Nate's Travels

An attempt to document the world-travels of Nate B. from China to Western Europe and beyond!

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

Guest Entry: What Happened to the Von Trapp Family After They Went Over the Hills That Were Alive…

(This is Kevin writing). I arrived in Brussels and met Nathan with hugs and smiles. He didn’t look different which was nice. Getting through passport control was a breeze; the longest part of getting to Nathan after having left the plane was the walk from the plane to passport control. The entry agent took a look at the passport and waved me through. There was no Customs to clear!

Nathan and I proceeded to the train station and took a train to Luxembourg City. The day was beautiful…sunshiny and breezy, temperatures comfortable. Nathan was an expert navigator of the train system and it took about 3 hours to get to arrive in Lux City. The view from the right was nice but I wouldn’t say spectacular. The train way was mostly through city like conditions (but we had really poor seats and it was hard to see outside).

I learned an unfortunate lesson – you have to pay to use the bathroom in train stations. Nathan had warned me and I walked into one that was attended by a grandmotherly lady to whom I paid 0.40 Euros (about $0.55) and used a dirty smelly stall – I don’t know what the money pays for. When I came out I thought I’d be nice and leave her the other 0.10 Euros as a tip. She acted confused and thought I was paying and demanded another 0.30 Euros – I tried to explain that I already paid and was just being nice but she only spoke French and I didn’t know enough to explain my way out of it. So, I ended up paying her more and I tried to act as frustrated about it as I could. The lesson I learned is that you should try to use the bathroom in your hotel, on trains (where it’s free!) and in restaurants you’re eating at (although even McDonald’s charges 0.40 Euros when you go in and gives you a coupon to use in your next visit to McDonald’s, when you come out) talk about a Big Mac attack! I really don’t understand this charging for the bathroom business in Europe.

He had luckily reserved a Best Western hotel that was directly across from the central train station in Lux City and so we were quickly ensconced in our room where I could freshen up. We then went out to explore the city, in my attempt to stay awake to acclimate to Central European time.

Lux City is a beautiful city – Nathan has some pictures from when he first arrived. As we walked through the city we came upon a kind of street festival and happened to meet one of the Miami/Lux staff that recognized him. She turned out to be the student activites coordinator for students and was very nice.

We tried the local French Fries (which all I could say were just French fries). He showed me the “valley” that divides Lux City and into which there is the older city. Old beautiful European architecture filled the valley (and the rest of the city). We then took the train and saw the US Embassy where he’d occasionally go for meetings as well as the main office building in which he normally worked (not in the embassy itself).

The next morning we left for Germany since I had told Nathan one place I wanted to visit was Burg Eltz, which according to travel maven Rick Steves is the nicest castle in all of Europe to visit. Nathan had arranged for us to stay in what turned out to be a very nice local hotel in the town of Karden along the Mosel River.

The train ride to Karden was really magical. Again, the day was beautiful with sunshine and blue skies. The train traveled through the farmland of Germany, which was green with growth and new planting. As we entered the Mosel region, you could tell it was a valley. This hills rose up gradually and before you know it there was this valley with an occasional gingerbread housed town, the train line, the river, and on the other side usually another ginger-bread town.

The valley was framed by very nigh hills – not really high enough for me to call mountains (yet!). What was striking and incredible was how steep they were and yet they were filled with vineyards, terraced along the steep hillsides. They were truly awesome because they were so steep in some cases as to challenge my imagination as to how someone could plant and tend these vines.

All in all, the ride was idyllic – the river was calm and glassy with only an occasionally barge disturbing the water. The train stopped in each little town, which, again, was filled with multi-colored gingerbread houses whose windows spilled flowers out of carefully tended window boxes. People were out walking and hiking in the gorgeous weather.

Finally, we arrived in Karden and the hotel (Schloss-Hotel Petry) was about 20 steps across from the train station. It was a really nice small establishment and I worried about the possibility of people speaking English because of how small the town was. But, the woman at the front desk easily switched from German to English and checked us in.

After we were situated, we came back out and walked around the town just to get our bearings. It was around 11:00 Sunday morning so we didn’t expect the town to be busy and it wasn’t. The vineyard hills backed directly up to the town. We returned to the hotel and asked about the way to Burg Eltz. She explained there were two ways: one was to hike up and over the hill behind the hotel – about 30 minutes she estimated to the castle and the other was to take a train to the next town of Moselkern from which it was about an hour’s walk to the castle. Since she didn’t offer it, it didn’t appear there was a taxi or a bus to the castle. After having walked a bit of the ways up the street towards the hill, I told Nathan that given the way I sweat and guessing that a half hour hike to them was probably an hour and a half for us, I opted that we go to Moselkern.

Again, the train ride to Moselkern was idyllic even though it lasted less than 10 minutes. Departing from the train, we tried to find a sign that pointed the way to Burg Eltz and it took some doing but we eventually found a tiny marker pointing the way.

