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Trip Report Two weeks in Germany, plus Alsace and Zurich

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I traveled to Germany – and briefly Alsace, France and also Zurich – during the first two weeks of April 2014. A few months late, here, finally, is my trip report!

Pictures are linked in each section below – but to see just the highlights, start here:

Germany Highlights: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,88,0,1,0-freiburg-germany.html
Alsace: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,395,1,1,0-france.html
Zurich: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,416,1,0,0-switzerland.html

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    Planning the Trip

    Why Germany? This was to be my tenth trip to Europe, but for some reason, other than brief visits to Munich and Berchtesgaden, I had never spent much time in Germany, not even a night. I'm a minor history buff of sorts – can't explain why I never made it to Berlin when I was nearby in Prague, but it never worked out. I finally decided to visit in 2014.

    I'd also heard good things about Dresden, which isn't far from Berlin. So my initial planning evolved with Berlin and Dresden as the basis, with more stops to be added later.

    Next, I scored an Alaska Airlines award ticket for a round-trip between Portland and Paris for two weeks in April (Alaska Airlines is an American Airlines partner, so Paris via AA flights out of Chicago). The most practical way to me to see Berlin and Dresden was to train up there from Paris and fly back to Paris at the end – or vice versa. I could have flown directly to/from eastern Germany I guess, or I could have started somewhere besides Germany, but I enjoy train travel especially in Europe. I had already been to Paris as recently as 2013 so I decided not to spend any more time there on this trip.

    Western Germany didn't excite me much, to be honest, but I found certain places interesting as I leafed through my Rick Steves Germany book. Alsace in France would be an easy starting point on the way up too and I had never been there. I decided to stop there first.

    April didn't seem like an ideal time to visit Europe. I'd previously had my best luck, weather-wise, in September. But I decided to go for it, given the almost-free award ticket, and make the best of it. At least in April I wouldn't encounter many tourists.

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    Final Itinerary

    Although I settled on Dresden and Berlin at the end and Colmar/Alsace in the beginning, I left the middle of my trip flexible, as I couldn't quite decide where I wanted to go and thought I wouldn't have trouble finding lodging off-season. But this is what I settled on (almost entirely done by train, sometimes via bus):

    Colmar, Alsace, France (1 night)
    Freiburg im Breisgau(3 nights – base for day trips)
    Cochem, Mosel Valley (1 night)
    Rothenburg ob der Tauber (1 night)
    Nuremberg (1 night)
    Dresden (2 nights)
    Görlitz (1 night)
    Berlin (4 nights)


    You can see on a map (see below) that I covered a lot of ground quickly between Freiburg and Dresden.

    https://goo.gl/maps/85etT

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    My Travel Style

    I probably don't travel like you do – my trips are usually solo trips primarily for photography. I love to explore cities, wandering around and taking pictures. Although I love history, I usually get bored quickly in museums and often avoid them – but sometimes I force myself to visit them. I don't drink alcohol or each a wide variety of food; I usually seek out the most convenient, casual places for a quick bite and patronize sit-down restaurants only rarely. Mostly, it's pizza or a sandwich on the run. I'm not even beyond patronizing the occasional McDonalds for a meal in Europe when there's no great other choice; I managed not to patronize any McDonalds in Germany on this trip, however.

    I have no doubt that some of the veteran German travelers who read this will roll their eyes at parts of this report. My trip wasn't the typical trip to Germany. I don't expect anyone to try to follow my exact itinerary, especially the crazy fast part between Freiburg and Dresden.

    And although I wasn't on a particular budget in Germany, I am a frugal traveler. I'll pay extra for a hotel or B&B in a good location if need be, but I would consider a taxi a splurge; usually I take public transportation or just drag my small bags 10-15 minutes from a train station to the hotel. I've done it a dozen or two times now and usually don't mind!

    I travel to Europe with only two carry-on bags with a bunch of camera gear – including a small tripod – and a small laptop. I had a cheap Android phone with T-Mobile service that worked well with international roaming in Europe – free unlimited 2G (slow) data and 20 cents a minute calls to the US or FREE WiFi calls home. The 2G data on the phone and the hotspot of my phone allowed me to use the laptop anywhere – even on trains – to get online and check email, make hotel reservations, etc.

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    Arrival in Europe

    I flew coach from Portland, Oregon to Paris with a connecting flight at Chicago O'Hare - sometimes a connection nightmare but I was lucky, no delays. I was on American Airlines flight, a 767 that was maybe 2/3 full and managed to get a bulkhead aisle seat with an empty seat next to me, just by checking in at the gate in Chicago. I'm tall, so the extra room provided by bulkhead was greatly appreciated.

    Our flight was routine and a little early – due in at 9:10 but about 25 minutes early. Immigration was unbelievably fast at Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. I timed myself: it took a whopping seven minutes to get from the plane door through immigration and past baggage claim (I was nearly first off the plane and there was no one in front of me in line for immigration.) I checked no bags – everything was in two carry-on bags (one a “personal item” that is a big camera bag).

    I had booked a TGV train directly from CDG airport to Strasbourg ahead of time, departing at 10:26. If the plane had been late it might have been a tight connection, but because we were early I had more than enough time to walk to the airport train station – enough time to hit the ATM and take my time. I made the rookie mistake of taking out 50 Euro from the ATM and got a single 50 Euro bill back (hard to break at some smaller stores), so I had to break it at the airport Relay convenience store by buying a bottle of water. The cashier took the large bill without complaint.

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    Strasbourg (day trip, stop off the train from Paris)

    (Strasbourg Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,400,1,0,0-strasbourg-france.html )

    The train ride from Paris was pretty enough. It was a mostly sunny day. The TGV train was modern and comfortable as expected; I'd taken one from Paris to Luxembourg City in 2013. The ride took about 2.5 hours. I managed to stay awake.

    I got off the train from Paris in Strasbourg, and before even leaving the station bought a regional train ticket to Colmar from one of the train ticket vending machine (no problem using my chip-and-pin Visa card). I found a locker for my bags (required going though airport-like x-ray screening; this is a seat of the European Parliament after all), and headed out to explore the town on foot.

    Strasbourg is a walkable city, with its core surrounded by a river and canal. You can take a tram into the center from the train station, but it's easy to walk, as I did, and that's part of the fun. You can also take boat tours in the canal/river, something I didn't want to waste time on with only a few hours in town. On this day it was warm and I had a few hours to check things out, take some pictures, and grab some lunch before heading on to Colmar.

    I found the cathedral (hard to miss) but didn't go inside – I've seen a few great cathedrals and don't feel a great need to see insides much anymore. I didn't visit any museums. Instead I took pictures and explored on this beautiful warm April afternoon. I found a sandwich and camped out on bench by the canal for a little while to rest my feet yet stay awake. (I practice the “stay awake all day the first day” approach to getting over jet lag.)

    Finally I found my way to La Petite France, a kind of touristy area with its distinct half-timbered houses and quaint restaurants, and Pont Couverts, which I had wanted to photograph.

    Then I made my way back to the train station, just in time to catch the next train on to Colmar so I would get in there at a decent hour.

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    Colmar (1 night)

    (Colmar Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,395,1,0,0-france.html )

    Colmar's train station looked familiar – I'd already seen a copy of it, in Gdańsk, Poland (architects there copied the design of Colmar's station). I walked about 15 minutes from the station to my hotel, the Le Rapp, close to the center of town and almost ideally located. The hotel was pretty highly rated. I thought it was merely OK – the hallway up to my room had an unpleasant odor and my room felt a bit stuffy and old, though everything was clean and the bed was comfy enough. The receptionist spoke English and was friendly and answered a few questions. The hotel also has a noted restaurant but I didn't eat there.

    Then I walked around and explored and managed to enter the small Bartholdi Museum (dedicated to the artist who created the Statue of Liberty) about a half hour before closing; because it was small and most text was not in English, I hadn't anticipated needing much time here anyway. The museum is nothing special and notable only if you are super interested in the statue or his other work. A half hour was plenty for me.

    Colmar is a fun town to explore – lots of weird turns and neat squares, easy to get lost, which I did more than once. I loved it. It felt a bit touristy but also a real town at the same time – a town that knows it is popular and beautiful.

    I found a pizza place for dinner – sorry, no famed Alsatian cuisine for me, I simply wasn't interested – and headed to Petite Venise to shoot some dusk pictures. A few of them came out pretty well.

    I slept OK at the Le Rapp – typical for the first night after the overnight flight to Europe for me. Jet lag usually creeps up the following nights.

    The next morning I arrived at the Unterlinden museum nearly first thing. I am not a museum person, and I probably should have skipped this one. I'm sure it is an art lover's paradise but it was largely beyond my interest.

