Thanksgiving in Myrtle Beach, SC November 2017

Most impressions of Myrtle Beach are of large resort hotels and RV resorts. However, in the middle of this extremely commercial tourist area is a true gem known as Myrtle Beach State Park. The park has a beautiful beach, picnic shelters, nature center, fishing pier, and roomy wooded campsites. It’s a forest campground in the middle of a city.

We enjoyed doing our morning walks on the beach and walking to the nearby Market Common, a planned community built on the former Myrtle Beach Air Force Base.

A local group, the GTS Theater, presents a performance called the Motown Tribute. Having lived in the Detroit area, we had to check it out. I wouldn’t say it was Broadway quality, but we enjoyed it.

Our daughter, Elisabeth, and her cat, Cinder, joined us on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. We did Christmas shopping and planning for the Thanksgiving dinner. Pat baked a beautiful Thanksgiving turkey with all the trimmings – dressing, mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, and apple pie. What a feast! We enjoyed the leftover meals almost as much as the original dinner.

It may have been November, but we had nice weather for an afternoon on the beach.

On our last night in town, Elisabeth drove us to North Myrtle Beach for their annual drive-through Lightshow. It was great and I shot pictures by standing in the sunroof of her car.

Sunday morning we were packed up and while Elisabeth drove back to Raleigh, we began our two-day drive to Jacksonville, FL and Mayport Naval Base.

Posted in Celebrating Holidays, Fulltime RV, Michigan Traveler, South Carolina | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Camp Hosting in Raleigh, NC

We typically serve as Camp Hosts at the Holly Point Campground in the Falls Lake State Recreation Area near Raleigh, NC in April, or October, or both. We do this so we can spend more time with our daughter, Elisabeth. As in many states, North Carolina will only let you stay in a campground for 14 days within a 30 day period. In order to stay longer we volunteered to be Camp Hosts. We clean bathrooms five days a week, but compared to camp host duties in other states this is light duty!  For this small commitment of time we get to enjoy time with our daughter and a beautiful campground on the shore of Falls Lake.

The North Carolina State Fair a must do event whenever we are in the Raleigh area. We enjoy the livestock exhibits, 4-H Club displays, including the largest pumpkins I have ever seen!

One of my favorite exhibits are the lawn arrangements. The two of these that I liked the best this year were one that had plants as people and the one that incorporated a model train.

Another favorite are the pig races. They have races with pigs, geese, and goats. We see the same races every year but they are still a hoot.

My favorite exhibit is the Yesteryear Village. In this building are many artisans and craftsmen displaying everything from painting and tinsmiths to gun makers. I could stand around for hours watching these men and women working their crafts.

Halloween may not be the only holiday in October, but it is the most popular. When we were still living in a house we enjoyed handing out candy to the neighborhood children. However, you don’t get a lot of trick or treaters in a campground. That doesn’t mean we didn’t celebrate. On the Saturday before Halloween the Ranger staff and the “Friends of Falls Lake” hosted a Halloween celebration at the campground amphitheater. There was face painting, popcorn, S’mores, and ghost stories. Over 100 campers attended and we all had a great time.

On our last Sunday afternoon the volunteers and seasonal staff gathered with our Head Ranger, Crystal at her house for a cookout. The weather was sort of drizzly, but we had a fun time hanging out and sharing stories from the camping season.

A common subject among fulltime RVers is how to get medical care. Last year I had to have a root canal that ended up with a fractures tooth. I opted to go with a dental implant but never realized how drawn out the process would be. I made an appointment with a local oral surgeon to extract the tooth and emplace the implant. There are several long waiting periods in this process. First they did the extraction and did a bone graft to make sure there was a solid surface to emplace the implant, then I had to wait for at least four months. We traveled through Florida and wintered in Key West and returned to the Raleigh area in April. At that point the oral surgeon put in some kind of device and I had to wait another four months. I thought I was going to be able to finish the process while we were in Michigan over the summer and made arrangements with my general dentist for the crown that would replace the old tooth. I was having such a difficult time trying to explain to oral surgeons in Michigan what needed to be done, and considering that I had already paid for this to be done in Raleigh, I decided to wait until we got back to Raleigh to finish the process. The process was long, but on November 6th the crown was fastened to the implant and my mouth is whole again.

