To top them all

On Saturday morning, after Andrew whips up golden squares of tangy french toast and the kitchen is set back to clean, we’ll drink a third cup of coffee and laze peacefully as the sun streams into our east facing windows.  Sometimes we sit at the table and chat about our day, what we’ll do, whether we have obligations or if we’re free to nap and catch up on our Netflix queue.  Other times, Andrew lugs his laptop over to the couch while I stay and read at the table.  I’ve noticed how acutely his behavior changes when he props up on the blue hand-me-down sofa. His feet quit moving and his fingers aren’t tapping rapidly over the keyboard.  He holds his coffee up to his face, feels the steam rise up over his forehead and stares intently at the screen.  His eyes glint or he’ll chuckle in disbelief, and I know there is only one thing he could be doing. Reading wiki travel forums, he’s thinking about the lowest price he’s seen on a flight to Montevideo recently, or about what certain phrases in Spanish are inappropriate to say in Mexico.  He’s left Knoxville, vacated our square patch of space on the 7th floor, and flown to south to Sao Paolo or east across the Atlantic to Pamplona.

The Rhein

As much as Andrew loves the rush of boarding a plane to step out into the chaos of another country, figuring out exactly where to stay and researching the history of our latest destination is just as exhilarating for him. He joyously scours forums for the cheapest flight he can find to a location he considers worth our time and pushes the buy button faster than I can decide whether I’ll wear that $35 pair of shoes at TJMAXX enough to justify the purchase. Once our destination is set, the real challenge begins:  choosing the perfect accommodation.  With regular folks’ uncensored opinions about their experiences on major booking sites, not only do you have a good idea of what to expect when you get there, choosing a hotel is also entertaining.  Other travelers readily share whether the receptionist is a pig or the most helpful lass on Main Street, whether the double bed that was advertised is the size of a twin bed and lumpier than cottage cheese, and most importantly, if the breakfast consisted of day old pastries from a package and reheated coffee or if the hard cooked eggs came to the table warm and with hand-whipped butter for your toast.

Rhein picturesque town

Three requirements sit at the top of Andrew’s list when choosing a hotel: it must have a buen relación calidad precio, (a useful Spanish phrase that tells of the price to quality ratio) be spotless (ok, my requirement-which is probably the first to suffer as we’ve definitely found that stray hair tucked between the sheets or stuck to the side of the bathtub) and have a hearty breakfast included.  Scouting out the place that meets all three criteria requires patience, vigilance and intuition that only a real deal hunting traveler has.  When all the factors align to allow us to check into the perfect accommodation on our budget travelling wallet, Andrew is pleasantly pleased with his effort and I’m happy to travel alongside another day.

Rhein area/Germany

Nowhere is it easier to find a bed and breakfast or small, family run hotel that meets all our criteria than in Germany.  After all, German culture prizes cleanliness and efficiency, but also knows how to elaborate simple quality ingredients into a gourmet brunch.  It would be a shame for you to not follow Andrew’s booking criteria when travelling in Germany.  A small, sparse room, with comfortable bedding (practically every hotel in Germany makes the bed with a duvet cover for each guest and no sheets-it’s almost exotic) and a shining, well-equipped bathroom shouldn’t cost more than 70 euros, and then less if you decide to be a rural tourist.  Your stay must include breakfast, as this is an ideal time to, hopefully, speak a little with the owners of the establishment and to observe other German tourists shamelessly feast for longer than you thought possible at the breakfast table.

Gorgeous Fachwerk

The breakfast itself is what is truly impressive though.  Platters of cold cuts chilling over trays of ice and thin slices of mild cheese to start, along with wedges of tomato and rounds of cucumbers, fresh baked brötchen from the local Bäckerei, made with nutrient rich whole wheat flour and flecked with seeds, smeared with rich, creamy butter.  Ramekins of homemade jams made with fruit picked from the backyard are a staple of the buffet and a hard-boiled egg, flawless white with the yolk bold yellow, still warm inside mean a genuine Deutsches frühstuck. For the second round helping, a dish of whole milk plain yogurt, crunchy granola and berries the color of sparkling rubies.  Equally as good as the food is the coffee, from a french press or a drip-pot, but brewed with beans that were ground that very morning and served in your own carafe to keep at your table. Andrew’s french toast is mighty tasty and a German breakfast tops them all.