    The architecture in Strasbourg and Colmar is similar, but Colmar feels like much more of a town whereas Strasbourg, with its trams, a big university, and the European Parliament, feels much more cosmopolitan. Colmar's Petite Venise feels like a miniature version of Strasbourg's La Petite France, with its own canal (though Colmar isn't surrounded by water like Strasbourg is). The pace of life in Colmar feels slower and more relaxing: just a nice town. I preferred Colmar slightly but am glad I got to see both towns.

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    Freiburg im Breisgau (3 nights)

    (Freiburg Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,401,1,0,0-germany.html )

    There are a few ways to travel by public transportation from Colmar to Freiburg. I chose the easiest way: a bus from Colmar to Breisach in Germany, and then a commuter train from there to Freiburg. They've worked out the route for tourists, so it is coordinated a few times a day (you buy your ticket on the bus, good for the German segment too). There is no direct train from Colmar; you'd need an out-of-the-way train connection to do it all by train – takes longer and costs more. Note that if you stay in Strasbourg (I considered doing that at one point) there is a direct bus from Strasbourg to Freiburg as well.

    I walked easily (about 15 minutes) to my hotel, the Hotel Schwarzwälder Hof, where I stayed in a tiny but modern and clean room. A daily transit pass – the “KONUS” card, good for ALL transit in the region, buses, trams, local trains – is included with your hotel room here. (if you stay elsewhere in the Black Forest region, you will likely get the same KONUS card with your hotel room.) I used the pass for all of my local bus and train trips.

    Freiburg feels relaxed and welcoming and...efficient, but not particularly exciting or charming if you're been to Europe much. But that's about what I expected. I stayed three nights here as a base for day trips, which I took to Staufen (small town nearby), Zurich, and a little Black Forest hike from St. Margen to St. Peter (see below).

    The weather was warm enough but not particularly sunny – one day (the day I went to Zurich) it rained. When not doing day trips, I explored Freiburg, took lots of pictures, and walked down to the tiny river where the locals seem to go to relax by the river bank. I hiked up the steps of the Schlossberg just east of the town to get a good view, but because it was overcast I didn't get any particularly nice pictures. I saw the cathedral but didn't bother to go inside.

    For dinner one night I hiked to the south part of town (near the university district) to an Italian restaurant that had good reviews, but it wasn't memorable enough even to mention the name. Otherwise, I found the casual “market hall food court” which had a variety of food to choose from. Sometimes in the evenings they had live music so it could get crowded. But this is the kind of place I prefer when I'm traveling alone vs. a sit-down restaurant.

    Freiburg met my expectations as an OK town and a convenient base by public transportation for exploring the region, but it didn't impress me much otherwise.

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    Staufen (day trip)

    (Staufen Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,403,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I traveled by regional train from Freiburg's main train station down to Staufen, with a connection in Bad Krozingen ; there are frequent trains and it's an easy trip. It's a pleasant five minute walk from Staufen's train station into the center of town. I spent only a few hours there. The center of town is quite small.

    Staufen's main street, Hauptstrasse , with its cute color-coordinated houses, feels like kind of a “model town” - almost like a German Disney town without the tourists. (That is, “Disney Town” not “DisneyLAND.”) It is a real working/living town, but it feels almost too nice. Using Rick Steves as my guide, I also explored the side streets – which have nice but much more ordinary homes. I also found my way to the town cemetery, which was intriguing.

    Staufen might make a nice base for touring the Black Forest if you have a car, but by public transit it's probably not as practical. The town just isn't that big. It would be a fun place to come home to in the evening, have a nice dinner at one of the local restaurants, etc. whereas Frieburg is a fairly large town (or small city) better connected to the rest of the region.

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    Black Forest Hike: St. Margen to St. Peter

    (Black Forest Hike Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,402,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I followed the Rick Steves recommended “Black Forest Hike” hike from his Germany book almost exactly: I took the train to bus to the little town of St. Margen and hiked (mostly) downhill to the slightly larger small town of St. Peter, hiking several hours through or on the outskirts of the woods, where the trails are well marked. On a Friday afternoon in early April, the trails were almost empty.

    The towns themselves are very small, cute but not particularly memorable; . The views on the hike might have been breathtaking (see my pictures) had it not been overcast. The views still weren't bad. Beyond the views, the hike is nothing special – just a hike through the woods. It's not a particularly strenuous hike – I found it very easy (about four miles). I had prepared for not-so-ideal weather in April anyway, so even though the fact that I didn't have a sunny day for my hike was disappointing...at least it wasn't rainy or cold.

    The whole adventure took about half a day. On a beautiful sunny day, I'd highly recommend it; otherwise, maybe...

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    Zurich (day trip)

    (Zurich Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,416,1,0,0-switzerland.html )

    I decided relatively late in my trip planning to stay an extra day in Freiburg so I could sneak in a visit to Switzerland, a country I'd never visited. Zurich may not be most people's idea of “postcard Switzerland” - and most people don't go to Switzerland for the big cities, -but I like cities and thought I'd give it a quick go. A visit to some small, picturesque village with beautiful views might have been more rewarding, but as a day trip from Freiburg it might have been too complicated. And when it's raining, I'd prefer to be in a city anyway.

    I knew little about Switzerland, but I could see two cities that were within striking distance by public transportation from Freiburg. Basel was certainly closer to Freiburg and easier to get to (lots of direct daily inexpensive German trains) and was only an hour away. Zurich is about two hours from Frieburg each way – and unfortunately the trains are very expensive if you don't book them in advance: something like 40 Euros each way(!). Yikes. But I stumbled upon a German bus company called MeinFernBus that runs buses all over Germany and to cities adjacent to Germany. The bus was only 13 euros one way to Zurich and 8 euros back (had I booked a week earlier, would have been 8 euros each way.

    So on a rainy Saturday morning I headed by bus to Zurich – only 2 ¼ hours. The bus ride was very smooth and comfortable, mostly along good highways. The bus dropped us just opposite the main train station. It took me a few minutes to get my bearings from the bus stop in Zurich, but once I did I found myself exploring delightful twisted streets on both sides of the river. And the clock towers – wow! For some reason, I'm drawn to photographing big clocks at the top of town halls and churches. Zurich is loaded with them.

    It was drizzling on and off in Zurich, but I didn't let the rain bother me much. I don't think the sun ever came out all day. I still enjoyed walking around and exploring. I found some of the best viewpoints. I briefly wandered around the edge of Lake Zurich – sadly, no views of the Alps on this rainy day. There were excursion boats out to the lake but I didn't see a point of taking one on this not-so-sunny day.

    I didn't spend one nickel in Zurich. First of all, all I had were Euros, and I didn't feel like getting Swiss currency from an ATM and have to find a way spend it all in a few hours. Second, Zurich is so ungodly expensive. I passed a Starbucks (great choice for clean bathrooms by the way) and calculated that my favorite Starbucks drink would have cost about $9.50 USD there – almost 3X the cost as in the US!

    I had a great few hours exploring Zurich, and I'm glad I worked it into my itinerary, to add a little dimension to my trip beyond “just Germany.” The bus ride was much nicer than expected, and the price could not be beat!

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    Buying German Train Tickets

    I didn't buy any train tickets ahead of time for Germany (not more than a day or two ahead, anyway). Many travelers buy their German train tickets far in advance online to take advantage of saver fares, and last minute train fares can get expensive. Or, they buy a Germain Rail Pass, which lets them decide on the fly which days to take the trains. I was trying to be flexible and planned to buy a Rail Pass once I got to Germany. I didn't need to buy anything until I left Freiburg (my KONUS pass covered all regional travel near Freiburg).

    Unfortunately, I didn't bother to check ahead of time whether it was possible to buy a rail pass anywhere. I naively assumed I could buy a German Rail Pass in Freiburg or any major train station if I wanted to. Not true! Only the major train stations (e.g. Berlin, Basel) sell the pass. (You can also buy a pass well in advance of your trip and have it snail mailed to you – obviously far too late for that in my case as I was already in Germany.)

    So I was stuck buying my train tickets usually the day before travel. It's still often cheaper – 20% off? - to buy tickets the day before you travel vs. day-of-travel except for local/regional trains. Sometimes I bought tickets from the DB Bahn ticket machines you find at every train station; sometimes I bought them online if I had a way to print them out. (My chip-and-PIN Visa card worked in the machines – if you have an American-style magnetic strip card, it may not.) There is no difference in price buying from a ticket machine vs. buying online, but sometimes it was easier to buy a ticket online vs. having to trek back to a train station just to buy a ticket.

    I never figured out if it was possible for an American tourist to display a DB Bahn ticket purchased on their website on one's phone instead of printing it out – but everything I read convinced me I'd need a printed hard copy to present on the train, so I planned to print out tickets purchased online somewhere . (This become important one morning in Cochem – see below). Of course you can buy train tickets from a ticket office at a German rail station from a human being as well, but I found out there is a small service charge to do so. If know where you are going and roughly which trains you want – I generally did – it's cheaper to buy them at a self-service machine or online from DB Bahn's website than to buy them from a human being at a ticket office.

