Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Cologne Crazy!

I'm proud to say that I've accomplished a few feats since reaching my 6th decade of life. It hasn't been anything as challenging as climbing Mt. Everest, but I have, among other things, kayaked in the Pacific, hiked through a rainforest, rock climbed and rollerbladed on a moving ship, and participated in a 5 km run. I can now add something new to my list.

We recently visited the Kölner Dom (Cologne Cathedral), a fabulous edifice to be sure. I have been there before and have always marvelled at the magnificent gothic architecture of this world heritage site. The spires are the second tallest in the world. This cathedral is said to attract over three times more tourists daily than the castle Neuschwanstein (see blog August 24, 2012).

As always, there were the familiar buskers outside the cathedral doors. The temperature hovered around 20C when we arrived, so I wore a light cover up. It seemed like a good idea at the time.

It was a clear morning and I was feeling particularly energetic so I decided to climb, at a cost of 3.50 Euros to the top of one of the spires. It too seemed like a good idea at the time. Then the ticket seller announced, "It will take approximately half an hour to the top." 
."Hmmm" I thought. "How difficult can it be to climb just under 600 steps for a scenic view?"
The stairs were very narrow and looked like this.
  Toes inside my giant size ten shoes desperately curled and gripped the tiny edge of the steps as the onslaught of downward climbers claimed the wider handrailed side of the stairs. The centre pole provided some, albeit not much security as I gave it a gentle hug from time to time allowing people to pass. Beads of perspiration formed on my face and I realized that I had only counted two hundred stairs thus far. I definitely was not used to walking en pointe. I edged on.
 Finally, finally, with clothing soaked through, eyes stinging, face red and hair looking as though I had just had a swim in the Rhine River below, I saw light and felt moving air. I had made it! Or so I thought. Indeed, I had conquered 509 stone steps. But wait, what did I see ahead? A few steps with sturdy looking railings were beckoning, calling the brave to yet another several flights of stairs, now of the rickety fire escape type.
Could I, would I go on? Well, I wasn't turning back now!

The steps were scary. I eased my way up the tiny bits of perforated metal. As I made my way toward the top, I pretended to be winded, let a few young people pass and stopped to snap some photos. "Don't look down," I repeated over and over to myself as I completed my final approach.

I made it.

What a fabulous view.
The trip down the stairs was considerably easier and faster. This time, I had the advantage of the wider side of the step and the handrail. Besides that, I looked forward to the beer reward which I'd promised myself when reaching the bottom. And of course, it was always a chuckle announcing that there were only a few hundred steps to go to those individuals headed up and carrying the burden of massive backpacks. What were they thinking?
A few days later, we went to Ulm. This is the Munster church, the tallest in the world.
It has 768 steps to the top. I did not go. After all, I have to save some things to do when I'm in my seventies don't I?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Germany for Tourists...water and other libations

Whenever I used to request water in a restaurant in North America, my dad would say, "Not me, water is for washing." It seemed odd and I ignored it. I often asked why he would say such a thing. His answer was simple and always the same, "because it is." It wasn't until I first went to Europe, a place he left when he was twenty, that I made the connection.

Ordering water in a restaurant in Germany is a bit different than here. You get a glass or bottle of  "sprudel" which is comparable to Perrier, seltzer or sparkling water and is available in regular or medium. I'm unclear as to the difference as the bubbles seem to be the same. Perhaps, the sodium content (natrium) is different. It is often listed as "mineralwasser" on the menu. Some restaurants, but not all have "still" water which also comes in a bottle. Tap water, although safe to drink is not commonly consumed. After all, "water is for washing".

When shopping in a grocery store, "still" water usually has a pale blue cap. It's important to read the label and actually see the word "still" if this is what is desired. Otherwise, if it says "Kohlensäure" it will contain carbonic acid. As you can see, it's inexpensive. There is a bottle deposit.

