Europeans Rejoice: The Maitais Return from Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy – September 2003
Chapter One: The Magnificent Mosel, Germany
Europe, the old frontier. These are the voyages of the blue Volkswagen Golf. Its 17-day mission: To explore four great countries. To seek out new memories and old civilizations. To boldly go where millions of vacationers have gone before.
OK, so a Volkswagen Golf isn’t the Starship Enterprise, I’m no Captain Kirk and my wife acts nothing like Mr. Spock (except when she attempts to give me the Vulcan death grip or Spock’s patented “look”). But just like the intrepid Enterprise crew, Tracy and I were off on a new adventure in Europe, and although we could have used Scotty’s technical knowledge to give our rental car warp speed, Data to help us navigate through the scary and confusing Saarbrücken nebula and Worf to use his phasers to take out a few oversized tour busses, we survived and thoroughly enjoyed another European sojourn. In the words of the inimitable Captain Picard, “Engage.”
Our first stop would be along the Mosel River in Germany. The 17-day trip would encompass four countries (Germany, France, Switzerland and Italy), eight hotels and about 3,000 kilometers of driving.
It was our sixth visit to the continent together. It would be my 11th overall. We left from LAX on Lufthansa on a Wednesday afternoon in mid-September, 2003. The last time we had flown on Lufthansa, its employees called for a strike while we were over Greenland on our way to Munich. Unfortunately, our final destination was Milan. The pilot came on the speaker that day and said, “It has just been announced that all Lufthansa flights in Germany have been canceled due to a one day strike.” We did make it to the Cinque Terre that day, sans luggage, and would return there this trip, as well, hopefully with a full stock of underwear in tow.
Tracy and I are a forgiving couple (and since the flight was incredibly cheap), so we gave Lufthansa another chance. Upon settling into our seats, I quickly hoped we could be beamed to Frankfurt because, it seemed, Lufthansa had added the extra rows that American Airlines had taken out of its planes. I tried dreaming of the hikes we were going to take in Switzerland to keep blood flowing to my feet.
Feeling uncomfortable, I turned to Tracy and said, “I think I’m getting one of those pulmonary embolisms or deep vein whatchamacallits in my leg. I need to get up and stretch.” Always logical and with that Spock raised eyebrow thing, she answered, “Let’s wait until we take off.”
It must have been about two seconds after the flight attendant said, “The pilot has switched off the fasten seat belt sign” when the guy in front of me goes into full-tilt recline. If I were a pygmy, perhaps I might have had some legroom left. “Oh boy,” I thought, “only 10 hours to go and we’ll be driving along the Mosel.”
After the meal arrived, I prayed the pasta was sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and not dandruff from the guy reclining, his hair follicles hovering precariously above my food. With my legs curled up like a German pretzel, I ordered some lovely red wine (vintage yesterday), put my IPOD on full music power (2,100 songs ready to go) and endured for the next nine hours.
When we arrived at Frankfurt Airport around 10:30 the next morning, I looked a lot like Nick Nolte’s mug shot on The Smoking Gun website. Neither Tracy nor I had slept more than an hour on the plane, but at least the feeling was coming back to our lower extremities.
The man at the Europcar booth told us, “You have a nice blue car.” We pulled our luggage to our rental car stall. Upon arrival at our appointed space, we stared in disbelief at the ugliest color of blue, Volkswagen Golf ever put on this earth. It screamed out, “I am a rental car, because no other car on this continent is this color! Don’t leave any valuables in my trunk because every thief in Europe knows I am a rental car!” This was no time to dally, however. It was time to conquer the German autobahn and proceed to the beautiful Mosel Valley.
The Golf might have been ugly, but at least, with some heavy petal pressure, it could zip along the autobahn at a fairly nice clip. It was an easy 1 1/2 hour drive from Frankfurt airport to Beilstein (probably about an hour for a Porsche doing about 200 kmph).