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    From Freiburg to the Mosel Valley

    Up to and including Freiburg, my trip plan seems fairly conventional and not too rushed. I didn't cover a lot of distance over my first four nights; Colmar isn't far from Freiburg. But from Freiburg I shifted into overdrive for the next few nights: I trained up to the Mosel Valley for (it turned out) only a single night, in Cochem, and then the next day trained all the way over to Rothenburg ob der Tauber! It was quite the mad dash - I didn't quite plan it this way originally.

    The Mosel Valley was a questionable detour for such a short visit. It would have made more sense either to skip it and go straight up from Freiburg to Rothenburg – or simply slow down and spend more time in the Mosel Valley and/or the nearby Rhine Valley. While I was planning my trip, I couldn't decide whether I should bother with detour or not – and finally I decided on a minimum of two nights in Mosel/Rhine Valley area if going at all but left open the option of changing things up on the fly. If the Mosel/Rhine Valleys were going to get heavy rain, for example, why even bother going up there?

    The train from Freiburg to Cochem took about 4.5 hours with two changes (Mainheim and Koblenz). I bought my ticket from the ticket machine at the Freiburg train station the night before departure.

    The scenery from the train was just OK until we started following the Rhine River, viewing all the castles and cute little towns and the river barges – very pretty, even though you are moving pretty fast!

    My plan for the Mosel Valley was: train to Cochem (a local train from Koblenz), hang out for the afternoon in Cochem, then the next morning hike up to the castle Burg Eltz, about a 45 minute hike from the tiny town Mosel town of Moselkern (as described in my Rick Steves book; in April there weren't any better public transportation options to get up to the castle.) And from there – to Bacharach in the Rhine Valley? That was the rough plan, anyway...

    Burg Eltz was supposed to be a beautiful castle and the biggest draw for me in the Mosel Valley, though the river area itself looked beautiful and picturesque. As I trained from Koblenz down toward Cochem I checked the weather forecast (on my laptop, online via my T-Mobile phone) for Monday – and rain/overcast weather was predicted, meaning probably not a pleasant day to hike or photograph the castle! Meanwhile, at that moment, it was sunny and beautiful. What a shame I couldn't hike up to Burg Eltz RIGHT NOW!

    Or maybe I could hike up right now? My train was due to stop in Moselkern in just a few minutes on the way to Cochem. Hmm...

    If I first went on to Cochem and checked into my hotel, etc. then trained right back to Moselkern, with regional trains running only about once an hour in each direction, I'd lose at least two hours, and it was already past 13:00. I had to decide quickly: get off now? I decided to hop off at Moselkern and figure it out.

    But where to leave my bags? There were no lockers at the super-tiny unstaffed Moselkern train station. I dragged my bags about ten minutes from the station into town. Rick Steves suggests leaving bags at the Hotel Moselkern, which I found but it was closed – at least the doors were locked. Moselkern is a super tiny town, with maybe two restaurants/hotels in town, tops. I passed a bar that was open (which turned out to be the Garni Hotel Am Rebstock), the only place in town that seemed to be open on a Sunday afternoon. I poked my head in and asked the bar manager if I could leave my bags and she said, “Sure.” I didn't know the place but it felt safe, so why not? It didn't feel like a big risk.

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    Hiking to Burg Eltz

    (Burg Eltz Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,405,1,0,0-germany.html )

    Rick Steves makes the hike from Moselkern up to the castle sound like some sort of magical experience, but I found it ordinary though otherwise pretty; to most Americans it would seem like a routine hike through the woods. (I'll bet fall colors are nice, though). Could be anywhere in the US...until you see the castle. (Wow!). The hike was easy, the trails were good (it hadn't been raining so the trails weren't wet), and I hiked it in maybe 45 minutes, probably less, but I stopped often for pictures.

    The initial approach to Burg Eltz from the main trail doesn't offer an appealing location from which to take pictures – it puts you too close, plus the sun was nearly behind the castle (so I'd be shooting almost into the sun) when I arrived mid-afternoon. Before crossing the stream to get to the castle, I decided to take an unmarked hiking path up the steep hill facing the castle and look for a pass-through to shoot pictures. Sure enough, I found an opening in the trees, from where I could see the castle from above, with good light too! It was a bit of a hike up the hill but it was worth it. It turns out there are other appealing viewpoints of the castle if you hike past it toward the parking lot, but I liked the view down from above, through the trees, the best.

    The sun was going in and out with the afternoon clouds starting to roll in. I had timed my visit pretty well; the sun the next day (it turned out) wouldn't have been as nice.

    As with cathedrals, I often don't even bother going into castles anymore – I hate to sound jaded and use the cliché “if you've seen one castle...,” but at least on the inside they mostly seem like that to me after having seen a few. (Yes, I know, that is probably a bit unfair.) On the outside castles do look distinct, of course, and I love to photograph them. I decided to go inside Burg Eltz anyway (I had just hiked all the way up, so why hot?) To see Berg Eltz, you have to take a guided tour (got one in English, not all of them are) to get in. The tour was nothing special and was short – and the castle inside wasn't that interesting. The story of the place was a bit underwhelming. One of the big draws of Burg Eltz, though, is that it is original – it wasn't bombed out and rebuilt later. And it is a striking castle on the outside.

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    Cochem (1 night)

    (Cochem Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,M25D0IMG20354,405,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I hiked back down to Moselkern and got my bags (tipped the bar manager 5 Euros because I didn't have time to stop and buy something – she didn't want to charge me anything) then headed on to Cochem on the next train. By now it was getting late. I had foregone possible afternoon activities in Cochem (e.g. some sort of falcon show), but I felt I'd made the right choice hiking to Burg Eltz instead.

    The walk from the Cochem train station to my hotel, the Hotel am Hafen, was about 15 minutes. The sun was mostly clouded over now, but as I walked toward town it kept peeking out here and there, putting great afternoon light on the Cochem Castle and some of the buildings; I couldn't resist the desire to stop and take and take pictures each time this happened.

    The Am Hafen is just across the river from the center of Cochem, and the Mosel isn't very wide here, so it's a quick walk. The hotel was cheap, probably in part due to the season (only barely beginning). I hadn't even realized my room had a balcony overlooking the river and Cochem – wow! I shot pictures at dusk of the beautiful reflections in the calm river of Cochem from that balcony. Too bad I wouldn't have much time to enjoy it. The room itself was clean but very old-feeling, like it had last been updated in the 1970s.

    It turned out the balcony view and the cheap price were the only redeeming qualities of the Hotel am Hafen. Customer service was not on high on the list – maybe not anywhere on the list. After a few problems with the WiFi (the password – a poor choice because you could type it different ways (is that an “oh” or a “zero?”) - did not work in any combination, and I'm not a computer novice), I finally talked to the manager, who typed in the same password I had tried several times, and of course it worked right away. (I'm guessing he rebooted the router right before that). I also asked him about printing out the train ticket that I was planning to buy online that evening. This is a pretty standard request for a hotel in Europe – lots of people travel by train. He said he could print it the next morning if I emailed it to him, which I did. Sadly, this did not turn out well (read the section below).

    Cochem was pretty dead in early April, though finding an open restaurant on a Sunday night was not a problem. I did scout out restaurants across the river in the town itself (barely a 10 minute walk) but settled on an Italian restaurant right across the street from my hotel. It wasn't particularly good or worth mentioning. I probably should have gotten cheap take-away pizza in town.

    As for Cochem: I had little time there, of course so not much time to judge. It is a beautiful little tourist town (though larger than you might think). Something about the town makes you want to relax and stay a while. It would be the perfect base a relaxing vacation in the Mosel Valley. But that wasn't the kind of trip I was on.

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    After Cochem – Where Next?

    Sitting my hotel room in Cochem after dinner, I had to make the final decision about where to go next. (To buy a train ticket before day of departure, so I could save a few euros). I could have gone on to Bacharach/Rhine Valley as planned, but – yes, some will think me nuts – I felt like I'd already seen enough of this area. I just wasn't feeling the need to see anymore castles up close – I'd already seen them from the train, right? Ha ha. OK, that's a bit unfair. I might have taken a Rhine cruise, but weather for the next day was possibly going to be rainy – and off season, with fewer tourist boats, would it really be worth the effort? Perhaps not.

    So instead – Rothenburg ob der Tauber? Nuremberg? Stay in Bamberg but day trip to Nuremberg? Skip all of that and head on up to Dresden? I had a tough time decided whether to go to any or all of these other places.

