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Belgium, Germany, Alsace trip report

We're home from our 16 day trip to Belgium, Germany and the Alsace region of France. My thoughts aren't very organized (my journaling attempts once again fell short), but I'll hit the high points and am happy to answer any questions, of course.
June 6 we flew from ATL to Brussels. Had business class tickets on Delta so enjoyed the Sky Club. On time departure and arrival, and easy exit from Brussels with only carryon bags. We were asked only a couple of questions, nothing unusual. Took train into the city, stowed luggage. It took us a bit to get oriented. I did sleep on the plane but we were still pretty tired. Found the Grand Place and had a coffee and some water, passed by Mannequin Pis for photo op, walked to the Musical Instrument Museum where we spent a couple of hours. Back to train station, collected our bags and continued on to Bruges. Spent two nights in Bruges at the best B&B, Huis Koning, just outside the center.

From Bruges, our itinerary was thus:
Cologne 2 nights at the Marriott close to the train station
St Goar 2 nights at Rheinhotel
Würzburg 3 nights at Hotel Grüner Baum
Tübingen 2 nights at Hotel Krone
Colmar (actually Bischwihr) 3 nights at Cote Cour Bischwihr

We flew out of Zurich after one night at the Airport Hilton. We had one passport check before we checked our bags (brought back wine and knives...), where were asked a number of questions about where we'd been, for what purpose, etc. Going through security I forgot to take 3-1-1 bag out of my shoulder bag so they pulled it and made it go back through again. I'd have put it in my checked luggage but I bought essential oil and I was afraid of leakage. Also had to remove all electronics, including ipad and headphones. It was fine the second time around. We were there about 7:30 am and there was no line for security or passport control. I don't remember that there were any questions at this point. We went to the Alliance lounge for breakfast (thank goodness because a cup of coffee in the airport was 6 CHF and we needed at least two each!). One more passport check when we boarded. On time departure. Landed at ATL about 2:30. Mobile Passport did NOT work. We each tried three or four times and no-go, wouldn't submit. Anyway, there was no line for the kiosk, and the next line to chat with the nice officer wasn't all that long either. The longest wait was for our luggage, and that was only 20 minutes or so. One little beagle sniffed us as we walked by and we were out of the airport by 3:15!
I'll fill in some additional details of what we saw, plus other thoughts as they come to me.

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We took trains the first part of the trip, until our second day in Würzburg, then we rented a car. We are both kind of on the fence about trains. They're mostly easy but sometimes there is time wasted that you just can't avoid. I had purchased almost all the tickets before we left, except for a couple of the day trips. There were times when we'd have liked to have left earlier from somewhere and had to wait, or when we just weren't sure of the timing so wait was longer than expected. Maybe it's just because we live in a driving city or because we're control freaks, but we liked having a car! And driving in Germany is ridiculously easy. We had a bit of a hiccup picking up our rental so we ended up with a very nice Volvo SUV with excellent GPS. (I think my husband wants to buy a Volvo now.) He is not a slow driver, but we had many instances of cars flying by us on the autobahn like we were standing still, even when he was pushing the top end of where he was comfortable driving. You MUST keep right unless passing. We had no problems with traffic, and were always able to find parking. We only spent about 100 euro on gas, maybe 50 to park, including two nights in Würzburg hotel lot. The car was a diesel, and a hybrid, so I imagine our mpg was pretty good. I think I paid about 250 euro for the week rental. Trains may have been cheaper but having the car was, for us, much more relaxed and enjoyable.

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1352 posts

Thanks for the report Celeste - I hope more are in the works:)

Flexibility is one of the big reasons we enjoy getting a rail pass. We do a lot of driving at home when vacationing (we have an RV) so taking the train is much more relaxing, but I definitely enjoy the flexibility of a rail pass vs. prepurchased tickets. You never know if you are going to want to see one more thing, or sleep late, or be up early rare and ready to go! I agree driving in Germany is easy - we've done that also! Anxious to hear about Tubingen - I've considered it a few times.