Now, realizing that this was a castle, I expected us to eventually walk upwards. The first part of the walk took us through the town and we saw some beautiful sleepy Germanic homes on the way. Eventually, we reached the edge of a forested section and the paved road turned into a walking path – very well maintained. As the walk continued we came upon an inn that I remembered seeing in one of the Rick Steves’ books and I new it was the inn on the way to Burg Eltz, so I new we were going the right way.

From the inn, we entered a true forest and continued on the path. Eventually it began to go up and at very comfortable easy incline. It followed a small stream and it really was a beautiful walk – tiring but beautiful. At one point, the path continued upward through a huge “hall” of giant old pine trees – so old that what remained from the ground probably 40 feet up was their trunks before you saw their branches. As sunlight streamed downward, it was an image out of a Maxfield Parrish painting. Except for an occasional person hiking in front of us or coming down from the castle, we were pretty much alone and it was serene, sunlit forest walk.

Eventually, after about 45 minutes, we came to a bend in the path around which rose up on a crag Burg Eltz and it was an impressive, imposing sight…complete with a bazillion steps that we would have to climb to actually get up from the path to the entrance road to the castle. I complained to Nathan about my aching feet and hips (he has no sympathy for aging skeletons). But, up the steps we went. He got the tour tickets and we were toured through 11 of the 100 rooms in the castle. It really was worth the walk to see such a massive structure and how well built it was inside. I was amazed that people could actually live in one of these things but when you see how well appointed it is inside, the doubt is removed.

But, it was more walking up and down stairs in the castle and we did take a break to eat …there was a bit of Disney-esque conversion of the out buildings into concession stands.

After we finished, I figured since we’d come up the long way and since it was only a half hour walk back to Karden, and since this should be the easy part of the trip since we’d be hiking down, I convinced Nathan that we go back the half hour way the hotel receptionist had alternatively suggested. Since we’d be going down most of the way I figured it would be quicker. This was my first mistake – thinking we understood what she meant by “uphill” and “downhill”.

We started out from the castle and saw the sign pointing towards Karden and marked on down the hill until we came to kind of clearing that had another sign pointing the continued way towards Karden. We took one false start for about 5 minutes of walking, came back, and took another only to encounter a sign that said to proceeding was forbidden this part of the site was protected. We came back to the Karden sign, scratched our heads and then Nathan noticed a small trail leading almost straight up from where were at, up the hill. I figured this was probably just a small jaunt to get us to the top of the hill, at which we’d look down, see the village of Karden and merrily skip down to our hotel room. Mistake number two!

We started up the hill on a really narrow path – but a man-made path nonetheless. We kept walking…and walking…and walking… and walking… always upwards and I mean at about a 20% grade! I was sweating like a pig and started my whining. It was nearing the time to call the whambulance! Finally, the path widened and leveled out. We turned to our left and saw a gorgeous view of Burg Eltz from our vantage.

But, this vantage was just a deception along this death march. As we continued, the trail started its steep climb again, this time in to a more densely forested hillside. As I groaned my way onward, I began to think about those poor Von Trapp children and how they must have felt on their parent-forced trek from Germany through the Alps. I could just imaging Maria’s patience beginning to snap and her envisioning a few new “favorite things” to quell the children’s protest.

But, onward we marched, now wondering if we were going the right way because we hadn’t seen a sign for awhile. About that time, however, Nathan spied some other intrepid soles ahead of us going the same way and so we decided to trail them. That strategy paid off…eventually we saw a sign for Karden. As we continued to follow the group, we came to a clearing that revealed another of the castles outbuildings. We also discovered another sign and our confidence grew that we were on the right path.

Eventually, we reached the decisive top of the mountain (yes, now a mountain). It opened into a broad flat meadow of some planted grassy farm field. And, at this point, the path became a paved road. I breathed a sigh of relief because this was a sign we were near civilization and we had to be close to Karden.

Again, seeing the group ahead of us continuing, so did we. The road seemed endless and at this point, the comparison to a death march was not really so much fiction. Eventually, though we came upon a road that intersected this one, had a real road name, saw cars, and knew we must be near. Mistake number three!

Following the signs toward Karden, and the group ahead of us, we continued. Eventually the group ahead of us slowed and lolligaged around so Nathan and I overtook them. The path turned off the road and entered a meadow – but there were still signs posted so we knew we were going the right way. Eventually the path opened up into the valley below and we saw Karden…a mile or so…directly below us. I mean, directly below us.

The path, it seems, now narrowed to a single person foot path that was all but a sheer drop down the hillside. It zigzagged back and forth across the hillside. Steep, rocky, narrow, and downward, we did indeed reach a paved road that led directly into town. Of course this was after having come to a fork in the path which had a sign pointing to the part we had just walked down from noting that part of the path shouldn’t be used!

An hour and a half later, when we got back to the hotel, the receptionist greeted us with a smile handing us the key to our room…no doubt relishing the disheveled, sweaty mess in front of her. After telling her we had decided to walk the “short” way over the mountain back, she sweetly remarked, “Now you know what it is like for us when we harvest the vineyards!”

I could just see Maria slapping Leisle for that tart remark!