At the Lorelai, Rhein River

After indulging in sticky sweet jams and warm buttered rolls, it’s out into the new adventure awaiting us outside the hotel.  And, while our hotel booking requirements may seem stringent, they do help keep us well-rested and well-caffeinated, two essentials of a vacation that bring happy, HD color memories.

Around the Mosel

Last Spring in Germany was quite damp and we found ourselves donning our rain gear and braving the dreariness often.  After Trier, Andrew drove our rental through downpours and thick cotton candy fog over to the quietly meandering Mosel River in Rheinland Pfalz.  A hot spot for German outdoor enthusiasts, this area bustled with signs of a busy summer to come.  Most of the Germans opted for the more scenic and heart healthy way to see the area: by pedaling along the banks of the river on their trusty bikes.  I personally think they were trying to earn their schnitzel and beer, so maybe next time we’ll grab our Fahrräder and hit the trail as well.

Our lodging was in the guest house of a local winery, which turned out to be a good choice for the area.  The hills along either side of the river’s banks are laden with rows of grape vines, ripe for picking in the fall, that are labored to make some of the world’s finest Riesling.

Burg Eltz

Burg Eltz

The first stop we made in the area should definitely be on your list, if ever you visit the Mosel.  We toured the Burg Eltz, the one of only medieval castles on the Mosel to never have been destroyed.  Interestingly enough, the same families still privately own the castle.  If you play your cards right, you could still marry the son or daughter of a German earl!

view of town and grape vines from ridge trail

trail view

the sun came out!

Cochem

In between the rain showers, we hiked along the ridge of one of the hills along the banks of Mosel and checked out a few of the picturesque towns that dot the river’s banks.  We also ate delicious schnitzel and made sure to indulge in Kaffeestunde at least once or twice:  a generous slice of cake made with seasonal fruit and a steaming cup of coffee around 2 or 3 in the afternoon.

our schnitzel stop

Making Friends in Trier

After we had lunch near a stream in the incredible gorge that divides Luxembourg City, we stumbled upon a behemoth medieval castle in a neighboring town. Of course it was locked up tight, surely holding a sleeping beauty inside, but even from the exterior it seemed like it was straight out of a scene in Robin Hood. We admired the castle and then set off to cross the border into Germany, land of sausages, beer, Riesling and Angela Merkel (Is she still the Bundeskanzlerin?). Beside getting to brush up on my German, (Noch einmal, bitte?) I love the food, the beer, the sport, and even the organization that comes with lodging on German territory.

Castle in Vianden

Andrew, feeling good about finding the castle in Vianden

We spent the first night in Trier, a seat of ancient Roman civilization. While I dwelt momentarily on the feat of domination the Romans had accomplished back in, oh, 16 BC or so, I think I was more excited about the luxury B&B we chose to stay in. I’m positive it is the most we have ever personally paid for a night in a hotel and I remember the exact price, too – 92 euros a night. We only stayed one night. Besides a gourmet breakfast and brand-new modern installations, there was a fairy lit garden behind the building where I may have tried a Hefeweizen (or two).  Mostly I remember our interactions with the proprietors, though, as they probably thought we were a little bit nutty.