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The weather gods definitely smiled upon us. For two weeks before we left, I was checking the weather and it looked like rain was going to follow us around the whole way. As it turned out, we had a few sprinkles our first day in Brussels, then lots of wind in Bruges, then lots and lots of sun. The entire rest of the trip was like a postcard - blue skies, no clouds, relatively moderate temps - until we got to Colmar where temps were around 95 degrees. Still beautiful, but hot! The last couple of nights we were there we had absolutely no breeze, and the temp did not drop overnight enough to provide comfort. Our B&B had no a/c and no fan for us to use, so we went to the E.Leclerc and bought a 15 euro fan which was worth every penny.

As for packing, we each had a RS carry on, mine was rolling and DH had the convertible. I packed six short sleeved tshirts, two long sleeved tshirts, a tank, one lightweight button up long sleeved shirt (used as a second layer), a black thin cardigan. I never wore the long sleeved tshirts or the tank, but did wear the rest. For bottoms, I took a pair of jeans (worn once, will be removed from my packing list in the future), a pair of black and a pair of khaki jean-style light weight pants with stretch, a pair of grey capris, two pairs of shorts. I wore everything but the jeans multiple times. On the plane I wore black Lands End starfish pants, a short sleeved t shirt and grey fleece pullover. I wore the shirt and fleece again but not the starfish pants. Too warm. I don't wear scarves or other jewelry or accessories. Including what I wore on plane, I took four pairs of smartwool socks, eight pairs of undies, two bras, asics running shoes, Merrill sandals and a pair of flip flops. DH also took jeans that were only worn once and won't be taken again. He also packed two pairs of long REI travel pants (not the zip off kind, just the lightweight quick-dry type fabric), three pairs of shorts, six shirts. He should have packed an extra pair of shorts and one less long pant. He took an extra pair of shoes that he only wore a couple of times, too. (I told him he's not allowed to bring another pair of shoes again unless they're a walking style sandal, which he probably will never wear.) We did laundry in Wurzburg and I never had to wash anything in the sink. We did wear previously-worn clothes a couple of days, after hanging them to air out at least overnight. We did not stink, at least not in comparison to some people we encountered (I'm looking at you, tour guides at a couple of places....).

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We are not "we must check off all these boxes" types of travelers. If we see one or two sights in a day, we consider it a success, but if we decide to sit at a cafe or in a park, that's okay too. So lest someone says "you should have...." yes, we know, there was a lot we didn't see, but we'll be back. ;) You'll probably also notice that we start strong and peter out as the days go by...
In Bruges, the first night, in our jetlagged stupor, we stumbled into the Historium and totally agree that it is entirely skipable. It was amusing and we were two of only four people in there, but the best part was the view over the center of town at the end. And DH enjoyed the beer. I don't have info compiled yet on everywhere we ate so I'll fill that in later. Next day we climbed the Belfort, took a canal boat trip, bought chocolate, stopped in the tasting area of the beer museum, did a tour of the De Halve Maan brewery, bought lace, met up with a guy we met at the brewery tour and had beers and dinner and more beers.
Next day, it was raining in the morning and the cab our host ordered the day before never showed up so our host drove us to the train station. Did I mention that this was the best B&B?
We stopped in Aachen on our way to Cologne, stowed our luggage and went to see where Charlemagne walked. Found a place for lunch just off the main square, turned out to be delicious, then walked around a bit before the english tour of the cathedral. Saw a couple just married emerging from the Rathaus. Awww.

Arrived in Cologne late afternoon on Friday. Dropped luggage, got our bearings and went to dinner at Peters Brauhaus. The area was typically crowded for a weekend, and the stag parties were in full force. After dinner we went to have a drink on Alter Markt and watched a guy drop trou and jump in the fountain, followed shortly thereafter by a groom who stumbled into the seating area where we were, falling full onto the cobbles, bloodying up his face. The waiter called an ambulance, who carried him away. Hope the wedding was not the next day. Dinner and a show! Went to couple other places for kolsch sampling and stayed up pretty late.
Saturday turned out to be our recovery day - we slept till noon! Had some lunch, then stopped by the Dom Forum for coffee (waiter basically refused to serve me coffee at the restaurant, which was pretty funny, I don't think he understood why I didn't want beer). Went to the Roman Germanic Museum, which I recommend if you have an interest in Roman history. The crowds around the cathedral had lessened by the time we finished, so we spent some time in the cathedral. Walked around a good while just taking in the sights, had dinner and eiscafe (OMG where has this been all my life??), and turned in.
We decided that had we done anything differently, we'd have extended our time in Bruges and skipped Cologne except for perhaps a stopover to see the Cathedral.