    Rothenberg was a “maybe” just because I'd heard it was super touristy and I've become slightly allergic to places like that. Nuremberg was a “maybe” because the city didn't interest me a whole lot – but the former Nazi grounds just outside of town did intrigue me. But Nuremberg was pretty booked up for a trade fair, and I'd be paying a lot for a dumpy hotel, most likely, or staying far aware from the center on the outskirts. I could stay in the town of Bamberg and train into Nuremberg for the day, but then going on to Dresden the following day would be a longer trip.

    Finally I decided upon Rothenburg and bought the train ticket on DB Bahn's website . I could have hiked up to the train station and bought the ticket from a machine with my credit card, but I was tired. And the manager had said he would print out my ticket if I emailed it to him...

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    How to print a train ticket in Cochem an hour before your train when your hotel won't help you

    (As I read this later, it sounds a bit over-dramatic, but at the time it was a bit stressful!)

    Too bad I couldn't find a way (if there was a way) to show my train ticket on my phone – I did this with the bus ticket from Freiburg to Zurich and it worked fine. When purchasing a train ticket online, I just assumed I'd find a way to print it. I had done this before at hotels when traveling in Europe – all hotels have printers.

    The am Hafen manager said he would print out my ticket in the morning if I emailed it to him, so it seemed a safe bet. Otherwise, my purchased ticket would be worthless and I'd have to buy another ticket and/or wait for another train. And the ticket to Rothenburg ob der Tauber cost 89 Euros, over $100 USD. My train was scheduled to depart Cochem at about 10:00am.

    That morning before breakfast at the am Hafen, I inquired about the ticket, thinking it would be waiting for me, and was told the hotel manager hadn't shown up yet – he was on his way in. OK – that made me a little nervous, as my train left in about two hours, but I figured he'd show up by the time I finished breakfast. But he didn't.

    Now what to do? The only staff at the hotel were an English-speaking breakfast sever (a young woman without much authority), who tried to be helpful but had no real authority, and a middle aged German-speaking woman, an assistant manager of some sort, who simply didn't want to be bothered. Apparently, the hotel had a printer connected to its office computer (right behind the front desk – I could see through the open door), and no one was supposed to touch it lest they upset the manager. She could have plugged in my thumb drive and printed my ticket, or I could have guided her without even touching the computer. But she didn't want me going into the office at all and maybe wasn't computer-savvy or something. She simply didn't want to help me – that was the real problem. She was more interested in not getting in trouble with the boss than in helping a guest at the hotel not lose an 89 Euro train ticket.

    At first she hinted she might help and disappeared into the office, but that was just a brush-off to get me to leave her alone; a few minutes later, I asked again and now she said (through body language and occasional translations) she would be unable to help me. I pleaded with her, but she said no – she simply didn't want me to go back into the office.

    OK – now I had an hour before my train, and I had a 15 minute walk with my bags to get to the station. If you can't/won't help me print the ticket, WHERE CAN I PRINT A TRAIN TICKET IN TOWN THEN? Another hotel? The server had no idea – you'd think someone who works in this town would have at least an idea and be eager to help a hotel guest one way or another. I didn't know Cochem – how was I supposed to know? The assistant manger wasn't even apologetic – she seemed more annoyed that I would even bother her with this request that might upset her boss, on this morning when the hotel was nearly empty.

    Now I was getting a bit frantic – either I'm going to be out $100 or miss my train or both, unless I could get the ticket printed. What to do? What would you have done?

    Flash drive and laptop in hand, I sprinted across the short bridge from the hotel to the town. Maybe I'd find another hotel and just beg them to print it – I wasn't sure what I'd do. Then I remembered: the Travel Information (TI) center I'd passed the night before, right at the other side of the bridge. I got there huffing and puffing right after they opened, at 9am. And...they had a shared computer with a printer! Hurray! I could pay a few euros for 15 minutes and print out my train ticket!

    The nice woman at the TI first thought I needed internet access, but once she saw I only needed to plug in my thumbdrive and print one page, she didn't charge me anything. Nice woman. SOMEONE in Cochem was nice to me!

    I hustled back to the hotel, quickly checked out, and made it up to my train in plenty of time – no thanks to the no-service attitude of the Hotel am Hafen!!!

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    Rothenburg ob der Tauber (1 night)

    (Rothenburg ob der Tauber Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,406,1,0,0-germany.html )

    The train trip from Cochem to Rothenburg was to be my second long train day in a row. Today I was doing another five hour trip but with three connections – far from ideal, but not quite as bad as it sounds. The connections were tight but I made all of them. The first change was at Koblenz again; we were late and I barely had time to make the scheduled 13 minute connection, but I still found the time to grab a currywurst for lunch while changing trains, something to eat on the next long train ride. On the way to Würzburg, our train hugged the Rhine again and I got another whirlwind train tour of the castles and towns along the river. (See that? I toured the Rhine TWICE!)

    (In retrospect, renting a car from Freiburg to say Rothenburg instead of taking the train might have made things easier and let me see a bit more. Oh, well.)

    I had checked out hotel options in Rothenburg earlier and confirmed that the town was probably not busy – lots of available hotels. A highly-rated little B&B, the Alter Keller (also a restaurant), popped up on Booking.com for a good price. I emailed them directly while on the train and got a quick response that they had an available room and that they would hold it for me.

    From Würzburg, another connection to Steinach, from where one takes a little regional train to Rothenburg itself. It sounds like a long trip, but it wasn't really bad at all.

    It was about a ten minute walk from the Rothenburg station into the center of town. The Alter Keller was close to the center. They also run a well-reviewed restaurant but it was closed the Monday I was there, other than breakfast for B&B guests. They have only a few rooms; mine was one of the larger ones but had a low doorway (I'm tall). Marcus, one of the owners, warned me to watch my head and offered a smaller room instead with a higher doorway but I said I'd be careful.

    The Alter Keller was really nice – not that the rooms were amazing (certainly clean and comfortable), but the couple that run the place were really welcoming and nice – quite a contrast from the previous night in Cochem. I asked about printing my train ticket again for the next day's train and was told, “Of course!” as if I barely needed to ask for such a simple request – but after the previous morning's fiasco, better safe than sorry.

    The Alter Keller was my favorite lodging of my entire trip, and I highly recommend it if you visit Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

    Next, I hurried out to explore the town. The sun was out but as previous days I could see clouds on the horizon in so good light for pictures would be limited. I climbed the town hall tower for the best views of town and got some decent pictures.

    I almost skipped Rothenburg because it sounded like a tourist trap from many descriptions I'd read about it. I'm so glad I visited – it's truly a beautiful little town with walls and dramatic watchtowers, right out of a fairy tale. There were a few little tour groups in April but not many. Although I could tell the town clearly caters to tourism, the town didn't seem spoiled by it, at least In April.

    After exploring for a while, I visited the Medieval Crime Museum, which I thought might be interesting. It was OK, probably a waste of time. Late in the afternoon, I walked the town walls but by then the sky was pretty clouded over – and poor light usually dashes my interest in scenic photography. I'd taken enough shots earlier when the sun was out to be satisfied.
    A few of the old buildings in the main square had scaffolding on them, which was a disappointment for my pictures, too – oh, well.

    The night I was in Rothenburg, the town hall apparently caught on fire or something, because there were fire trucks and a dozen fireman out on the town square at 10PM, shooting a stream of water high up into the town hall tower I had climbed just a few hours earlier. But I didn't even see smoke – I have no idea what was going on.

    For dinner I grabbed a take-away pizza from Pizzeria Roma , a popular Italian restaurant, and ate it in the main square as the sun began to set in the now cloudy sky.

    Then I shot some night pictures and called it a day.

    I didn't take the noted “Night Watchman's Tour.” I thought about it, but I usually don't enjoy those sort of tings. And then I saw that fire in the town hall and got distracted and simply forgot about it until the next day.

    The next morning, I got up to do a last morning walk of Rothenburg before heading on, and I became ecstatic to discover a stork building a nest at the top of one of the buildings! I ran back to the Alter Keller to get my telephoto lens ,and of course in the excitement I hit my head on my room's low doorway, drawing blood. Miriam, who runs the place with Marcus, became motherly and insisted on cleaning the wound and putting a little bandage on it. But it was OK after that - I had a scab on my head for the rest of the trip.

    Then I shot some stork pictures – wow, I was so enthralled! Storks are probably a big “shrug” if you see them all the time in Germany, but I never had.

    I wouldn't have minded another night in Rothenburg in retrospect – not because I needed much more time to see everything but to give me more time to better soak up the town. I's tempting to want to stay longer in places you enjoy. The town is small, though, and someone who is well organized could manage to see the highlights with just a night there.

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    Nuremberg (1 night)

    (Nuremberg pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,407,1,0,0-germany.html )

    Deciding whether to sleep in Nuremberg came down to this: do I really want to stay in a crummy, overpriced little hotel near the center of town because everything else affordable is booked, in a town I'm not even that excited about? Just to see the Nazi sites?

