The highest mountain in Europe - Mont Blanc - Saturday, September 27, 2003

How did we end up in France? It wasn't even on our itinerary???? Here's the story:

After Oktoberfest in Munich, we headed west toward Lahr, Germany (very close to Strasbourg, France) to see our friend Jorg who we worked with on the coffee/mango plantation last August in Australia. We spent a fun few days hanging out with his friends, walking through vineyards & a devastated corn crop. What a lovely, small town to live in!

Jorg had told us that he had a surprise and a present for us. Little did we know that he was going to lend us his recently purchased 1981 Mercedes campervan "Arnold." Well, we are flexible people and decided to take "Arnold" for a spin for a few days. Since only a few days of good weather was predicted, we decided to got to Chamonix, France and do some hiking. France wasn't in the plan, but we are glad to be here. Fondue, onion soup, and eclairs....yum!

Anyway, "Arnold" is shaped like a bread box and is twice the size of our previous vans "Heimo" (USA) & " Stella" (NZ). "Arnold" has a sink, shower, & kitchen table. The van is huge... Maxing out at ~30 mph uphill, we made if from Germany to Chamonix, France in ~8 hours. At least Jorg had installed a great stereo and has quite an extensive music collection. Too bad two days of hiking will not make a dent in our ever-growing travelers' guts!! L'Shana Tova (Happy New Year)!!!

We hope to find some time to update our journal soon on our other adventures in Germany....

 The Romantic Road - Rothenburg - Friday, September 19, 2003

Along with Susan, we spent the day in Germany's best-preserved walled town. We did all the essentials without feeling too touristy: medieval crime & punishment museum (sinister but cool), St. Jakob's Church, walked along the 1.5 mile wall circling the city, and took the Nightwatchman's tour after sunset (tons of historic tidbits about Germany and Rothenburg).

Medieval Crime & Punishment Museum
This museum features instruments of punishment, torture, and has the most detailed colletion in Europe of 1000 year's worth of law (more interesting than it sounds). Punishment was quite severe in the middle ages with execution and severe punishment very common. Also interesting were the displays of items including tools and masks used to shame/punish gossips, infidels, clothing violations, not going or sleeping in church, nagging (!), and quarrelsome people.

 Prague, Czech Republic - Rain, rain go away - Sunday, September 14, 2003

We are spending 3 days in Prague and are pretty impressed so far. Here's a little history for ya.. Prague is the only major city in Central Europe to escape bombs in all the wars of the 20th Century. Thus, it is a very well preserved city. We've seen architecture as old as the 9th century!

Ruled by Charles IV in the Golden Age (14th Century), Prague was the largest, most highly cultured city in Europe. Charles IV was the King of Bohemia and also ruled the Holy Roman Empire from Prague, not Vienna like his predecessors...busy man. He did his best to make Bohemia grand. By contracting Italian mosaicists and French architects and building the first university north of the Alps, Charles IV succeded in making Prague the envy of other European cities during this time. Walking around Prague makes you feel like you are in a time warp!

The Slavic language is not quite as intuitive as the Latin-based languages we've encountered so far. I guess this is good preparation for Africa, Turkey, and Asia! Unlike the rest of Europe, Prague is smack dab in the middle of tourist season which usually ends ~ August for the rest of Europe. At every turn, we find tour groups from around the world following the distinctive flags of their tour guide. That's the only downside. Actually the weather is cool and rainy so our pics won't be as nice.... but what can you do? On the up side, the rain has forced us indoors to the quaint coffee and pastry shops. We are fattening up for the cool weather yet to come. It sure is yummy!

 Rivers, Castles, & Friends - Wednesday, September 10, 2003

We came to Frankfurt to visit M's friend Susan from Austin who had married a German-American a few years back. Susan & Douglas live with his sister and family. This happy home, dubbed "the Commune", is always home to a seemingly non-stop stream of welcome visitors. Thanks to Susan & Douglas, as well as the von Schroder family (Kristin & Benedikt, Wendelin & Claudius (impressive 17 yr old twins) & Konstantin (6 yr old budding Mr. Bean impersonator) for their hospitality!!!! It was great catching up with Susan as well as getting to know her husband (thanks 4 all the yummy, authentic, German food).