Soft drinks tend to be costlier. Surprise of surprises however, wine, beer and other forms of liquor are extremely inexpensive. In fact, people often drink "sekt", a form of bubbly wine to which we often give the name, champagne. Cappuccinos, lattes and coffee are also commonly consumed and readily available.

Here's an example of a restaurant drink menu. Schorle is usually a thinned down or spritzer version of a drink. For example Apfelschorle is a popular form of apple drink.

So on my last trip, I learned not to request "Wasser" lest I receive a bubbly, effervescent liquid. Instead, when not in the mood for beer or cappuccino, I asked for "Stilles Wasser bitte". Hopefully, nobody thought I was planning on washing with it.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Neuschwanstein for Newbies

"Look, there it is!" shouted hubby as we neared Neuschwanstein.

"Where?" I asked. I don't see anything except a big building covered in gauze.

"Well, that's it," he said, "they're probably rennovating or something."

"Hmmm," I said, unimpressed with this image rather than the one we often saw in magazines and on the internet.

The highly touted tourist attraction Neuschwanstein Castle in southwest Bavaria, Germany, was built for King Ludwig II in the late 1800's and attracts thousands of tourists each day. This year, we were among them.

Some Germans fail to see the appeal, particularly since this castle is far from old by European standards. So, what is the cause of all the hype?

Simple, I deduced. It's the idyllic setting and the exquisite scenery of the area. The fact that the Disney, Sleeping Beauty castle was modelled after it doesn't hurt either.

We arrived late in the day and stayed at a local Ferienwohnung (holiday residence). The trek up three flights of stairs with our luggage was worth it when we were greeted by this lovely loft. The furnishings, decor and architecture were exquisite. We even had a balcony with a view of the mountains.

Here's the gorgeous scenery when the sun set. Just to the left of the middle is the castle Neuschwanstein and on the right is Hohenschwangau castle, inhabited by Ludwig II's family when he was a child.

We were very fortunate that we received some good advice from one of the local residents. This helped save us from a ticket line which by 10 a.m. was several hundred metres and several hours long. It looked in part like this. Tickets must be purchased at the bottom of the hill and are not available once at the castle site.

The castle tours begin at 9 a.m. We had been told that it's best to go to the ticket booth immediately when it opens, 8 a.m., purchase the tickets for a designated time, then go for breakfast after. It was a fabulous suggestion. At 8 a.m. there was already a line but I only waited for about 20 minutes and selected an English tour for 10:55 a.m. The ticket sales person said we should give ourselves an hour to get to the castle. This gave us plenty of time to have breakfast and return for our tour. The cost per person was 11 Euros. We received a slight discount with a card from our previous night's accommodation. There are also combo tickets available for those who wish to tour both castles.

The methods of ascending and descending the hill included hiking (45 minutes), taking a bus for a cost of 1.80 Euros up and one Euro down, or going by horse and buggy.

We opted for the bus, rode up and then walked back down after the tour. I expect that later in the day, there would be long lineups for the buses as well. After the bus drop off, there was still a ten minute walk to get to the castle. Also, at the bus drop off, it's possible to go to the bridge, Marienbrücke, where you can view Switzerland on one side and the castle on the other.

As we approached, the castle looked like this.

Photography is not allowed inside the building but pictures can be found on the internet. We received a tour of the first and third floor. The second is not complete. There were many stairs to climb and the tour lasted about half an hour. Memorable were the many murals on the walls. They were representations of Richard Wagner's operas. It is said that King Ludwig admired Wagner's works greatly and was a patron of his work. Chandeliers, golden arches and elaborate furnishings abounded. Most impressive was the phenomenal kitchen which we saw on our way out.

As with many tours, it ended in a gift shop. We determined that the shops along the pathway up and down the hill were less expensive than the castle shop.

Here's more of the magnificent scenery from the castle grounds.

It was a beautiful day and a memorable visit.

***Here's a good site for further information -  http://www.germany-insider-facts.com/neuschwanstein-castle-germany.html