    I considered staying in nearby Bamberg or even another night in Rothenburg and just day tripping to the Nazi sites near Nuremberg. But that would have made the long train trip up to Dresden next day even longer.

    I finally took a chance on the Hotel Lorenz Zentral in Nuremberg. This little hotel had some terrible reviews on Trip Advisor (and the setting is indeed a bit odd – located above a shoe store), but the location was perfect right near the center, and the price was right. I managed to grab their last single room at a busy time.

    For traveling from Rothenburg to Nuremberg, I discovered that taking regional trains can save you about 10 Euros (when booking last minute, anyway) and not take much more time than the option involving an IC train you may find on the DB Bahn website. Any train from Rothenburg to Nuremberg requires a connection in Steinach anyway. At least I didn't have another five hour train day! The whole trip took only about two hours.

    It was drizzling by the time I got to Nuremberg. Supposedly I would not be able to check in or even access the Lorenz until after 5PM, so I stashed my bags in a locker at the train station. I guess I should have confirmed that first, because I soon located hotel and found open at noon (because it was a busytime) and I was able to check in after all. So I checked in, then ran back to the nearby station to get my bags right back out of the locker.

    The Lorenz was much better than expected – though still not exactly nice. It was a bit dumpy and cheap – and small in a single room! It helped that my expectations were extremely low. The front desk people were friendly and helpful. And the location was great, close to the huge St. Lorenz church and the market square and just a short walk from the train station.

    Nuremberg at lunch time had a nice appealing vibe to it. Lots of people were out and about, shopping or grabbing lunch, and the rain had stopped. The town center might have been appealing to photograph, but the damned trade fair had flooded the main square and side streets with red-and-white striped booths that mostly ruined any pictures. (I take it this is routine in Nuremberg much of the year anyway.) Oh, well, my expectations for Nuremberg had been somewhat low to begin with. I mostly wanted to see the old Nazi rally grounds, which are away from the town center.

    I took a bus out to the rally grounds and the documentation center. I walked around the lake and stopped at the Zeppelin Field, one of the famous rally sites where Nazis had gathered here (when the US Army occupied the town at the end of the war, they famously blew off the big swastika from the top of the viewing platform and filmed it; you can see this at the beginning of the film “Judgment at Nuremberg.”). The field is still in use for concerts and such, apparently. On this afternoon there were only a few people milling around – some tourists and school kids. I chatted with a tourist from Belgium.

    I had to talk myself into seeing the documentation center (a museum dedicated to the understanding the rise of the Nazis in Nuremberg and the rally grounds themselves), because I'd found the documentation center in Berchtesgaden (an earlier trip) to have almost nothing printed in English and a long-winded English audio guide to go with lots of photos. But I was here – so why not, right?

    The documentation center is well done and especially has lots of specific information about the rally grounds and the Nazis in Nuremberg. But as usual in a museum, I was yawning in short order, even though there were lots of interesting old photos. I stuck it out until the museum closed at 6PM then headed back to Nuremberg by tram.

    For dinner, I snagged a take-out lasagna at a friendly, casual little Italian bistro. While waiting I had a nice conversation (in English) with two of the restaurant staff. The Romanian woman working there told me about her sister getting married and moving to Michigan, how hard it was for a Romanian to get a visa to visit the US, etc. She explained that no one working in the restaurant was German – the other server was from Turkey. The lasagna was really good – one of the best meals I had on my trip, surprisingly enough, even though I ate it in my tiny little hotel room. I wish I'd noted down the name of the place.

    Finally, I went out to shoot some night pictures in Nuremberg. I walked up to the castle area but, as it was dark and I didn't know my way around, I didn't go too far up.

    Sleeping at the Hotel Lorenz was fine.

    The next morning, after getting my train ticket printed (easy at this hotel!), with some time to spare before my train to Dresden, I took one last stroll around the center of Nuremberg and some last pictures. Nuremberg was pleasant but it didn't do much for me.

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    Dresden (2 nights)

    (Dresden Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,408,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I never dithered about going to Dresden – it was always at the top of my list. It was just a matter of which day or how many days I'd spend there. Most people seem to visit Dresden for the museums, but a big draw for me was photographing the Dresden skyline at night, with all of those huge buildings dramatically reflecting in the river. And I'd heard the city was really interesting and well worth a visit.

    The speedy regional express trains from Nuremberg to Dresden (4.5 hours, 3 minutes to change trains in Hof!) twisted and turned enough to make me nauseous. This was definitely the worst train ride I'd had in a long time. There was also a 6 hour direct bus I could have taken – maybe that would have been just as bad or even worse but might have saved me a few euros. The ride out of Nuremberg was scenic for about the first half hour.

    In Dresden I had decided to stay in the Neustadt (new town) across the river from Altstadt (old town) partly because I'd heard that the old town was a bit touristy, even though much of what you want to see in Dresden is in the old town. Plus, hotels were considerably cheaper in the Neustadt. I chose the modern Motel One there in part because it was walkable to the train station, and there was tram service into the old town from close to my hotel. But it was only a good 15 minute walk – tops – to skip the tram and just walk it yourself. I did it both ways.

    The “Inner Neustadt” (where I was staying) wasn't particularly appealing – it felt spread out, like a soulless, communist-designed suburb largely devoid of life or excitement. There are cafes and shops in and around the main drag (Hauptstrassease) as you walk south toward the Augustus Bridge, where you encounter a gleaming gold statue of Augustus the Strong on his horse. But the various shops and restaurants don't pop out at you – the buildings seemed to have been designed to be functional and not particularly consumer-friendly. You'd think they were office buildings.

    The “outer Neustadt” a little further away from the river is where Dresden's famous nightlife mostly resides, maybe a 15-20 minute walk from the Motel One. I walked over there one evening as part of a long night of taking pictures. I think this part of Dresden largely survived the Allied bombing that burned much of Dresden to the ground near the end of World War II. It certainly feels more like a real urban area than the weird inner Neustadt area.

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    Exploring Dresden's Altstadt

    My first day upon arrival from Nuremberg, after walking a few minutes from the Neustadt train station to the Motel One and checking in, I walked over to the Altstadt across the Augustus Bridge. The sun was in and out but it felt much colder than in Nuremberg or Rothenburg – hey, this was April after all so not a big surprise. I scrambled to shoot pictures when the sun popped out for a few minutes here and there. I got a few shots of the Frauenkirche (Church of Our Lady) in great late afternoon light.

    Compared to Nuremberg, everything in Dresden looks HUGE! Wide streets, huge buildings. Everything is on a much larger scale than any other city I visited in Germany. Everything I was seeing was also built or rebuilt after the war, as allied bombers nearly destroyed the city with firebombing raids.

    At dusk I shot pictures of the beautiful Dresden cityscape, but I was tired and then it started to rain (and it was cold) so I went back to the hotel and went to sleep.

    The next day, back to the Altstadt, a perfect day for museums: rainy and overcast. I visited the portrait gallery first, then the scientific instruments museum and briefly the porcelain museum adjacent (all included in the same single ticket). I enjoyed the portrait gallery, but by then I was pretty much “museumed out” for the day as it were. I wasn't interested in the “Green Vault” everyone else seems to salivate over, and my ability to see more art was probably at an end by lunchtime.

    In the afternoon I took a tour of the Volkswagen transparent factory just outside of the old town – a quick tram ride away. There are a few tours a day in English. Sadly, you can't take pictures inside. The idea of the factory is largely a marketing gimmick for VW: you can pay extra for the privilege of watching your high-end VW (or Bentley, which VW owns) being made here. If you go for a tour, try to go early in the day; the factory floor closes pretty early, and by the time our tour started mid-afternoon work was already shutting down for the day. We did see a little work in action, mostly robots installing batteries and such. The whole thing is pretty neat though – the cars being built move across the floor on a big conveyor belt and workers install new pieces at each station.

    I wouldn't put the VW factory tour at the top of your list unless you are really interested in how cars are made or, like me, you were tired of museums on a rainy day and wanted a different kind of activity.

    By evening the rain had stopped, and I was able go out for a long walk shooting more pictures of the beautiful Dresden skyline at night. I also did a long walk to outer Neustadt the same evening. Even though I had a day pass for the trams, there wasn't an obvious direct tram between outer Neustadt and my hotel, so I wound up walking almost all of it – quite a few kilometers carrying all my camera stuff, but oh well.

    The Motel One was decent for the price – it's new, stylish, and comfortable, though otherwise very basic, a huge mega hotel. The location wasn't great but not awful – the tram was convenient enough when needed, but I wish there had been more around the hotel to walk to. There's another Motel One in the Altstadt, but I didn't find the Altstadt area all that exciting either. (The name “motel” implies a drive-up roadside hotel, but it doesn't feel that way – just a name I think.)