When we first arrived, the receptionist personally showed us our room and after she was sure we were happy with the room, left us alone with the key. And then she promptly vacated the hotel premises. Which would have been as well, but we needed to get the rest of our travel gear out of the car and back up to our room on the 4th floor. Everything was going fine until we climbed back up the stairs, tried to unlock our door and figured out we couldn’t get it open. About the same time we realized we were locked out of our plush room and shining Badezimmer, Andrew decided all the sudden he had to go to the bathroom. Emergency status. Red-faced and nervous. Can’t get in the room, no communal bathroom near the reception. I dialed the number for the owner and prayed for the cheerful “Guten Abend!” I’d been greeted with earlier in the day. Thankfully, she picked up and was ready to help. Her particular helpfulness reminded me how efficient and succinct German ways are. As I told her how we were unable to open the door to our room, she calmly began going through a detailed list of the different things that might have been wrong. “Do you have the key?” “Um, duh.” “Does it have a heart with the number 7 on it and is it brown?” “Yes. The exact one the lady gave me 15 minutes ago.” “Are you standing in front of the door with the number 7 on it?” “Hello? I made sure to check that before I called you. I will not be scorned for pure idiocy in Germany.” “Were you able to unlock the door?” “Yes.” (All the time she is patiently, methodically ticking off her list, I am thinking, this better get the door open soon, because Andrew can’t hold on much longer. He has also run down four flights of stairs to double check he didn’t miss the public bathroom and is back upstairs, pleading me to figure this mess out with fear entering his eyes.) And finally, she gets to the root of our issue, “Well, you know, its funny, I’m not sure how you say this in English, (Oh, spit it out!) but it, uh, is a fire safety feature. Have you tried pulling the door toward you just a little when you turn the knob?” “If I’d have thought of that, I’d already have done it, lady!” In the nick of time the door pops open, keeping our momentary “fire” at bay and I marvel at the logical thought process of the German woman and muse that in Spain, a crusty woman with a deep smoker’s voice would have barked at me, as though I must have a tic-tac for a brain, “Pull the dumb door toward you, hija!”

The Porta Nigra

The view from the Porta Nigra onto the Street

Cathedral in Trier

Palace of Trier

We toured the city of Trier, saw the Porta Nigra, the ancient Roman gate, and lounged in our incredible room. Also, Karl Marx’s home is in Trier, and we saw it, but I won’t be able to prove that to you with a picture. As we went to check out the next day, I was feeling quite bolstered by my interactions in German as of yet, and was ready to try out a compliment on the receptionist, a sure fire way to get someone to tell you how wonderfully you speak their language. So I opened my mouth to say how wonderful our experience at the hotel had been (Alles war sehr toll) and instead I said “Everything was really expensive.” (Alles war sehr teuer). The quizzical look that crossed her face made my own cheeks burn and we hightailed on to our next destination.

Wishing we were there!

Last year, around this same time in June, Andrew and I were finishing up a two and a half week long road trip style vacation through Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany and France. It seems unbelievable, now, that we had time for such a trip, but the reality is, when you are already in Europe, getting somewhere else by plane within Europe isn’t that time consuming or expensive. We packed up the rest of our belongings in Laredo at the end of May, waved goodbye to the beach and our incredible balcony, and took the bus to the Santander airport to begin the final leg of our European adventure. Once at the airport, we quickly realized our suitcase weighed 25 kilograms, 10 too many for the 15 kg bag we’d already paid to check. Unfortunately, paying 20 euros a kilo for the extra weight was entirely out of the question, so we spent the better part of two hours throwing away what I can now recognize as fairly ratty clothing. Clothes we’d lived in non-stop for 9 months. It was traumatic then and I know I felt clammy and hideous, climbing onto the Ryanair flight wearing two pairs of pants and three pairs of socks, but I’ve also shelled out the two hundred euros to schlep my stuff onto an airplane and I can say that being uncomfortable for an hour or so is much better that kissing goodbye to cold hard cash.

We landed in Brussels and spent the next few days in Belgium and Luxembourg. I don’t know if it was the excitement of starting a new trip or just the plain splendor of these two countries, but the first few days of the trip were some of the best! We drank Belgian craft beer at a pub called the Dead Rat in Namur, Belgium, visited the Strawberry museum in Wépion, a small town on the Meuse River and then stained our fingers red with strawberries sold from a stand on the roadside for a euro a pint. The tiny, delicate berries grown in Northern Europe are so different than the pumped up, grown-in-Florida-sand-berries we sometimes eat here.

Drinking a Waterloo
Drinking a Waterloo

Andrew at the Tote Ratte View of the waterfront in NamurDinantWe also stopped in a town called Dinant, while impressive in this picture, wasn’t much to get excited about.  After spending only a day in Belgium (ONE DAY! Not enough!) we spent our second night of the trip in a small town in Luxembourg, which we used as our home base to explore the miniature, but very worthy country of Luxembourg. We found it to be a nice mix of Germany and France. Similar industriousness to the Germans, but a more laid back attitude thanks to the French influence. Andrew had already seen Luxembourg City, but as it was my first time in the Grand Duchy of Luxembourg, we had to make a stop there. In Luxembourg CityLuxembourg Citythe happy coupleIMG_7475If only we were there again this year!