While all of this was going on we finished our duties as camp hosts at Holly Point on November 1st. That campground closed and we moved to the Rolling View Campground, also on Falls Lake, where we stayed until November 12th.

We spent our last day in town taking advantage of some of the meal discounts offered to veterans in honor of Veterans Day and watching the MSU (Go Spartans!) game with our daughter.

On November 12th we awoke to a chilly morning, hooked up, and headed south for Myrtle Beach State Park in South Carolina.

Posted in Celebrating Holidays, Fulltime RV, Holidays, Michigan Traveler, North Carolina, Working on the Road | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Pigeon Forge, TN – Dollywood and the Great Smokey Mountains – September 2017

Many of our stops are not intentional, in that they are not a chosen destination. Pigeon Forge happened to be on one of the possible routes from Michigan to North Carolina and the right distance from our last stop. As I explored what we could do in the area I quickly discovered this was the home of Dollywood. We had enjoyed attending the Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Branson and thought there may be similar things to do here.

We booked a site at Clabough’s Campground. We’ve had good luck with campgrounds lately and this was another hit. We had a nice pull through site, there was a good camp store, and laundry room. Our only complaint was that the office is in a building shared with a gas station and we drove right past it without noticing. It was not a big problem as I just walked over, got our site and we pulled into it with no problems.

We took the Pigeon Forge Shuttle into town and did some exploring. I was a bit disappointed with Pigeon Forge. I thought it would be like Branson, but it is much more commercialized and harder to get around town. After exploring the shopping at The Island at Pigeon Forge area, we stopped by Dolly Parton’s Smokey Mountain Adventures and bought tickets for the following night.

The Smokey Mountain Adventures is the story of Dolly Parton’s mother and father as they were growing up and how they met in the Pigeon Forge area. I’m not sure how accurate the story is, but I found it very entertaining. It was a unique combination of song, dance, acrobatics, and comedy. It was a dinner show and the multiple course dinner was served smoothly in an unobtrusive manner. I was impressed by the quality of the food, especially when you consider they were serving hundreds of diners in one sitting.

We thought the Great Smokey Mountains National Park was more interesting than Dollywood, so we drove to the nearby Sugarlands Visitor Center to find out more about the park and hiking opportunities. We learned about the park and talked with a couple of volunteers who gave us some good information on the best trails for us. The next day we drove to nearby Gatlinburg to check it out.

Both Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg are big-time tourist traps, but I liked Gatlinburg better than Pigeon Forge. We wandered around Gatlinburg checking out the shops and doing a couple of wine tastings. The place was packed and the sidewalks loaded with people from doorway to curb. However, if you’re looking for a variety of places to eat and shop, Gatlinburg is it.

The next morning we drove back into the Great Smokey Mountains to hike the Rainbow Falls Trail. It was a beautiful day for a hike, a little cool and slightly overcast with a forecast of clearing skies throughout the day. When we got to the trailhead there were lots of cars but we were able to find a spot in an overflow lot. The trail is a 5.6 mile round trip (although it felt longer and my GPS agreed with our feelings) and definitely a climb. We could see signs of extensive trail maintenance. There were new erosion control measures and very large tool boxes, like the kind that go in the back of a pickup truck. I couldn’t stop wondering, “How did they get these things up here?” I couldn’t imagine them being carried by workers, maybe they had pack mules?

Because the trail led to a waterfall, we expected to have to do several water crossings. Some were easy with log bridges, others required us to step and jump from one rock to another. All of these added to the fun.