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    Saxon Switzerland and Meissen Day Trips

    (Saxon Switzerland Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,411,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I had originally booked three nights at the Motel One, but by the second night, I decided I was pretty much done in Dresden. I didn't hate Dresden and loved the photo opportunities, but I felt no need to stay any longer. The hotel charges for your entire stay when you check in, but they will let you checkout early and refund any remaining nights if you check out before noon on that day, so that's what I did. I left my bags in storage at the hotel.

    It was turning out to be a beautiful day, so I decided to squeeze in some day trips around Dresden before heading on to Görlitz. First I headed to Saxon Switzerland National Park about 45 minutes from Dresden by S-Bahn train S1.

    I got to see some pretty scenery from the train before even getting to the park. There are some pretty reflections in the Elbe River on the way – boats and houses. Once you get off the train at Kurort Rathen, you walk down to the river, cross in a little ferry that runs back and forth almost continuously, then hike through the rest of the tiny town and up into the woods where you hike straight up through the trees.

    The key attraction in this area – besides some pretty scenery down on the river and a rocky terrain – is the famous stone Bastei Bridge, built at the top between some rocks. Quite an engineering feat! I did the hike up fairly quickly – sometimes a little steep but otherwise easy. There were a good number of other tourists hiking but it wasn't exactly crowded. After I got to the top, I didn't linger much after taking a bunch of pictures. I could have hiked up past the bridge to other viewpoints, but instead I decided to hike back down and try to make it to the town of Meissen. I enjoyed Saxon Switzerland National Park though – great scenery and a nice, easy side trip from Dresden.

    (Meissen Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,412,1,0,0-germany.html )

    Trying to visit Meissen the same day was probably too ambitious. It was on the same S-Bahn S1 line as I was getting back on but it was on the opposite side of Dresden! So it was another hour plus before I got there. By now it was clouding up a little anyway. I had in mind two trains from Dresden to Görlitz I might catch to get in before early evening – and if I hustled in Meissen and made it a super quick visit, I might even make the earlier train..

    I wound up with all of about 25 minutes to explore Meissen! The most obvious attraction is the huge Albrechtsburg and Cathedral that dwarfs the little town below. I got some pictures of it from the train as we crossed the river to the old town and the train stop. Then I hustled through the town, through a couple of squares, got a few more pictures of the cathedral, then headed back to the train station. So much for Meissen! Seems like a nice town, though. I had enough time to stop at a bakery on the way back and stock up on pastries for the train rides ahead, plus enough time to buy a ticket from Dresden to Görlitz from the machine before the train arrived. I had gotten to be a pro with the DB Bahn ticket machines by now.

    As soon as we got back to Dresden Neustadt train station, I hustled back to the Motel One maybe a 7 minute walk way, grabbed my bags, and made it back in time to catch the early Görlitz train with a few minutes to spare.

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    On to Görlitz (1 night)

    (Görlitz Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,413,1,0,0-germany.html )

    The direct train to Görlitz took about 1 ¼ hours, on a basic commuter train. Most of the passengers seemed like commuters – school kids who were going home from school for the day, doing their homework on the train. It was a Friday night, so I imagine many were going home for the weekend from the big city.

    I had booked a cheap B&B (the Pension Gina) in Görlitz on Booking.com for the next night, Saturday, so now I needed to change or cancel it. I had tried calling the Pension earlier in the day, but the person who answered the phone spoke only German, so I had to hang up and try again later online. I found the time to get online and change the booking only during the train ride over, maybe about an hour before arrival. I suspected this was not really enough time for the change to filter through to the Pension – this wasn't a regular hotel where I could just show up at a staffed front desk. So I was prepared for that.

    I dragged my bags the standard 15 minutes from the Görlitz train station to the Pension, which I found easily. I rang the bell out front but there was no answer. Finally a neighbor woman – speaking only German – came down to try to help me. I assume she realized I was there for a room when she saw my luggage. I gathered that the Pension was basically closed down for the season but still rented an apartment year round (which I was getting) so they weren't normally staffed this time of year. The neighbor watched the place for the owner, whom she had just notified of my arrival, and he was now on his way. At least, that's what I gathered as we had no translator. All I understood that she wanted me to wait there for the owner. I felt bad for her – she seemed a little exasperated at the language barrier and was obviously trying to help me, but I wasn't upset or stressed.

    The Pension owner soon arrived and apologized for not getting the info from Booking.com, but it was hard to blame him, as I had made the change so late. I should have apologized to him – but he barely spoke much English himself and it wasn't worth the trouble. He showed me the place, took my payment, gave me the keys, and was on his way. The apartment was HUGE – way more than required for a single night for one person. I almost wished I had stayed elsewhere in a smaller room. Had I been staying a week there the kitchen and big rooms would have been nice.

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    Exploring Görlitz and Walking to Poland

    The sun was still out but starting to set by the time I left the pension with my camera gear to explore Görlitz. It is a nice town for sure, a bit sleepy in April. Because historically the town was part of Silesia, it does not feel very “German” compared to all of the other towns places I had just seen. I am no expert on architecture, so I couldn't really appreciate the various styles of buildings I was seeing, but they were interesting for sure, sometimes striking.

    I made my way to the center of town (maybe a 10-15 minute walk) and, eventually, down to the river. There's a huge church, St. Peter's Church, right by the pedestrian bridge on the German side of the river.

    Görlitz is right on the Polish border. Before the war, Görlitz had been one town with suburbs east of the Neisse River, but after the war Stalin insisted that a big slice of Germany be “given” to Poland (which in turn had to “give” part of its eastern territory to Ukraine), and the new German/Polish border was set on the Neisse, slicing Görlitz in half with its eastern suburbs now the Polish town of Zgorzelec. In recent years, since the Polish border with Germany was opened, a pedestrian bridge was constructed between the two towns, and now one can walk freely from Germany to Poland over this narrow bridge. I found this idea intriguing.

    Görlitz isn't on the way to anywhere else in tourist Germany, so you kind of have to see it as a detour, perhaps between Dresden and Berlin as I did. (It also makes an easy day trip from Dresden, with several direct trains a day – but I wanted to spend a night.) The main appeal of Görlitz is the architecture: well-preserved older buildings that survived World War II largely unscathed – but many buildings really date from only about a hundred years before that, because the town was damaged in earlier wars.

    Several American movies have been filmed partly in Görlitz – for example Wes Anderson's “Grand Budapest Hotel.” The interiors of the hotel were filmed inside the beautiful old Hertie Department Store in the center of town, but the outside of the hotel shown in the film is mostly a miniature model.

    I walked over to Poland – probably a total 20 minute walk from my B&B. I noticed immediately how much less prosperous Polish Zgorzelec is than German Görlitz. Some of the buildings right at the Polish side of the border have clearly been renovated, but others were old and crumbling,, sometimes with big trash dumps behind them, whereas German Görlitz feels like a nice, prosperous, clean town. Görlitz was part of East Germany and behind the same Iron Curtain during the Cold War as Poland, so it's hard to blame the difference on “communism” but perhaps even during the Cold War East Germany was more prosperous than Poland.

    Also, liquor and cigarettes were much cheaper in Poland – lower taxes I guess. There were newish liquor stores just a few meters from the bridge in Poland trying to lure German consumers I guess. Soda is cheaper, too! I had been nursing my diet soda addiction at some expense throughout Germany over the last week and was gleeful to pop into a little convenience store in Zgorzelec to seek out Diet Coke or Diet Pepsi in bottles – but they had no diet soda, only regular cola! I checked three different stores before giving up.

    By now it was almost dusk, so I mostly waited around by the river for optimal light for photography (not any sort of visible sunset but a nice sky at dusk). My plan was to shoot river pictures at dusk/night at the bridge, then get a plate of pierogies at a Polish restaurant somewhere. After I finished my pictures, I chose a restaurant that was in many of my pictures: the Piwnica Staromiejska Restauracja occupies an old grain tower (right by the bridge) that has been converted into a restaurant. I couldn't read much of the menu, so I simply asked for a plate of “Pierogi Ruskie” (plain potato pierogies) and that's what the server brought me. They were different than I had had in Krakow – these had been baked not fried, but they were still really good. Paying for my meal in Polish Zloty (albeit with a credit card) made me a bit nostalgic for my trip to Poland in 2012.

    Then I walked back to Germany and the pension, taking some night pictures along the way.

    I had hoped to take a long morning walk the final morning in Görlitz before heading on to Berlin, but it was raining. I still spent another few hours walking around Görlitz and managed to dodge the rain and shoot more pictures here and there. Then I left the pension, headed to the Görlitz train station, and on to Berlin.

    I enjoyed Görlitz, but it doesn't have an obvious, overwhelming appeal. There are no world-class museums, and the city while nice isn't a postcard-perfect beautiful town. Most tourists probably wouldn't want to waste a night here, but I sometimes like places that are off the beaten track but still interesting. “Walking to Poland” was a neat experience, in a quiet town that also seemed authentic. I even considered staying another night – but what else was there really to do? I could have walked down to see more of Polish Zgorzelec I guess, but I decided to head on to Berlin instead.