We arrived at the Haus Lipmann in Beilstein, our first hotel of the journey, which has a great location across the street from a ferry dock on the Mosel River. We had blue skies and sunshine.
The hotel’s restaurant terrace overlooked the river, and since we were famished, it made for a perfect combination. We never finished that mystery pasta aboard the plane, so Tracy and I ordered some goulash soup and pommes frites.
Looking across the table at my wife, I could instantly surmise Tracy was having the first signs of a common trans-Atlantic disease; jet lag narcolepsy. Immediately after eating, we set off on foot up to the Beilstein castle (Burg Metternich), situated on a hill above the town.
I felt if we did a little walking, we might get that important second wind. I believe Tracy was thinking more about a second husband.
I knew, however, we had to stay awake until at least 9 o’clock this night, or we would have trouble acclimating to our new time zone.
The 15 – 20 minute walk from the hotel was not strenuous (even for two walking zombies). I climbed the stairs to the top of the castle, while Tracy scouted the beer garden below for some guy who would let her go to sleep.
It was a picture perfect day, and the views of the charming Mosel Valley were astounding.
Tracy didn’t find another guy, so we hiked back down to Beilstein and walked through the heart of town. The walk takes about a minute. Pretty much everything in Beilstein is a hotel, restaurant, wine shop or cave selling wine. Perched high atop another hill was a church, but I could see in Tracy’s eyes that more hiking could be hazardous to my health.
It was only 16:30 (4:30 p.m.), and we were dragging pretty badly. So what do any red-blooded Americans do when they can barely keep their eyes open? Of course, get in the car and take a drive along the pretty and peaceful Mosel.
Tracy was afraid I would drive in the river and she had just cause to be alarmed. I was beat. I drove about 10 minutes to Cochem, a town we would visit the following day. Then I drove the other way and was somewhere near Zell when my eyes started having a hard time staying open. I immediately ascertained we had better get back to the hotel before I sideswiped a little old lady on a bicycle. Dinner started promptly at 18:00 on the terrace at the Haus Lipmann, and after a shower (the best hotel shower we enjoyed on the trip, by the way), we fell downstairs into the restaurant. I first said good evening to a swan I had met at lunch.
The food was good. We ordered a couple of different types of steak (well, Tracy actually ordered a pork dish, but since her taste buds were asleep, as well, she ate the steak she was served).
The owner of the hotel, Mr. Lipmann, had greeted us at lunch and came over to our table again to say hello (I believe he was afraid we were going to fall asleep in our soup). Herr Lipmann, being the personable fellow he is, chatted with us until he felt we were awake enough to finish our dinner.
We were the only Americans on the patio, and soon a large group of gregarious Germans started mingling nearby our table. I asked what they were up to (in a nice way, of course), and they said it was a reunion of the college class of 1957. Sunset on the Mosel was lovely as we looked out over the rows of vineyards, and, for a minute, we actually felt like human beings. We were on our fourth wind, and the sun was setting.
We jabbered with the class of ’57 until 8:30. Tracy said it was time either to go to sleep or to file for divorce. Thinking it over while sipping an after-dinner drink, I felt sleep would be much better, especially considering most of the trip was already paid for. Tracy was asleep before I could brush my teeth. I heard the Germans singing for about three minutes before I, too, was out.
It was not until breakfast on Friday morning that we finally encountered our first Americans at the Haus Lipmann, and they had similar plans for the day as we did. Both couples were going to drive about 45 minutes to Burg Eltz, a medieval castle that has been owned by the same family for more than 820 years (I’m assuming it’s paid for by now). The other couple had attempted to visit Burg Eltz the previous day, but turned back after having a difficult time finding the correct parking area.
I am not a huge Rick Steves’ devotee, but sometimes he dispenses valuable advice, and he did not fail us on this morning. His shortcut to Burg Eltz would save at least an hour’s time (both driving and hiking), and I endeavored to convey this valuable information to the other couple. I hoped the advice had not fallen upon deaf ears, because I could tell they were not in the mood for a long hike.