At one point we ran into some hikers who said they had seen a bear. We stopped to take a good look around and look what we found!

We reached the falls and took a break for lunch. Getting to the falls proper required some more climbing, but it was possible to get under the falls. Needless to say things get wet around a waterfall and as I was climbing to get under it I kept hearing my climbing instructors from Ranger School telling us not to climb on wet rock!

The hike back down went a lot faster. As we descended we kept encountering others who were hiking to the falls. They were not encouraged when they asked us how far it was to the top and we told them we had been hiking downhill for the last hour. We had a good time on this hike but it was not one that you want to start late in the day. If this was a good example of the day hikes available in the Great Smokey Mountains, I would recommend the Smokies for anyone who likes hiking.

As a final note, when we stopped at the Visitor Center to get a hiking medallion, I asked a Ranger about the tool boxes and he told me they had been airlifted in by helicopter.

The next day, October 1st, we headed east to North Carolina.

Posted in Fulltime RV, Michigan Traveler, National Parks, Tennessee | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Spending Times with Family and Friends and the RV/MH Hall of Fame

After we returned from Germany we were ready to head towards North Carolina for our Camp Host assignment at the Falls Lake State Recreation Area near Raleigh. First, we traveled to our “go to” RV park in the Grand Rapids area, Woodchip RV Park in Byron Center. This is a nice park if you want to get work done on your rig or visit people in the area as it is close to RV dealers and Grand Rapids.

Ever since my Dad passed away in 2010 I have tried to stay in touch with my uncles who live in Southwest Michigan. We made arrangements to meet my uncles at their favorite restaurant in Allegan. It’s their version of Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” The owner and the waitresses all stopped by to say “Hi” to the “Hot Chocolate Guys.” My sister drove down to join us and we got a pleasant surprise when our cousin, Sandy, showed up with her dad. We had a great time bringing each other up to date and talking about our travels.

Two of Pat’s hometown friends live in Grand Rapids and we joined them for a wonderful fish dinner of Michigan Walleye at their house. Kay and Lynn are always fun to be with and we are never at a loss for something to talk about. Lynn is a former Barbershop Quartet singer and paratrooper so we have a lot in common. We had so much fun I forgot to get any pictures! We hope things will work out so we will be able to see them again when they are in Florida.

Quadra Manufacturing makes the Bigfoot Leveling System and their factory is in Southwest Michigan. Since Our Bigfoot System had been giving us some problems we made an appointment to have them work on it as we traveled south. Quadra Manufacturing is a small business in White Pigeon, MI and we have loved the service we get from them. Their technical support on the phone is totally professional and the service we have received when we have taken our trailer in for service is an example for others to follow.

Quadra was going to need the trailer for a couple of hours so we drove to Elkhart, Indiana to visit the RV/MH Hall of Fame. You know, you really can’t be a fulltime RVer and not visit your own Hall of Fame. The Recreational Vehicle/Manufactured Home Hall of Fame is dedicated to preserving the history and honoring the pioneers and individuals who have made significant contributions to the RV industry. It hosts the Northern Indiana Event Center and has a reference library as well of a museum of the RV industry.

One of their exhibits displayed the process of building RVs. I found it to be very enlightening.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

We were able to see RVs that went back to the days of Henry Ford and the Model T. It was interesting to how RVs have been developed over the years. The oldest travel trailer in the world is the 1913 Earl Traveler and is the oldest surviving RV is on display here. The 1969 Pace Arrow was Fleetwood’s fir motor home. The oldest Winnebago and the smallest Airstream are also on display. Features that we take for granted today were not even dreamed about in these early vehicles.

Our next stop was Lexington, KY. The sole reason for stopping here was to visit an old friend from my National Guard days. We stayed at the Kentucky Horse Park. This is a state park with the mission to celebrate the history of our relationship with horses through education, exhibition, engagement and competition. The campground is a part of the Kentucky Horse Park and the sites are very roomy with plenty of trees. If we ever pass through this area again I will make a point of staying here.