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Sunday morning we took the train to Bonn for DH's Beethoven pilgrimage. We were there before the house opened so we stopped for a coffee, bathroom break and email check at Starbucks (don't judge, not much was open at 9:30 on Sunday, and the bathroom was free). (Which reminds me, pay-to-pee is for real in Belgium and Germany. Even in restaurants, it was not unusual to have to pay .50 for the facilities. Have the proper coin on you at all times! I might have crawled under a turnstile at one point...)
Anywhoo... the Beethoven house is interesting and worth a stop if you're a musician or married to one. We hoped to have lunch at Em Hottche (Ludwig supposedly dined there himself) but it wasn't open so we headed on down the tracks to St. Goar. The museum in Bingen featuring Hildegard was not open on Monday, so we wanted to get there on Sunday afternoon. We made the stop in St. Goar to drop our bags at the hotel, then jumped back on the next train to Bingen. Again, worth a stop at the museum if you're a fan of Hildegard or interested in seeing the most extensive set of Roman surgical instruments ever discovered, which was pretty cool. We walked back to the train station and this was where we ended up waiting probably the longest on a train.
Back in St. Goar, we had dinner at a restaurant between the station and the hotel (if you've been there, you know which one, I can't remember the name), then went back to our hotel where we had a gorgeous balcony view. As we were enjoying a bottle of wine on our balcony, the sky opened up, clouds shifted, and the most amazing, vivid double rainbow appeared over the castle across the river. Was definitely a wow moment.
The next morning, we headed up to Rheinfels castle via the path behind the train station. It was a good hike for two out of shape 40-somethings, but we made it in about 20 minutes or so. We used the RS info from the guidebook which was great except one section is closed for renovation. We climbed the tower for the most amazing views. Probably the funniest thing was the guy in the museum gift shop was listening to American historical patriotic songs like This Land is Your Land, Oh Susannah, etc. At first, we thought maybe it was a German song to the same tune, but nope, it was straight up American. So we sang along as we went through the museum.
We had planned to take the train to Bingen to catch the boat back to St. Goar, but after having been there the day before, there didn't seem to be much else to do so we decided to just take it from Bacharach instead, and see what Rick finds so fascinating. We went to one of his recommended places, Weingut Karl Heidrich, and it did not disappoint. We each did a different tasting flight, had a couple of nice plates of food and just took our time. We met a couple from Dallas and ended up having dinner with them, and as it turned out, they were headed to Wurzburg the next day on the same train and staying in the same hotel we were. We had a great time (hey Manana if you're reading this! and yes, that's a Friends reference).
Yes, Bacharach is lovely, and the boat ride was great. Not at all crowded. Went to Rüdesheim for dinner, met our new friends and another couple and ended up hanging out with them for the rest of the night. When you're traveling with a spouse, sometimes it's nice to have new people to talk to. :) The next morning, on to Wurzburg.

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11613 posts

What a great report! Waiting for more.

I loved Koln, stayed at a hotel around the corner from the Dom.

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938 posts

Zoe - I'd probably have liked Cologne better if it hadn't been a weekend. :)

