive fortress on this part of the Rhine.
We continued our trek north along the Rhine, stopping briefly in the town of Boppard to view the remains of a Roman wall and some Frankish graves. We also had impressive views of the many castles that line the river. During the middle ages this waterway was one of the most important merchant routes in Europe and every knight and Baron along the river wanted what he thought was his fair share of the income generated on this trade. Castles were set up to enforce the collection of tolls. I am sure the castles were frustrating to the businessmen of the day, but now the remains evoke the romantic ideas of this period.
We reached the city of Koblenz in the late morning, found a place to park and headed for an area known as the Deutsches Eck. We stopped for lunch at one of the many restaurant choices along the river bank and both of us had meals featuring fresh asparagus. I do not think that there is any vegetable better than the white asparagus that you can get in Germany this time of year. Dan had his with a schnitzel and I had mine with ham. Both came with boiled potatoes and hollandaise sauce. We both left very satisfied with our meal choices.
The Deutsches Eck is a promontory at the point where the Mosel River flows into the Rhine. Its name is derived from German order of the Teutonic Knights whom had their headquarters in a nearby building in the 13th century. The spot is dominated by a monument and statue of Kaiser Wilhelm I on a horse. The current statue is a replacement of the one that was destroyed during World War II, but was built true to the Prussian era design and is very over the top militaristically. The area around the statue was full of tourists, like us taking pictures. There was also some kind of fest going on with lots of food vendors, and I kind of regretted not waiting to eat until we got here, then I remembered how good the fresh asparagus had been.
From the Deutsches Eck we were able to take a cable car called the Seilbahn to the opposite side of the Rhine River so that we could tour the fortress of Ehrenbreitstein. The original fortress on this location was leveled by Napoleonic troops in 1801, but was then replaced by the Prussians in 1832 with what was one of the strongest fortifications in Europe at the time. I am not as interested in Prussian era history as I am in the medieval period, but the scale of the place was amazing. The perfect angles and the smooth finish of the walls set it apart from the more haphazard feel of medieval fortifications. Also there are huge open areas within the walls that appear to now be used for concerts and other events, something that I do not believe you would find in most medieval castles.
The Mosel is Majestic too
After making our way back to our car we decided to drive west on the Mosel River to the town of Cochem. The drive along the Mosel was very nice and while the river is somewhat smaller than the Rhine it was still an important trade route in the Middle Ages. Like the Rhine the local lords were not going to be left out. As we drove up the river and past the castles that line this river we noticed more and more motorcycles on the road, many passing us at what seemed like very unsafe opportunities. When we reached Cochem it appeared as if we had driven into a motorcycle rally, there were so many bikes and people dressed in leather riding outfits.
In Arizona there is no helmet law, which means that people riding motorcycles are not required to protect their head and are free to leave their brains smeared across the road if they have a bad accident. In Germany, the officials would prefer that the brain be left in tacked so that in the event of a bad accident the person may end up as a quadriplegic but at least they will know why they are paralyzed. Likewise (I do not know if it is law or fashion) Germans always seem to wear leather riding outfits (often with added padding) when they ride, giving them the appearance of extra’s in the Road warrior movie. This is opposed to the shorts, t-shirt and flip flops that you are likely to see a rider wearing as they speed down the interstate on a 100 degree day in Phoenix.
Be on the lookout for two tourists in a purple Mercedes
It was also in Cochem that we decided to become clueless tourists. We saw that there was a nice castle situated above the town, which according to our travel guide (Lonely Planet), can be viewed via a tour and contains a hotel and restaurant. We thought it would be nice to get the tour and have a snack, but our attempt to find a way to drive up to the castle proved to be a challenge. We eventually ended up taking a very windy road up into the hills above the city and then back down into the town behind the castle. We found an entrance to what appeared to be the road leading up to the castle. I did notice that there were many cars parked around this entrance, but it was not a formal parking area, so I decided there must be a lot up nearer to the castle. I guess I should have paid more attention to the signage, or perhaps the stares from the walking Germans we passed, but I was too busy avoiding hitting them and trying to find the elusive parking platz that I knew had to exist closer to the castle. I mean, how could you expect people who are staying at the castle to drag their luggage up this steep hill? By the time the realization that we had made a big mistake sunk in we had gotten to the point were the only thing I could do was to back up a ways and then make an interesting multipoint turn. If any other car had decided to try what I was doing and had met me in the middle they would have needed a helicopter to lift one of us out. On the way down I did notice the looks the Germans were giving me… and I also noticed all the signs that told me not to drive up this way (of course I had to look at them in my rear-view mirror as they did not expect people to be reading them from the direction I was now heading). Luckily we made our escape before the local authorities caught up with us, and we decided it was best if we put this town behind us.
After making our escape we decided to head to Burg Eltz, which is probably one of the best preserved castles in German. Unlike most of the castles along the Rhine and the Mosel, which are on hills, this castle is a few kilometers from the river, hidden in a valley. As seems to be a trend on this trip we took a very indirect route to get to the castle, but once there we were not disappointed (despite the obvious touristy feel to the place). The castle is privately owned and has been in the same family for the last thousand years. You can only view the inside of the castle as part of a guided tour, and while there are over 80 rooms you only get to tour around 10 of them. Despite this, the tour is worth the money. Our tour guide was very good and did the tour in both English and German. One of the things he mentioned was how the family had been very good at marrying their children into other families, which gave them lots of allies and probably helped ensure that the castle was only sieged once and never sacked or destroyed.
After leaving Burg Eltz we headed back to our vacation rental in Bacharach. We had a quick meal at an Italian restaurant in Oberwesel and then made the drive up the hill. It had been a long but good day.
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Travelogue: Jack and Dan's Most Excellent Adventure
Travelogue: Jack and Dan's Most Excellent Adventure (Part 1)