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    From Görlitz to Berlin

    In my trip planning, I'd always assumed I could train from Görlitz to Berlin with only one connection, via Cottbus, but when I checked train schedules again on DB Bahn's website the night before leaving, that one-connection option was gone! I never figured out why. Instead, it appeared I'd need to take regional trains and change twice – or go back to Dresden, way out of the way.

    I decided to take the regional trains and also figured out I could buy a ticket from Görlitz to Cottbus, then buy a regional ticket (VBB) in Cottbus, another change in Frankfurt (Oder), and on to Berlin. As a small consolation, that turned out to be a few Euros cheaper than that original faster connection. Everything worked out fine.

    I had planned to get off the last train at Berlin Hauptbahnhof and take a U-Bahn train up to my hotel, but I was staying in Prenzlauer Berg and realized I could just get off the train at Alexanderplatz and walk 15 minutes to the hotel, so that's what I did.

    I had booked at the Meininger Hotel Alexanderplatz in Prenzlauer Berg, because I'd read that Prenzlauer Berg, was a neat neighborhood. and the price was right, not bad. Meininger is a chain of budget hotels that also have hostel rooms. This one was in a building several stories high. I had a private room with a private bathroom. The place was clean enough, but it seemed overpriced and Prenzlauer Berg was more out-of-the-way than I'd imagined. I checked out after one night – see below.

    From the Meininger front desk person I bought a three day transit pass for Berlin. I asked for one with enough zones to cover a day trip to Potsdam (not much more expensive from what I'd read) - but she didn't have any passes for that many zones and helpfully suggested I could simply buy an extension ticket anyway on that day and save a few euros. But that turned out not to be true – you aren't allowed to extend a pass like that, I found out later. I had to buy a day pass just for Potsdam and that wound up costing me more, so I was a bit annoyed.

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    Exploring Berlin (4 nights)

    (Berlin Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,414,1,0,0-germany.html )

    I saved my transit pass for the final three days and stuck to walking on my first evening in Berlin. I walked from Prenzlauer Berg all the way up to the Brandenburg Gate – a pretty long walk. Berlin isn't exactly a nice or compact walking city – it's huge and spread out, but I still felt the need to walk it, to help get a feel for the city. It was a nice afternoon. I walked along the Spree River bank for a while. People were out in one of the parks having picnics or just hanging out.

    Otherwise, Berlin certainly isn't what I would call picturesque. When I visited, there were construction projects and cranes everywhere, especially in the former East Berlin. The famous Unter den Linden boulevard was all torn up and ugly. I'd hope in a few years that all the construction will be done and Unter den Linden will again be a beautiful street.

    I walked all the way back to Prenzlauer Berg. Dinner was a take away pizza from I Due Forni, a recommended pizza place a few blocks from the Meininger – this recommendation from the Meininger front desk turned out to be good.

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    Sunday in Berlin

    The next morning I hopped on Priceline.com – something I should have done in the first place, as a veteran Priceline user – bid $65 for a 4-star hotel, and won the Maritim Proarte Hotel, only about a kilometer from the Brandenburg Gate for about the same price as I was paying at the Meininger and a much nicer hotel to boot. Although much more touristy and much less hip, this turned out to be an excellent location, close to Unter den Linden on Friedrichstrasse, right by the Friedrichstrasse train station.

    I checked out of the Meininger , took the U-Bahn to Maritim, dropped my bags until I could check in later, and met up with a 10AM “Third Reich Walk” from Original Berlin Walks. The guide was a lively, colorful German PhD history student who was knowledgeable about everything she covered. I can't say I learned a lot from her as I already knew a lot of the history. (Obviously, these tours need to be geared to all levels of knowledge.) I mostly wanted to see how the various sites of the Third Reich were physically connected (even if many of the actual buildings are now gone or radically changed). Still, she had interesting stories about her grandfather's involvement in the SS, and that added a dimension to the tour you wouldn't get from a non-German tour guide. (Some of the tour guides are American expats for example.) These walking tours can be an excellent way to see your way around.

    The worst part of the walking tour is that I was FREEZING – I foolishly thought it would be as warm as previous day and left my jacket at the hotel, figuring I'd warm up once we started walking, but it was a chilly day and I froze the entire time. I couldn't wait for the tour to finish mostly because of that.

    I spent the rest of this Sunday visiting sites like Checkpoint Charlie, the Topography of Terror Museum, and the Berlin Wall Memorial. Berlin is unique in that there is an enormous amount of “outdoor” or public museum information out on the streets or even in side the U-Bahn stations. I was well aware of basic Cold War and World War II history but was still very interested finaly in seeing this stuff. Still, all the Nazi stuff is kind of intense, and I got quite saturated with it pretty quickly. I could read only so many texts next to World War II photographs before I became blearly-eyed.

    The Berlin Wall Memorial and the adjacent Nordbahnhof U-Bahn station were my favorite museum-type of sites in Berlin. Many tourists will take the Nordbahnhof station to the memorial anyway, but inside the station there are a series of info plaques and pictures describing the stories of how the Wall split Berlin's U-Bahn trains, how people tried to escape, etc. Don't miss this portion inside the station if you visit!

    The outdoor Memorial has surviving sections of the Wall (almost all of the former Belin Wall is now gone from Berlin) as well as pictures of people who died trying to escape East Berlin to freedom in those years. I found the pictures themselves particularly moving. The memorial itself is on the site of a former church (since demolished). The Wall went right through the church property, separating the cemetery from the church and splitting up the congregation between east and west. People in the west were unable to visit their deceased loved ones in the east in the cemetery. It's easier to understand the real human consequences of the Wall when you visit the actual sites like this one.

    I visited Checkpoint Charlie on Sunday and several times over the several days I was in Berlin, sometimes while on the way to somewhere else. It's a super touristy site but also famous in Cold War history. You can see pictures of American and Soviet tanks facing off there in 1961 – a tense point in the Cold War – and pictures of western leaders visiting the area. I walked a few times from Checkpoint Charlie over to the the Topography of Terror site (which is located at the site of the former Gestapo headquarters, long gone but you can still see the foundations) and down Wilhelmstrasse, which was the main “Nazi Street” during the Nazi years, connecting the major government buildings (mostly gone now). You can stand on the site of Hitler's former underground bunker – now a parking lot for a post-war communist-style apartment building, walk past other former ministry buildings, etc. The Reichstag is nearby as well; unfortunately, I waited too long to try to book a tour and it was all booked up for the days I was in Berlin.

    I also fit in a brief visit to the “Museum The Kennedys,” a small private museum dedicated to the Kennedy Family – an odd museum for Berlin, I guess, but I was interested in seeing the context again for President Kennedy's famous visit 1963 to West Berlin (“Ich bin ein Berliner”). It didn't take long – mostly a bunch of pictures and some video of his visit. I had half a notion to try to locate the physical site of JFK's famous speech in Berlin, but it wasn't anywhere near the Wall (which he did visit, at Checkpoint Charlie) so I didn't bother.

    Then, back to Maritim. For dinner got a take-away pizza from Vapiano, a kind of trendy pizza joint (a chain) where one orders with a magnetic card at each station, and the card records what you've ordered there; then you hand the card to the cashier as you leave to pay. Pizza was decent enough.

    As for the Maritim: it was certainly a much nicer hotel than the Meininger for about the same price, and I thought the area on Friedrichstrasse was far superior to Prenzlauer Berg, at least for me. The Maritim was kind of a big, impersonal business-type hotel, clean and comfortable. (no free WiFi – I had to use my phone's hotspot). I got water all over the floor the first morning I took a shower and had to get towels from the front desk to mop it up – I told them about it but no one ever came to see to it. The floor never really dried even a few nights. I probably should have switched rooms but simply didn't feel like it.

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    Monday in Berlin

    Monday was a rainy day – the perfect day to visit the huge German History Museum. I spent much of the morning and afternoon there with a few hour lunch break in between. Some of it was interesting for sure, as you survey German history from the early settlements through the wars and the modern day, but as I'm not crazy about museums it was a bit of a forced march. By the time I got to the World War II section I was saturated and yawning (this after my lunch break). I think I enjoyed the section covering Berlin between the world wars the most – I learned a few things and found the era fascinating. The museum is quite good, actually, despite my aversion to museums.

    During my lunch break (a currywurst at the famous Bier's Curry und Spiesse near the Friedrichstrasse train station and near my hotel), I visited the “Victory Column” in the former West Berlin. Good timing – the sun came out for a few hours, so I could get some decent pictures from the top.

    In the evening I took a train out to Kurfürstendamm in western Berlin. I was hungry for an American-style burger, so I hit up the overpriced Hard Rock Cafe, a place I'd probably never visit in the US but in Europe I make it a point to patronize one in the middle of a long trip.