On the train to Wurzburg, the conductor asked for our passports when he checked our tickets. Up to this point, no one had checked any of our tickets on any trains. Maybe because it was the weekend? Anyway, the trip was supposed to have been one transfer but there was a mechanical issue with our train and we had to move over to a different one in Frankfurt. It was right there on the adjacent platform so it was easy and we continued on our way. We shared a taxi van to the hotel with our friends from the night before. Settled in then went off to find food. The hotel receptionist suggested a couple places so we found the closest one (starving at this point). Had another eiscafe. :D After eating, we just wandered for a bit, walked around looking at the scenery and getting our bearings. We were really feeling the effects of the previous late night so we went back to the hotel to rest for a bit and decide about dinner. Had a really nice dinner at Alte Mainmuhle and walked around some more and decided to turn in early.
Woke up well rested and decided to go to the Residenz. We had a good wander as we made our way there (pretty sure we went round our elbow to get ... you know...) but along the way I saw a church with the doors open, St. Michael's, and decided to go in. It was undoubtedly the most interesting church I've ever seen, and totally unexpected. We were alone and just sat and took in the extraordinary sculpture. They had a display showing the damage from WWII bombing and rebuilding. It was so interesting to see something so modern yet traditional, and completely a surprise.
Went on to the Residenz and waited a few minutes for the English tour. We had our camera bag (not very big, just holds a camera and extra lens) but they made us put it in a locker, so be aware that anything bigger than a small purse is not allowed. Also, no pictures allowed. Our group for the tour was only about a dozen people and the guide was very good. Overall, it was not crowded, which was nice. After the guided portion of the tour, we spent time walking through the other public areas and art gallery. Walked back toward the center of town and had lunch at the beer garden behind St. Mary's. We were to pick up our rental car later in the day, and had a small degree of drama surrounding that which wasted some time but it worked out fine. We went to do laundry until time to head over to get the car. Took a cab, had to wait a bit (they had given away our reserved car and we had to wait for another one to be returned, which is how we ended up with the nice Volvo), but we were soon on the way back to the hotel. They provided indoor parking in a garage just around the corner (10 euro per night). We walked back toward town and stopped on the bridge to have a spritz and people watch, which is clearly what everyone does on pretty evenings in Wurzburg. We ran into our friends and planned to get together after dinner. I can't remember the name of the place we ate, but they sat us at a large table with another guy who didn't have a reservation. He was a professor of German literature at the university and we had the most interesting conversation with him about politics, German culture, all sorts of things. It was so interesting to hear his perspective. (We only made one reservation for dinner on this whole trip and even that was completely unnecessary because we tended to be on the early end of the dinner service, usually around 7.)

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After dinner we met our friends at Buergerspital Weinstuben. We knew there was a wine festival going on, and we knew we were going to a weinstube, but had not quite put two and two together. The entire outdoor courtyard was packed with people, tents, wine, pretzels. Thank goodness both DH and our friend are very tall or we'd never have found each other! We made our way to the front of the crowd and ordered a bottle of wine and found a quiet corner to share it and talk. When that was done, we decided to find somewhere less crowded where we could sit down, so we went back to the beer garden under the chestnut trees (Wirtshaus Lammle).

Next morning we drove to Nuremberg to the Documentation Center. We love history, particularly this era, so it's hard to give it a less than five star review, but we found it very ... clinical. We shuffled from room to room (19 of them in all) listening dutifully to the audio guide's somewhat monotone delivery of facts and figures. By halfway in, we were skipping around trying to speed things up. The most interesting segments were the videos of the people who had lived through the events and were telling their first-hand stories. I wouldn't have skipped the visit, but if you're going, be aware. If we'd listened to every segment in every room, we'd probably have spent a day there. I can't imagine kids would tolerate it for very long.
We walked around the lake to the beer garden and had lunch. Thankfully, a salad. :) We walked on to Zeppelin field and spent some time taking that in. There is not a lot to see, but there was some signage that gave context and it was an experience just to be there. It had gotten pretty hot by this point so we made our way back to the car. Wish we could have seen more of Nuremberg but hopefully we'll return for a longer visit. We stopped in Bamberg and enjoyed walking around, visited the Cathedral, and DH had one of their famous beers. Back to Wurzburg for our last night there. We had dinner at Backofele, which was a neat place, great food. Next day, drive to Tubingen!

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I'm enjoying your trip report. I can't wait to read about Colmar as we will be visiting it on our Rick Steves "Eastern France" tour in September. We visited a few of your other stops 2 years ago and it is fun re-living them. We have some friends in our home town that lived through WWII in the city of Nurnburg. He has told us several stories of all the bombs that dropped in his town. His father got tired of going to the air raid shelters and stayed in his own bed one night. When our friend Heinz came back after the sirens gave the "All clear" they found that his father had died. After the war was over, the American GI's befriended him and paid his mom to launder their clothes. They kept him and his family from starving. He LOVES America. He is so proud to be an American! His is the type of stories that are great to hear. He lived history. We didn't get to visit Nurnburg when we were there 2 years ago, but we know a lot about it.