Our new friends from Texas departed for the castle ten minutes before we climbed inside our car. I read in Steves’ book not to follow the signs to Burg Eltz once reaching Moselkern, because those signs led to longer hikes up to the castle.
Instead, we ignored the Eltz signs in Moselkern and followed the signs to Munstermaifeld as he had suggested. We kept the faith even though it seemed we were headed in the completely opposite direction of the castle. After six kilometers we thought we were lost, but stuck to our convictions.
At seven kilometers, a “T” in the road materialized. Sure enough, signs to Burg Eltz were again in full view. We turned left and drove though Wierscheim. From that town’s exit sign it was only 2 kilometers to the Burg Eltz upper parking facility.
It was a pleasant 15-minute walk down to the castle from there. I pondered if the people from the hotel had followed our directions or were again floundering in their attempt to find Burg Eltz.
Burg Eltz is an imposing sight to behold from above as you hike down to it. Its setting in the middle of a forest is quite impressive. The day was hot, and we were happy to have this short walk instead of one of the longer hikes.
When we arrived at the castle entrance, we encountered a number of hot, sweaty people who had opted for the longer hikes. Many did not look happy.
Once again, there were no Americans (sweaty or otherwise) or anyone else who spoke English for that matter, so we paid the 6€ apiece, received a written English synopsis and took the tour, which was presented in German by a lovely guide. She was very nice, and when something wasn’t spelled out on our sheet, she would conduct a little of the tour in English for us. She also encouraged us to ask any questions we had about the castle, and she answered them, too. The tour took about an hour.
The castle was fantastic (one of the best I have seen in Europe), and when the tour was over we tipped our friendly guide 5€ for her generosity. She asked where we were from. When we said Southern California, her eyes lit up and she asked, “Do you ever meet any movie, television or rock ‘n roll stars?” We told her we didn’t spend much time visiting prisons.
We conversed with her for about five minutes and popped into the castle treasury for about ten more minutes. Just as we were ready to depart the castle, we saw the tired and not-so-happy faces of two people who looked vaguely familiar. It was the other couple from breakfast. Obviously our breakfast companions had not heeded our sage advice and were forced to go on the extremely long hike, and they were sweating bullets. “Would you like to get in the same tour as us?” they asked.
When we told them we had taken the shortcut I had told them about earlier that morning and had already enjoyed the tour, they looked at us incredulously. Then the woman gave her husband a stare that only another husband can look at in empathy (think Damien in The Omen and you would be close).
I shot him a glance that conveyed, “Sorry, dude. I feel your pain.” I’m sure the hike back down to their car was not one of those magical travel moments they would care to share with friends and family.
For us, though, it was on to explore the town of Cochem, the capital of the Mosel Valley. Cochem’s castle (Reichsburg Cochem) overlooks the town, and is a good, steep hike upwards to reach. I thought about going for it for about three seconds and remembered witnessing the pained expression on that husband’s face after being on the receiving end of “the look.”
The area of Cochem that lies directly on the river is very touristy, so we meandered up a few blocks and found quaint medieval streets and alleyways.
The day was exquisite, and outdoor dining seemed a must. A woman directed us to an alfresco paradise just off a narrow street. The patio was part of the Hotel Lohspeicher and its restaurant, and we chatted with the owner who also happened to be our server on this day. She had recommendations, and who were we to say no to her suggestions.
The special of the day was Zweibelkuchen (a delicious onion pie) that we had in combination with a glass of young wine called Federweinber. The inside of the restaurant looked very nice, as did the hotel. We made a note, should we ever return, Cochem would make a good base in the Mosel Valley.
Strolling down to the river again after lunch, we saw a giant chess board. “Mongo only pawn in game of life,” I told Tracy. Yes, there are never enough Blazing Saddles’ references.
After walking the streets of Cochem, it was on to Zell. Zell appeared tired, and after about twenty minutes, we hightailed it toward Bernkastel-Kues.
It was an easy drive along the river that incorporated fantastic vistas of the Mosel, its quaint towns and rising vineyards.
One of the Class of ’57 had recommended traveling to Bernkastel-Kues, and the town lived up to its advanced billing.
Bernkastel-Kues, with its half-timbered buildings on the square (Markplatz), is one of the area’s most colorful towns.
Tracy and I were admiring St. Michael’s Fountain in the center of the Markplatz when accordion music filled the air.
Petrified that I was having a Lawrence Welk flashback from my childhood, I turned around and saw 15 drunken women stumbling behind a rather tipsy lady playing The Happy Wanderer on her accordion.
The pied piperess and her merry ladies were soon a memory, but they’ll never be entirely forgotten (Val-deri, Val-dera, Val-deri, Val-dera-ha-ha-ha-ha).
Tracy and I quickly ducked into a nearby bar and tried to get the accordion music out of our heads. A little wine did did the trick.
Nothing like a glass of Federweinber to bring one back to his senses. Accordion music and some German wine makes for strange bedfellows. It was time for Tracy and me to head back to our home base for dinner and some nightlife; Beilstein-Style.
We had dinner again at the Lipmann, and since this was Friday night, it was our resolve to partake in the Beilstein nightlife. “What to do,” we thought? Fortunately our decision-making process was made much easier by the fact there is really only one place to go in Beilstein on a Friday night.
In back of the Haus Lipmann is the Zehnthauskeller owned by Herr Lipmann’s brother-in-law (a Herr and a spare). It was nine o’clock, and the place was hopping full of Germans who were hopping full of hopped up beer. The boisterous crowd was singing traditional folk songs and other German favorites. The “band” consisted of a guy playing an organ and synthesizer. Every so often, a drunken German guy would get up and bang on a drum near the front of the hall. I hoped he didn’t have the room next to us at the Haus Lipmann.
The only table with open seats was in the front row. It seated six, and we were the only couple… at first. I proceeded to walk around the hall and heard absolutely no English-speaking people anywhere, which was perfect because when traveling in Europe I enjoy the sense that we aren’t in Kansas any more. After Tracy and I ordered some wine, two German couples sat at the table’s other open seats. The next song had barely begun when one German woman locked arms with Tracy and one German guy locked arms with me. We started swaying like six trees in a windstorm.
The Germans ordered some wacky shots of pear liqueur, which they were kind enough to let me taste. It was good, so I decided to order one for Tracy and me. Since I had already consumed some wine at dinner, I was feeling no pain. In my pathetic attempt at speaking fluent German, I thought I had ordered two shots. Upon returning, our waitress had five shots on her tray. The time for quick thinking was now upon me.
When the five shot glasses arrived at the table, I made an executive decision to bestow four of them to our new German friends, which only made them want to lock arms with us even more and even tighter. I believe the bruising finally disappeared by the time we reached Italy. The highlight of the evening was singing “Take Me Home Country Roads” in English with 250 Germans all locking arms and pulsating with the music. It was like a giant karaoke bar. John Denver would have been proud.
When I received the bill, I could not believe the numbers. I had ordered 11 shots and/or wine drinks for our German cohorts and us. The number of drinks was, in itself, not shocking. I can order 11 drinks with the best of them. The shock was the price. The bill came to only 21€ and change.
Dumbfounded, I asked the waitress if that amount was correct, and she said, “Ja” or something to that effect. I tried to tip her 5€ for the great time and service, but she said, “No, I can’t accept it. It is too much.” See if that ever happens to you at The Cheesecake Factory. “How about two?” I asked. She countered that was also too much, but she finally took it and thanked us profusely.
We stumbled back to our room with memories of the night (at least what we remembered of it) fresh in our heads.