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    Tuesday in Berlin – Day Trip to Potsdam

    (Potsdam Pictures: http://portlandbridges.com/00,0,415,1,0,0-germany.html )

    Tuesday was the last day of my trip! I devoted most of it to Potsdam. After buying a day transit pass to cover Potsdam, I was able to get a direct train from Friedrichstrasse station near my hotel up to Potsdam, then take a tram from the Potsdam station into town. I had only a few things on my agenda in Potsdam: see a few of Fredrick the Great's palaces – or at least see the outsides of them – and visit Cecilienhof Palace, site of the famous Potsdam Conference that followed World War II in Europe. And maybe take a quick tour of the town of Potsdam.

    Getting off the tram near the center of Potsdam, I tried to follow a scenic shortcut recommend by Rick Steves to visit the big palaces, but I could not follow his directions at all, got confused, and gave up, catching another tram and bus instead to take me directly to the Sanssouci Palace . I didn't go inside, but I photographed the buildings when the sun came out. A few potentially nice pictures were ruined by scaffolding as, apparently, this palace was being renovated.

    Then I waited for a long time for the next bus back to town – kind of a waste of time, really. Potsdam turned out to be a frustrating day of missing trams and buses, getting lost, etc. Maybe I was ready to go home.

    I finally caught another bus up to the Cecilienhof Palace, site of the famous Potsdam Conference, where Churchill (later Atlee), Truman, and Stalin signed off on post-war agreements and probably set the Cold War in motion. I visited the palace in the afternoon. Here was another favorite site of the trip: seeing the famous red, round conference table that the Big Three leaders sat around. I lingered in this room for a good long while, trying to imagine Churchill smoking his cigar, giving his long monologues while Stalin and Truman listed patiently and politely, or while Stalin and Truman communicated via their translators, as they finalized these momentous agreements.

    Aside from its historical significance, the Cecilienhof Palace itself is nothing amazing, just a big mansion convenient for holding the conference.

    Finally I returned to the center of Potsdam and explored the town a little – cute but nothing special, really. Then I headed back to Berlin.

    For my last afternoon in Berlin I returned to the Topography of Terror a final time. I tried to absorb more of the Nazi pictures and descriptions I had skipped before, but it was just too much – I could barely read it anymore. I considered going to a few of the smaller museums – the Checkpoint Charlie Museum, the DDR museum, etc. but I just didn't feel like it. I was kind of “museumed out” by this point.

    I had an early dinner, another take-out pizza from Vapiano, so I could get to bed early before my 7AM flight out the next morning.

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    Wednesday Morning – Berlin, Paris, Chicago, and Home!

    I set my alarm for 4:20 to catch the TXL (Tegel Airport) bus, which stopped on Unter den Linden, only a few blocks from the hotel. (Walking at that hour was not scary at all.) Then I took the 7:00 Air France flight to Paris – everything was on time, routine. I made my connection to the 12:10 American Airlines flight to Chicago with plenty of time to spare. (Minor gripe: food options at CDG are lousy while you are waiting to fly back; plenty of overpriced shops, but at least a freaking MCDONALDS would have been nice!.) My flight home to Chicago was half empty, and I had an empty seat next to me.

    The long travel day home – flight from Berlin to Paris, Paris to Chicago, Chicago back to Portland – wasn't nearly as bad as I expected. The empty seat on that long flight from Paris helped a lot!

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    My Thoughts on Germany

    I can't say I fell in love with Germany. I enjoyed some places and was glad to have visited others. I didn't hate anywhere I visited. On the other hand, there is nowhere in Germany I'm dying to return to anytime soon. I think I would have enjoyed Germany more had I visited about ten years earlier, before I had visited other more “exotic” European countries by 2014. Germany has a well-developed tourist industry and feels almost too easy, too routine, even if some of the places I saw were beautiful and historic. Other European countries I've visited like Poland and Croatia are still a little rough around the edges in places and feel like more of a challenge.

    Visiting Berlin was long overdue, probably essential; I'm glad I can now picture the city I've read about so many times. But I can't say I'm excited to return to Berlin anytime soon, either.

    I'd go back to Görlitz again if I could fit it into a trip to somewhere else – it was one of my favorite spots – but it's really not on the way to many places. Rothenburg ob der Tauber was as nice as I had heard and much less touristy in April than it probably is in warmer weather. Dresden was beautiful at night and I got some of my best photographs there, but otherwise the city left me feeling a bit cold. The Nazi sites in Nuremberg were probably a waste of time, to be honest, but without seeing them, how would I have known?

    The Mosel Valley looks like a beautiful place for a relaxing vacation; maybe I'll take one there someday when I want a trip like that.

    The trains worked fine for me – despite some tight connections, I never missed one. I probably should have considered renting a car in Freiburg and driving it up to say Nuremberg. I would have been able to see more and saved some of the frustrations of all of those train changes.

    Colmar may have been my favorite stop on the entire trip. I'd like to go back to Alsace again someday for sure.

    I spent a lot of time worrying about the weather before the trip (will it rain too much?). But the weather in April was not bad at all. I was there about two weeks and I really had rain only 4-5 days or parts of days (one in Freiburg/Zurich, one morning in Nuremberg, one day in Dresden, one morning in Görlitz, and one in Berlin), and I still managed to take pictures all of those days despite the rain. A clear day for my Black Forest hike would have been nice. But you can get clouds or any any time of the year, despite the averages and trends. I've been to Europe a few times in September and have had plenty of rain in September. Going in April saved some money (award ticket, cheaper lodgings off season, etc.), so for me it was probably the perfect time to go. It was pretty warm until I got to Dresden, and after that I still had a few warm days and a few cold ones – I never needed more than a light jacket with a sweatshirt.

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    Thanks for posting, Andrew -- enjoy reading about travel in Germany and enjoy reading about people taking the train. I don't agree that it would have been better to have rented a car, though.

    Oh, yes, Americans (or anyone!) can download their train tickets from DB onto a mobile phone. I do it all the time.

    Thanks again for your report!

    s

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    Thank you, mokka4 and swandav2000!

    I normally do prefer the train. I'm still thinking I would have had more flexibility covering all of that ground between Freiburg and Rothenburg so quickly in a car. I didn't need or want a car anywhere else on my trip, though.

    I read the ticketing instructions on DB Bahn's website pretty carefully, and they seemed to indicate I needed a paper ticket unless I had some sort of "Bahn Card" and perhaps a German SIM? It was too late to be sure by the time I was about to purchase to decide. But I should have tried to show a PDF of my ticket on my phone anyway even when I had a paper copy, just to try and see if it would have been accepted; if not, I could have shown the paper ticket, but then at least I would have known!

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    Hmmmm, no there's no requirement to have a Bahn Card; I don't. I do have a German sim, but I'm sure any sim would work.

    You need to download the DB app, though, but you can do that with any sim from anywhere. Then use the same sign-in you used to purchase your tickets. Then just download the ticket/s, and poof, there they are!

    s

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    nice report,

    parts of Eastern Germany are a bit like your Polish town (I've been to towns where the grass grows in the streets) and you can see why the people of Dresden are so fearful of globalisation and immigration. (they need to get out more) :-)

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    I was excited seeing a stork nest too :)

    Too bad you ran out of time in Meissen, it's so lovely between the river and the castle, and, as dull as it sounds, the porcelain museum is fantastic. What an interesting history (I generally have little patience in museums).

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    Thanks, alisa!

    Adelaidean, for me it was either the brief visit to Meissen or nothing, unfortunately. I have a problem of not wanting to miss anything I've read about that intrigues me. At least I have a mental picture of what the town is like!

    I can enjoy small museums if they are interesting. But my attention span in a museum is usually about a half hour before I start yawning.

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    I agree, sometimes getting a 'taste' of a place is all that is possible. I also like to have a picture of it at least. Can always choose to return. But there's too much to see.....

    I find it interesting that so many people are discouraged from visiting Rothenburg because it's 'touristy'. (So is Paris and Venice and Neuschwanstein castle....) lovely place, lots of visitors, for good reason.

    I wasn't excited by Dresden either, but you never know unless you go, right? And sometimes, I think I have just overdone it and I'm not able to absorb any more. I visited with a local who took us to every museum and historical site until I begged for mercy LOL ....

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    I can see why people may hate Rothenburg at the height of tourist season, if the place is overrun with tour groups. It's a small town, and it must be miserable when really busy. My last visit to Venice was a day trip on a Sunday, and the place was overrun around the train station - long lines and crowds, very much like Disneyland. It left a bad taste in my mouth - and I had been there before and know how beautiful it is at night! If someone visits a place only at the worst times, they may have very different impressions of the place than other people.

    I think I get why some people love Dresden. I'm really glad I visited, even though it didn't quite ring my bell.

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