We invited Bill and his wife, Phyllis, to join us at our campsite for dinner. Bill was my Operations Sergeant when I was in the Ranger Company in the Michigan Army National Guard. He was so dedicated that he would drive from Kentucky to Michigan every month for drill. He is the hardest working, self-sacrificing, and humble man I know. It was fun to sit with an old comrade in arms and share memories. At the same time it was sad to see that Bill’s health is not what it used to be and I hoped that this wouldn’t be the last time we would see each other. Once again, we got so caught up in talking that we forgot all about getting a picture – ARGH!

The next morning, September 28th, we were back on the road, headed for Pigeon Forge, TN.

Posted in Fulltime RV, Kentucky, Michigan, Michigan Traveler, National Guard, Tennessee | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Return to Germany – Part 3 (Munich to Berlin)

Munich is one of the largest cities in Germany and used to be the capital of Bavaria. Frederick the Great ruled from Munich. For history buffs one of the major attractions was the Residenz, the Palace of the Wittlesbach dynasty. They may have spent their summers in other castles, but they ruled Bavaria from Munich. Touring the Residenz you get a feel for what it was like to live in the palace. If I thought Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein were gaudy, the Residenz was even more so. There were murals, portraits, statues, marble and gold leaf everywhere. Huge halls for every purpose and large rooms with only one chair for the emperor. We only toured a portion of the Residenz and by the time we left I was glad we were not members of the royal court.

Munich is home to Germany’s largest, and most famous beer hall, the Hofbrauhaus. The Hofbrauhaus is actually owned by the State of Bavaria. The Hof comes from the brewery’s history as the royal brewery for the Kingdom of Bavaria, which why there is a crown in their logo. It is a huge place, but still local. Locals have their own tables, and have their mugs locked in racks on the walls. We originally visited in the morning when things were calm, and considered it for lunch until we stopped by and found it already too crowded and too loud.

One of my fondest memories of previous trips of Germany was sitting in Gasthauses, sharing a table with Germans, and doing my poor best to carry on a conversation with them. Usually their English was better than my German, but it was always fun and they appreciated my attempt. In Munich I had a chance to do that again. We went to the Augustiner am Dom, one of the brewhouses (brauhaus) owned by the Augustiner Brewery. It was smaller and less chaotic than the Hofbrauhaus. Shortly after we were seated a German couple was seated with us at the table (the normal custom in Germany). They were from Karlsrule and were spending the night in Munich before continuing their trip. I spoke to them in German and they answered me in English, when we didn’t know a word they looked it up on their phone. I had a wonderful time and it will be one of my fondest memories of our trip.

I thought I had planned our trip to avoid the crowds of Oktoberfest, little did I know that Oktoberfest would start on our second day in Munich and the festival grounds were only a five minute walk from our hotel. Oktoberfest was originally a wedding reception for the Royal Wedding on 12 October 1810 for Crown Prince Ludwig, later to become King Ludwig I. The citizens of Munich were invited to attend the festivities held on the fields in front of the city gates to celebrate the royal event. It was such a good time, they decided to make it an annual event. Over the years the activities began earlier and earlier until it moved into September to take advantage of the warmer weather.

It wasn’t as chaotic as I thought it would be although we saw people all over town dressed in the traditional Bavarian attire of Lederhosen and Dirndl skirts. Even though the festivities did not start until the Mayor tapped the first keg at noon, we saw people walking to the festival grounds in lederhosen and dirndl skirts, beer in hand, at 8:30 in the morning.

After we finished our sightseeing in downtown Munich, we went to the festival grounds late in the afternoon. It was like a huge state fair but without the livestock exhibits. There were food booths, rides, souvenir booths, and beer tents.  The beer tents were actually beer halls. They were two stories high and could hold thousands of people, each of the major brewers in the area had their own beer hall and there were open air beer gardens for anyone who couldn’t get a ticket to the beer halls. We had a lot of fun. People go all out for Oktoberfest, young and old, and enjoy this unique celebration.