Tasty Food
We've been sampling much of the local food including the infamous apple strudel..mmmm! Check out the goodies...a big change from our less-than-inspiring Norwegian food experience:
- Federweissen (sweet wine from the 1st stage of production...just fermented)
- Appelwein (wine sweeter than cider but very tart...ick)
- Pflammkuchen (pizza-like crust with sourcream & bacon)
- Dampfknodel (bread dumplings-good with gravy-very thanksgiving-like)

Day Trip to Rhine
The Rhine is strewn with mountaintop castles, more castles than in any other river valley in the world. Castle-owners chose mountain-tops as strategically ideal situations (not for the builders!) to protect their lands from predatory neighbors and theives. Owners raked in the $$ levying tolls on merchants along this 35 mile stretch of river. Our scenic cruise down the Rhine afforded much time soaking up the vineyards, small towns, and castles dotting the river banks and mountains.

We jumped off the boat in St. Goar for a steep hike to Rheinfels Castle. This ancient fortress was built in 1245 and withstood a siege of 28K French troops in 1692 but was not destroyed by the French until ~ 100 years later. We were rewarded with stunning views of the river valley once we reached the top. While the castle was only a shell of its former self, it was not hard to imagine what a bad-ass place this was! 300-600 people lived in the castle during peacetime and over 4500 during wars. CROWDED!!! Worth the visit..

Eltz Castle on the Mosel River
It took a few hours train ride and an hour hike to get to this incredibly well-preserved castle that looks just as it did 820 years ago (fabulously furnished and all!). Apparently within this national monument the 33rd generation of the Eltz family still lives. The castle is positively medieval and is so well-preserved due to clever marriages and smart diplomacy!

 Amsterdam, The Netherlands - Sunday, September 07, 2003

We've been flying pretty fast and furiously through Europe with no time to upload our pics, type up journal notes, or call family/friends. It kinda makes us feel like we are late completing a work project. Haven't felt that in a while...say a year and 9 months! So here it goes....

We stumbled onto a typical, old Amsterdam hotel. It's not uncommon for folks to own a brownstone on the canals where the family lives on the bottom 2 floors and rents out 4-6 rooms upstairs. Very narrow, circular staircase! We loved hanging out and chatting over wine with the owner and the amazing fresh-cooked omlettes/great coffee for breakfast. Much better than a hostel!

Most of our time in Amsterdam was spent wandering around the narrow streets and canals (dodging the 40% of the population that only rides bikes), though we did visit a couple of museums, spent time an amazing photo exhibit, took a canal boat cruise, and checked out the Anne Frank House (AFH).

*AFH had been spruced up quite a bit since I'd last been there in '89 with a coffee shop, book store, and plaques in every room. AF wrote with such clarity and spoke in a voice beyond her years. Quite an impactful museum.

*Earth From Above Photo Exhibit - we randomly found an outdoor photo exhibit with very large format color images taken from the helicopters by Yann Arthus-Bertran back in 1995. His intention was to create a thorough survey of the state of the Earth on the eve of the twenty first century. Cruise his website to check out the photos...AWESOME!

Coffee Shops
It's common knowledge that the Netherlands has a more liberal view on drugs than the USA. Soft drugs (pot, hash, mushrooms) are perfectly legal and readily available in both bars and most prolifically in "coffee shops." Hard drugs (heroin, cocaine, X) are all prohibited. It's quite surprising to order a beer in a pub and see cannabis and beer listed on the same menu. As for coffee shops, they sell both coffee along with joints, bags, and bongs. Coffee shops are found in all neighborhoods on most corners, not unlike Starbucks...just selling a different habit! Did we partake? Come on....our parents read this. Keep wondering.