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We had a nice drive to Tübingen and arrived early afternoon. The Hotel Krone was the nicest stay of our entire trip. We had room 76 (there's a tip for you) which was huge - separate sitting area, walk in closet, huge bathroom with separate tub, walk in shower and two vanities, a balcony, and - oh, joy - air conditioning! Booked through booking.com for a reasonable rate with breakfast, and parking right behind the hotel was included. We could have spent all of the two days there in our room and been happy. But we didn't.

Tübingen is a lovely, picturesque town with a nice park area by the river, winding, hilly streets and a youthful, college town vibe, but it was a bit short on attractions, or maybe I was too tired to seek them out at this point. There are a lot of shops of a non-touristy nature which is great if you're into shopping (we aren't) - clothing, home goods, etc. We just missed the market so can't advise on that. We did climb the church tower for some great views. (I'm scared of heights but most of the time I'm adequately separated from the elements that the towers don't bother me. This was the only one that made me want to go back down as soon as I got up.)
We had a lovely walk by the river, went to the TI to see if there was anything of interest happening, maybe some live music but they were no help, gave us two brochures which had nothing for the time we were there.
After dinner we went back to hotel to sit on our balcony with a bottle of wine and DH enjoyed a Cuban cigar. The next morning we went on a drive in the Black Forest, visited the open air folk museum near Trier which was pretty cool and worth a stop. Kids would love this, at the very least they can run around and be loud. It wasn't terribly crowded, but I can imagine it'd be challenging when there are a lot of people there as the access to the buildings is limited. They are old houses and such, after all. Went into Trier to buy a cuckoo clock, one of the few things I knew I wanted as a souvenir. Way too many choices and some really high prices, so if you're in the market, set your limit and know what you're getting yourself into!
Nice drive back to Tübingen, had probably our worst meal of the trip for dinner at a place recommended by both RS and Fodors. It wasn't inedible but we had been having such consistently good food that it was disappointing. Next day ... Alsace.

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Funny story about the cuckoo clock I bought in Triberg. They shipped the wrong one! When I opened the box, I thought maybe they had taken off the little people for shipping but as I unpacked it, I realized it wasn't the one. I emailed "House of 1000 Clocks" and they promptly responded, asked a couple of questions and told me to ship it back to them and they'd send out the correct one and refund my return postage. I doubt this happens very frequently but I was pleased they were so nice about making it right.

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Had a nice breakfast at Hotel Krone and headed out toward France! Germany was nice, but after spending 16 days last summer in France, it felt ... familiar. I was really looking forward to stopping in Soufflenheim to purchase some of the fabulous pottery we'd heard so much about. Unfortunately, it was Sunday and the workshops were closed, but we found several stores were open so we started browsing through them, comparing the styles, figuring we could made a second loop and make our purchases. It's a very small town, very walkable with easy parking. I was SO disappointed when we found that many of the shops close around lunchtime until later in the afternoon! I specifically had researched whether places would be open on Sunday, and never saw a mention of the Sunday siesta. We bought one piece in one shop that didn't close, and chalked it up to experience.

Our B&B was about 10 minutes outside of Colmar in Bischwihr. Husband and wife proprietors, and they have only three (maybe four?) rooms, a very nice courtyard with parking included, and a breakfast room, in a separate building behind their residence. It is a very quiet, small village, with another upscale hotel that has an on-site restaurant, the only place in town to eat. We met Bertrand and dropped our bags to head into Colmar to the Unterlinden Museum. I think we took a wrong turn shortly after entering the museum, because we almost missed sections with the archaeological exhibits and the Grunewald alterpiece until we were about to leave. We spent way too much time on the modern art, which we don't really enjoy, so by the time we realized what had happened, it was close to closing and we were tired! I was really happy we discovered our error, though!
After the museum, we went to the little Venice area and had a drink while waiting for the restaurant we decided on to open, which was not a minute before 7 pm. :) Shared a wonderful bottle of Alsacian wine with our traditional meal before heading back to our B&B.