Munich was also the birthplace of the Nazi Party and Hitler’s “Beer Hall Putsch.” Just outside Munich is the first concentration camp, Dachau. The day of our tour was a gloomy, drizzly day and set the perfect tone for this visit. A number of things were interesting to note about Dachau. It started out as a punishment camp for political prisoners. They were not put to work because the Nazis needed the laborers, but to punish them. As bad as the initial conditions were, they got worse. Two of the barracks have been reconstructed and show how the accommodations got worse as the camp population grew. Dachau was opened in March 1933 with a population of 5,000 prisoners, when it was liberated in April 1945 there were 30,000 prisoners, of which only a fraction survived. While everyone knows Jews were kept in the camps, there were also thousands of Poles, Russians, Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Gypsies. Also four female British SOE (Special Operations Executive) agents were confined and murdered at Dachau. Over 188,000 prisoners passed through the gates of Dachau. In the Memorial area of the camp is a Jewish Memorial that shows images of prisoners who threw themselves on the electrified fence to kill themselves to avoid further suffering. In Dachau, death was often preferred to suffering. Our visit to Dachau was a very sobering experience, but one that I think everyone should have. We can never let something like this happen again.

Rothenburg ob de Tauber is one of the few medieval walled cities left in Germany. Rothenburg was a major trading hub, but war, plague, and a change in trade routes left Rothenburg in dire financial problems until it became a tourist destination. In Rothenburg you can walk along the ramparts of the old wall, walk the cobblestone streets, and get a sense of what it was like in medieval Germany. One of our highlights was the Night Watchman’s Tour. Hans-Georg Baumgartner, dressed as a medieval night watchman leads a 100+ audience through the streets of Rothenburg in a humorous, entertaining, but factual description of the history of Rothenburg. I thought this was the best part of our visit.

In our initial planning we decided a trip to Germany would not be complete without including Berlin. I grew up during the Cold War, and as an Army officer I trained to fight the Soviets and East Germans. The Berlin I knew was divided, not like it is today. Our first stop in Berlin was the Brandenburg Gate. This used to be just across the border in East Berlin and now the U.S. Embassy is right next to it. You can see where the Wall used to be by a pattern of cobblestones set in the sidewalk. Across the street from the Brandenburg Gate is a memorial to those who died trying to escape to freedom in the West.

We used our Rick Steves App to explore Berlin, but one site he didn’t cover was Checkpoint Charlie. This was the primary crossing point in the American Sector. There are several museums around the area and the one we visited told the story of Germans fleeing to the West and the risks they took, with some losing their lives in the process. The U.S. checkpoint was nothing more than a small shack, like a toll booth, while the East German side was a large complex of gates and inspection stations. I guess it took a lot less to let people into the West than it did to keep people in the East. I think too many of us take our freedom for granted because we have never really lost it.

On September 20th we flew back to Michigan. We had a wonderful time and I think we will need to take some time to rest after our busy, but rewarding trip.

Auf Wiedersehen

Posted in Fulltime RV, Germany, Michigan Traveler | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Return to Germany – Part Two (Schwangau to Salzberg)

We had a lot of fun and made new friends on our cruise, so it was with mixed feeling that we left the cruise in Basal Switzerland. As we wondered through Basal it was a pleasant surprise to continue to run into people we knew from the ship.

We took the train from Basal to our first stop, Schwangau, Germany. Before leaving the U.S. we had purchased a Eurail Pass. This is a great deal. It is only available to people who don’t live in Europe. It must be purchased ahead of time and sent to you by mail. We purchased a package that gave us five trips in three countries over a two month period – a perfect fit for our plans. I figured we saved about one third of what it would have cost us to pay for each of these trips individually, plus all of our seats were in First Class. With the Eurail Pass you don’t have to make a reservation, but just get on whatever train you need. We had only one time when we thought it was necessary to have a reservation and in that instance we were glad that we did.