Next Stop - Red Light District (RLD)
We walked through the RLD one night along with a few wide-eyed Asian tour groups (video cameras working overtime!) and soaked up the atmosphere. Prostitution is legal and regulated in the Netherlands. They pay taxes and have medical regulations (condoms, checkups). Quite a surreal environment with sex toys, ladies of all size, shape, and color for rent in the windows, live sex shows, porn video cabins abound. It was actually fun watching men from all walks of life nudge their buddies before trepidatously approaching the door/window of a pretty prostitute with a question. Most got the door slammed on their face. Others went in for a while...

 Copenhagen, Denmark - Wednesday, September 03, 2003

While Norway hands down had the coolest topography and scenery, it was just a bit sleepier than Denmark. Fewer homes, smaller towns. Though Oslo was quite the happening city, Copenhagen is almost 3X its size. Bicycles ruled the road, picturesque, colorful buildings lined the streets and canals, and everyone seemed to be milling around on the street day and night. Copenhagen just felt more cosmopolitan. For sure the food was better and less expensive as well.

We spent three days hanging out with Kim (Danish) and Anne (Austinite), new friends of ours introduced through Dave´s friend Joe. Joe and Kim met randomly in Denmark several years ago and have remained good friends ever since. So, Joe hooked us up for our short visit. Thanks Joe!

We were treated to some good home cooking our 1st night in town and got a chance to hang out with some of Kim & Anne's friends. We started out at the homemade bar in their basement and then proceeded to hit a bar in town. Fun night..especially for D since Kim made him sample the local licorice vodka. Vicious stuff!

After sleeping late, we got right on our sightseeing duties... Kim drove us all out to Kronborg Castle in Elsinore, a town where Denmark is closest to Sweden (2.5 miles). Shakespeare's play, "Hamlet" takes place in this Danish castle. Originally built in 1420, its purpose was to help collect the excise and other taxes and fees from foreign ships wanting to sail through. For centuries, Sweden was the prime enemy of Denmark, which accounts for the strength of Kronborg at the time of construction - it was in its time the most powerful fortress in the Nordic countries, and housed a large garrison. We took a tour of the castle - through both the old residence (very ornate for their time) and the soldiers´ quarters in the basement of the castle (dark, dank, and cold).

We then drove back to Copenhagen to check out one of the most famous touristy sites - The Little Mermaid. The Little Mermaid was a present from brewer Carl Jacobsen (The Carlsberg Breweries) to Copenhagen. The story goes....

The Little Mermaid tells the story of a mermaid who fell in love with a prince from land, and often came up to the edge of the water to look for her love. The sculpture pictures her as she sits and looks out over the water, after having married the prince, and reminiscing over her lost childhood in the sea, as a mermaid. The story of The Little Mermaid is not a very happy one - she does get her loved one, by visiting a witch and agreeing to give the witch her tongue, in exchange for legs to replace her fish tail. And every step she took on her legs, hurt like she was walking on swords. So in order to get her love, she became a mute and was in pain with every step she took. The things you do for love...

Nothing like a hard day being touristy! We found a dark, Danish hole of a restaurant and ordered up a feast of traditional Danish food. It's all about potatoes and some sort of meat. YUMMY!!! Good bye Norway! For dessert and a stroll, we checked out Tivoli Gardens. Check out a little history on this amazing amusement park which opened in 1843.

Our next day consisted of a visit to counter-culture Christiania, a commune style enclave a short walk from the Parliament Building. This "free city" was established in 1971 with an original group of 700 people claiming squatters rights on an abandoned military base. This group of hippies, druggies, anarchists, and alternative lifestyle seekers founded this peace and freedom loving society that just started paying taxes in the last few years. Christiania has become a hot political topic for various reasons including the police turning an eye towards soft drugs (pot, hash, mushrooms) and the prospects of turning this valuable real estate into some sort of development much like the surrounding area.

Other places visited on our whirlwind tour included the Queens Residence, Nyhaven (the original sailors quarters, Hans Christian Andersen lived and wrote his first stories here), the Stroget (pedestrian walking mall) and the Nazi Resistance Museum.

Many thanks to our generous hosts, Kim and Anne, who donated their time generously for our entire stay. Thanks for the home cooking, good conversation, comfy bed and fabulous tour guiding skills.

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