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We took a full day wine tour with Ophorus the following day so DH didn't have to drive and could enjoy the wine, too. Easy to find the meeting place in Colmar and plenty of (paid) parking. The tour will take up to 8 people, but we were only 6, all Americans. Our guide, Alvaro, was awesome, provided a lot of historical information on the region other than just the wine stuff, which we really appreciated.
I highly recommend the tour. In addition to four wineries (five wines at each stop, mostly grand crus), we stopped for lunch in one of the villages with time to walk around if you had a quick bite to eat (we were more leisurely) and an afternoon stop in Riquewihr for a quick stroll through town. After our fourth winery, we headed back to Colmar. We tried to find a fan in the Monoprix but they didn't have any. We always buy grey sea salt and herbs de Provence to take home so got some there. Had drinks and dinner with new friends we made on the tour, a young couple from Texas.
Since we'd purchased wine the previous day which meant checking bags going home, after breakfast the next morning, we headed back to Riquewihr. I had seen shops selling the pottery we'd missed in Soufflenheim and some very cool knives I wanted to check out. Riquewihr was not crowded at all, way more relaxed than it had been the previous day. We needed a relaxing down day at this point! We parked right outside the wall next to one of the small walkways into the main street and took our time wandering around, picked up a few gifts and had a nice lunch. Back into Colmar, we made a stop at Savon de Marseille so we could stock up on soap! On the way back to Bischwihr, we stopped and bought that fan! It was around 96 degrees and the wind had completely died so it was pretty miserable. Next to the store was what appeared to be a local sports bar type place and the people out front were drinking spritzes so we just had to stop in! The wifi was the best we found on our whole trip so we just hung out there a while taking in the local flavor.
DH still had a Cuban he wanted to smoke and we'd bought a nice bottle of red wine to have that evening, our last in France, so we went back to the B&B and parked the car, and walked to dinner at the restaurant in Bischwihr, which was delicious. After dinner, we sat out in the courtyard in the shade and tried not to think about how hot it was. The wine was great, and we had a fan for sleeping! The next morning we passed the fan along to a German couple who were staying there. We drove to Freiburg to turn in the rental car, which was uneventful. They called a cab which took us to the train station, where we stowed our bags and walked into town to have lunch, then walked back to station to catch our train to Zurich.

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941 posts

Lovely report. So glad you got the cuckoo clock exchanged!

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26448 posts

I'm revisiting some of those places in a couple of weeks, it is lovely to see them with a different pair of eyes, and I learned about your hotels. hmmmmmm.....

Thanks

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938 posts

Glad someone is reading still. lol

We toyed with the idea of going into Zurich and trying to do a walking tour or a food tour or something, but by the time we got to the airport, and figured out where the shuttle for the hotel was located (they didn't make it easy!), and made it to the hotel, we were wiped. And it was HOT. As we were wandering aimlessly looking for the correct stop for the shuttle, a woman asked if she could help and we struck up a conversation with her. She was staying at our hotel for a work meeting so we decided to just stay in and have dinner with her. She was a very interesting person to talk to, had traveled extensively all over the world and currently lives in Lyon. So even though we took the lazy way out, we didn't feel we missed out at all! We'll do Zurich on a future trip!
Thus concludes the lengthy trip report. It was a lot of fun, we saw some awesome sites, and we met some really nice, interesting people. No plans for another trip at this time - we'll have to see what kind of great sales Delta has this year!

Posted by
11275 posts

Thanks for taking the time to post such a detailed report!

Years ago, before I went to Germany, one stereotype I had was they all drink lots of beer; I pictured a whole country as a non-stop frat party. Then I learned, first from research and then from actual trips, that the country is not like that at all. Then I went to Cologne, and learned where the stereotype came from. It's the only place in Germany where I've encountered public drunkenness, and while I was never directly threatened by them, it did feel vaguely threatening, and quite uncomfortable, to be riding trams after about 8 PM in Cologne. A few years later, a friend of mine had a similar experience (he had forgotten my stories, until it happened to him).

So, your experience was not unique. What's funny is that in Munich, so famous for its Oktoberfest, I had no problems at all (I was there in April); nor did I experience this anywhere else in Germany.

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938 posts

Harold, that's a great story, and exactly our experience.

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12400 posts

Very interesting detailed report. I am glad you went to see the Beethoven House, my reason for going to Bonn the first trip. It has been years since I was in Tübingen, an interesting university town.

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440 posts

Great report, and a nice refreshing change from the usual places