The reason for traveling to Schwangau was to visit the castles (Schloss) of Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein. These castles were residences of the Wittlesbach family, a dynasty that reigned over Bavaria for generations. The most famous Wittlesbach was King Ludwig II, better known as “Mad King Ludwig.” He was largely ineffective, recluse, and spent his time and family fortune on building many castles throughout Bavaria. As a young man he lived in Schloss Hohenschwangau, which was one of the summer residences of the Wittlesbach’s, and built Schloss Neuschwanstein. Neuschwanstein was his most famous castle and was the inspiration for the Castle in Disney’s Magic Kingdom. How would you like to have that for your summer cottage?

It was clear to me that these castles were built as residences, not fortresses. While they dominated the countryside they were not defensible. As we toured the castles I couldn’t help but think these people had way too much money that could have been spent more wisely. Gaudy does not begin to describe the interiors of these castles. Ludwig loved medieval history and there were murals on almost every wall depicting medieval scenes. The wildest example of excess I learned about was Ludwig’s bed in Hohenschwangau was carved from wood and took 400 woodcarvers fourteen months to complete! None the less, both castles were impressive sites to see. Included in our tickets was a pass to the Museum of Bavarian Kings, which I found to be almost more interesting than the castles. If you visit Neuschwanstein, don’t pass up the Museum, it is well worth your time.

When selecting where we would stay I tried to pick non-chain hotels that would offer a more personal experience, that would be inexpensive, but not a dump. The Landhotel Guglhupf in Schwangau was everything I hoped for. The room was nice with a balcony had offered a view of the Bavarian Alps and Neuschwanstein. They offered a breakfast with so much food we wouldn’t need anything more to eat until dinner. The performance of the staff was an example of professional customer service. I’d be willing to go back to Germany just to stay there for a while.

Our next stop was Salzburg, Austria, the birthplace of Mozart and home to the Sound of Music. Yes, the Von Trapp Family lived there and fled the Nazis from there, but most people in Salzburg don’t make a big deal about it, it is purely an American thing. While the movie was filmed in the USA, it was based on locations in Salzburg. We were able to see the steps in the Mirabell Garden where the Von Trapp kids sang the “Do-Re-Me” song. If you recall where the family hid in the church cemetery, that is St. Peters Cemetery and we were able to see the caged grave sites along the wall where they hid. We also learned an interesting tidbit – the graves are not owned, but rented by the families. If the family does not keep up with the rent the headstones are removed and cemented to the exterior wall of the church. No one said if they moved the bodies!

In our tour of Salzburg we relied on a cell phone App by Rick Steves. I used his travel guide as my primary resource in planning our trip. This is a free App and is an excellent way to tour a city in Europe. As opposed just an MP3 file, it includes a map and a complete written transcript of what he is saying. You can find it in the Google Play Store. I found this much better than a “Jump Off and On” bus tour or a walking tour with a guide. We would listen on our own phones, we could wander as much as we wanted, and repeat portions of the narration. I found the map to be a good navigation aid even after we were finished with his narrated tour. If you have ever watched Rick Steves on PBS, you’ll know that he knows how to find the best in every locale.

On our second day in town we took a bus to Berchestgarten. From there we took a bus tour with Eagles Nest Tours to Obersalzburg and Hitler’s Eagles Nest. Here we learned Hitler did not live in Berlin. He and many of his key leaders, such as Heinrich Himmler, Hermann Goering, and Martin Borman lived in Obersalzburg. Many people have the impression that Hitler had a residence in the Eagles Nest, high above Obersalzburg, but it was built as a “tea house.” In fact, Hitler didn’t like heights and visited the Eagles Nest only fourteen times.

After WWII the German government made a deliberate effort to remove all of the Hitler sites, so they could not be used as shrines or rallying points for Hitler followers. The big hotel at Obersazburg and the Eagles Nest were taken over by the U.S. as military recreation sites. After they were turned back over to the Germans, the hotel was torn down, but the local Bavarian governor asked to keep the Eagles Nest intact and turn it into a tourist attraction to bring revenue into the area. His request was granted and it is awash with tourists every day.

The Nazis also built a bunker system under Obersalzburg to serve as air raid shelters for the Nazi leaders. They were so well furnished that they were essentially a continuation of the above ground quarters, like a super finished basement. There are only two places where you can go into the bunkers but all that remains are the walls and the stairways. After the war the U.S. Army allowed the residents of the area to take whatever they wanted from the bunkers to rebuild which is why there is not much left to see.

Next stop – Munich

Posted in Fulltime RV, Michigan Traveler, Germany | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Return to Germany – Part One (Cruising the Rhine River)

In the early 1980s I commanded a National Guard unit that was the Long Range Reconnaissance Patrol (LRRP) company for the US VII Corps in Germany. Over the years I took several trips to Germany for conferences and war planning and participated in two Return of Forces to Germany (REFORGER) exercises. I loved traveling through the country and talking with the locals and always wanted to return. Finally, after over 35 years, we did it.

We traveled with Viking River Cruises from Amsterdam to Basel, Switzerland. From there we traveled on our own to Fussen, Salzburg, Munich, Rothenburg ob de Tauber, and Berlin.

We visited and experienced far too many sights to cover them all in a blog post, so I’m going to try to share the highlights in the next few posts. I hope you enjoy them.

We arrived in Amsterdam a day before the cruise. The two most fascinating sites we visited were the Ice Bar and the Anne Frank House.

We had heard about the Ice Bar in Amsterdam from a friend and stumbled across a coupon for it, combined with a canal cruise and we jumped on it. The weather had not been nice, a lot of rain off and on throughout the day but fortunately it was clear while we took the cruise. Two things stood out as highlights of the cruise. The number of people that live in boats moored in the canals and that many of the buildings were leaning as their foundations settled into the marsh land that Amsterdam was built on.

The Ice Bar is literally the coolest bar in Amsterdam. When we entered the bar our virtual host “Willem Barentsz” welcomed us via a video into his world as a Dutch explorer. He invited us to experience the feeling of living on his ship, the Mercury, in 1596, survive the hardships of the extreme cold and be brave enough when the ship becomes stranded on the island of Nova Zembla.

Inside the Amsterdam Icebar we found two bars. In first, the lounge, we were given three coins, two gold and one silver. The gold coins were used inside the Ice Bar, and the silver one for a cocktail in the normal lounge to enjoy while we warmed up. At the back of the lounge was the entrance to the second bar, the Icebar. Here we were given a thermal coat and gloves to keep us warm at -10 degrees Celsius! Inside we were surrounded by a staggering 60 tons of natural ice, sculpted into the form of a real bar. The furniture, the walls, the art – everything was made of ice! State-of-the-art light effects gave the Icebar all the colors you can think of. Our drinks were served in a glass… made of ice, of course! It was certainly the most unique bar we have ever visited.

The next morning we walked to the Anne Frank House. If you do this make sure you get tickets online ahead of time as time slots fill quickly. While I had never read the “Diary of Anne Frank,” I was familiar with the story.  Anne’s father, Otto, owned and operated a business in the front of the building and he turned the back of the building into the “secret annex.” I always imagined the family hiding in an attic, but it was actually three floors behind hidden doors. There were two families and one friend hidden in the annex and they lived there for two years before they were betrayed and captured by the Nazis. It’s hard to imagine how eight people could exist in such close quarters, not being able to walk around, use the toilets, or pour water down a drain during the day for fear of being heard.

No one knows who betrayed the families.  With the exception of Otto Frank, all of them died in the concentration camps. After the war Otto was given Anne’s diary by a neighbor and he had it published. This was an amazing place to visit and one we will not soon forget.

Our stop in Cologne was a unique blending of new and old. First we saw the cathedral. It is a massive structure and the building of it spanned, not decades, but centuries. The cathedrals of Europe are so huge that it was not unusual to take hundreds of years for them to be built.

As in most of the cathedrals we visited there was a central aisle and naves on either side. The naves were typically decorated with paintings or wood carvings of the cruxification. The most unique thing about the Cologne cathedral is the ark that the church claims holds the remains of the three Wise Men (Magi). The church has performed DNA testing on the remains and believes they have sufficient proof to make this claim.

While touring another part of the city we found that the excavated remains of the residence of the Roman governor, the Praetorium, were discovered on the site of the current city hall. An earthquake had destroyed the residence and in digging the foundation for the city hall, it was uncovered. Archeologists excavated the site and once the archeological work was completed they put a roof on it and built the city hall on top of it. This is probably the most unique archeological site I have ever visited.

An interesting aside is that civil weddings are often conducted at city hall on Saturdays. We saw one wedding party after another come to the city hall for their wedding and then they would hold the reception in the square outside of city hall. Our guide told us that passersby are sometimes invited to join in the festivities. We stopped to listen to a wedding party sing to the new couple, but we weren’t invited to join them.

During our time in Europe we saw more cathedrals than ever before. Being an American gives one a rather limited view of history. Yes, we have studied it, but until you are looking at it you don’t have an appreciation for how young our own country is.  For example, construction of the cathedral in Strasbourg, France was begun in 1015, almost 500 years before Columbus landed in America.

I struggled to comprehend the amount of time it took to construct these huge houses of worship. Using the cathedral in Strasbourg as an example, while construction began in 1015, it was not completed until 1439 – 424 years. Can you imagine being on the board of trustees for your church and trying to get approval for a building program that would last for more than 400 years?

After seeing so many cathedrals and churches they started looking very similar, but each had their own unique features. For example, the cathedral in Heidelberg was used by both Catholics and Protestants and each faith had their own entrance.

Also unique, in the Black Forest local farmers didn’t have the time to attend religious services at large central churches so they built their own small chapels on their land so they could worship whenever they had some time.

Near Koblenz we toured the Marksburg Castle. This was one of many castles we would see on the Middle Rhine. The Marksburg Castle was built to protect the silver mines in the area, but the royalty of the castle would also maintain the tow paths on the Rhine to pull boats upriver through the rapids and would collect tolls from boats traveling upriver.

The fortress was used for protection rather than as a residence for royal families. Consequently it is smaller than many of the other castles we saw and had, at the most 30-40 people living there. Of the forty hill castles between Mainz and Koblenz, the Marksburg was the only one which was never destroyed.

Our final stop before the cruise ended was the small town of Breisach. From here we took a bus ride into the Black Forest (Schwarzwald). The Black Forest is so named because it is so thickly forested that little light penetrates to the forest floor. Legend has it that the Romans called it the black forest because they were afraid of the monsters they thought lived in such a mysterious looking place. Maybe it’s true, but who knows?

We stopped at Hofgut Sternen, the Black Forest Village. I joined a group going on a short hike in the Ravenna Gorge and Pat watched Cuckoo Clock building and a glass blowing demonstration. I wouldn’t say that the Black Forest is any different from any other forest I have hiked in, but it was fun. The mountain streams were beautiful to see and it was interesting to see how the water power was harnessed to power a mill. I got back to Hofgut Sternen in time to watch a demonstration of how to make an authentic Black Forest cake. I swear the baker doing the demonstration must have been a comedian on the side.

We ended our cruise in Basal, Switzerland. The cruise was a great introduction to Europe and our Viking crew did an outstanding job. I’d be happy to recommend Viking Cruises to anyone who wants to do a river cruise.

Posted in Fulltime RV, Germany, Michigan Traveler | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments