Europe 2008


In May of 2008 we visited Europe along with our good friends Jeff and Teresa. The trip started with 3 days visiting our friends Marc and Alex in Zurich Switzerland. We visited the Alps one day, took in a German football(soccer) game and toured beautiful Zurich. Next we took a 4 day swing through German castle and wine country. Stop overs included the charming walled city of Rothenburg, a night in a castle in Bacharach on the Rhine River and taking in a traditional wine fest in Cochem on the Mosel River. From there Jeff and Teresa ventured to Paris for 3 nights while Chris and Sharon headed south to Italy for 4 days checking out Florence and Rome. We had lots of good exploring, laughs and weather. A great taste of Europe.

You can click the pictures to make them larger

 

We landed in Zurich at 7:30AM and had a good reunion with Marc who we hadn't seen since 2006. After freshening up from the overnight flight at Marc and Alex's home, we all agreed to take a quick trip an hour south to take a gander at the Alps. We heading up a cog railway to the top of the Rigi Kulm.

The 6000ft(1800m) peak is between two beautiful lakes with views deep into the snowcapped Alps. A fitting Welcome to Switzerland!

The group up near the summit. What, no spontaneous yoddling?

The Coloradoans are a couple specks surrounded by the emense landscape.

From there we drove to Luzern and walked through the old city. We stopped by the famous Lion Monument, L÷wendenkmal, which is dedicated to the brave members of the Swiss Guard who have protected kings and popes through the ages.

The gorgeous Chapel Bridge which was built in the 1300s is one of several pretty wooden bridges crossing the Ruess River. We enjoyed a walk through the medieval center of town and grabbed a bite to eat at an outdoor cafe.

We polished off the evening with a fine dinner at a cool trendy restaurant in Zurich in which Alex joined us too. OK, enough for the first day, its time for the jet laggers to sleep!

Late the next morning we hopped on an ICE bullet train bound for Stuttgart Germany to catch a German Bundesliga(1st division) football game. The big leagues! Marc had a tennis match in another Swiss town so would be meeting up with us at the game. The bullet train wisked us deep into Germany in a couple hours.

Experiencing a game on this level is very cool for us American novices. Stuttgart played a team from northern Germany called Arminia Bielefeld. The stadium was packed with people wearing the home team red and white colors. Many had colorful scarfs to show their team loyalty. There were a couple large sections in the stands that held the hard core rowdy fans who danced, sang, and waved flags the whole game. But the crowd for the most part was just normal folks out enjoying a day at the ball game. The game tied 2-2 after a rather crazy last 5 minutes where each team knocked one in. Here's a movie clip from the game. Very fun. On the way home we had our introduction to the autobahn as Marc sped us back to Switzerland in a jiffy.

On our last day in Zurich we took a walking tour led by Marc and Alex to show us their town. The main church downtown is called the Grossmunster which was finished in the 1200s. We checked that out and went into the crypt and then also climbed to the top of the bell tower for a commanding view of the city. Here Alex, Sharon and Chris check out the view.

Zurich has been around for a long time. One bridge still stands from Roman times. Now it is the banking center of the country and has about half a million people in the city itself. It sits on picturesque Lake Zurich and the Alps can be seen out in the the distance.

To many, the first thing that pops into their head when they hear "Switzerland" is chocolate! Even though downtown was quiet with most shops being closed for Sunday, the incredible Teuscher Chocolate shop was open to let us taste some fine chocolate goodies.

We finished up our visit with dinner at Marc and Alex's and hanging out that evening. Vielen Dank to our two wonderful hosts!

On Monday we headed back into Germany and found our way to Rothenburg ob der Tauber which is an intact walled city that has kept its character through the ages. The girls and guys split up to pursue different endeavours. The guys found the Medieval Crime and Punishment Museum to see what kind of rif raf could be stirred up. It ended up being a very interesting look at just about all aspects of justice, punishment, adn humiliation. There were 4 floors of exhibits from everything from shame masks for bad behavior, instructions for married couples to work out their differences(via whacking each other with clubs!) to other punishments like this one. A giant heavy rosary to be worn for missing church!

Jeff and Chris couldn't resist a climb in the town hall tower to see the things from the air. It was worth the climb!

The town has about 6000 people. It grew in prominance due to it being at the intersection of major north/south and east/west European trade routes in the middle ages. All except a small portion survived WW2 after the German commander defied his generals orders and surrendered to the Americans who were about to pulverize it.

The girls checked out some shops including the impressive(even the guys agreed later) Kathie Wohlfahrt Christmas store. It is the Christmas superstore and has all kinds of interesting displays and trinkets.

We visited the big church in town called appropriately enough, "St. Jakobs"! It is a beautiful building but the main draw is the masterpiece wood carving of the "Alter of the Holy Blood" which was completed in 1505. It is an exquisite large carving that holds a crystal relic with holy blood from 1270. Here is a photo of a section of the altar

Schneezballs, we'll leave it at that...

This is a rather famous scene of Europe with the two scenic gates. Chris's father has had a painting at his house of this scene for many decades. So it was great to finally see it in person.

In the evening we went on a tour with the "Night Watchman" which turned out to be a great learning experience for life in the middle ages. The guide was informative, hilarious and raking in the bucks with all the tourists who came along for the show. We walked the town and heard stories of the old days with a fun history of Rothenburg and Europe in general.

After spending the morning in Rothenburg we hopped back on the train and headed west to the Rhine River. We made our way to Bacharach which is right in the heart of serious castle country. We found our accomodation for the night which required us to climb up from town on a trail to the Burg Stahleck. IT WAS WORTH IT! Movie here.

This particular castle is a hostel which is spartan in accommodation but this was all about the location. Our room actually had 4 bunk beds so we each grabbed one. We had a great view out the window of the Rhine.

After eating dinner cafetaria style at the castle, we headed down to town for apple struddle polished off with several varieties of the local wines. We found a restaurant that was built in 1368!

On the walk to/from the castle we passed an old half destroyed church. It is now a memorial to the jews who suffered during WW2. It didn't look like much during the day but was rather striking at night. There was an entire illuminated wall with some type of story written in German.

The next morning we set sail, so to speak, on the Rhine on a scheduled ferry downstream. Here we see Burg Stahleck for the last time up on the bluff. The boat was included in our Eurail pass.

This was ground zero castle zone and we seemed to pass one every few miles! Burg Pfalz is on an island right in the middle of the river, ready to extract its toll from the mechant vessels. You had to imagine what it was like traveling the river back in the feudal hey day.

Every town had its castle gazing over head.

We landed at St. Goar to tour the mightiest of Rhine Castles, Burg Rhiensfels. Now it is just a ruin after being destroyed by French canons at the end of the 1700s. But there was still lots to explore and Teresa deciphered the map to lead us on the tour the complex.

There was a top area with the high walls and towers and then an underside with lots of tunnels, passages and rooms.

A nice pan of the north side of the area. CLICK TO ENLARGE

Lots of ups and downs and nooks and crannies to check out. They didn't seem to be too worried about liability like places are in the US. Movie clip here.

Back down in St. Goar we converted a willing subject to see the light and be christened a Cub fan, German style!

We continued on the train up the Mosel River to Cochem, a smallish town being the center of the Mosel wine region. We lucked out and they were having a festival with bands, people dressed in traditional garb, queens of the court, oh and LOTS of wine! Here is a parade to kick off the fest.

Our German meals were pretty traditional. Lots of white asparagus(in season?) and other hearty concoctions.

That evening a massive battle broke out on the bank of the river. Chris and Jeff were transported back to the time of kings, knights and honor. Even if all we could find was black pieces, we think we didn't mistakenly take our own guys by accident. Reichsburg Castle Towers over the valley in the background.

After a late evening at the wine fest, the next morning we found ourselves touring the Reichsburg which was a restored castle that had a lot of charm and interesting history. This is out on the patio where a giant frog keeps watch over the valley. Well, they actually aren't frogs, but supposedly lions with a knight's helmet on. I like medieval frog warriors better!

A big mural on the main tower shows St. Christopher, patron saint of travel.

Check out this 7 foot tall knights armor that was discovered in Austria! Don't mess with that guy out on the battle field!

Treats galore back down in town, we did our best to sample them all too.

Here's where we parted ways seeing Jeff and Teresa head east to Paris and Chris and Sharon shoot south to Italy. Bon Voyage!

Chris and Sharon had a couple hour stop over in Bern which is the capital of Switzerland. We walked down the main promenade which has some interesting monuments and lots of restaurants and shops. It looked like a cool city.

We then grabbed an overnight Italian train that took us in less than 8 hours down to Florence(Firenze). We managed to grab a few winks in our cabin before arrival.

Whoa, Florence was Florence! The bustling original renaissance city, where it all began. Here is Ponte Vecchio bridge which for centuries has been a market place for gold. Even the Nazi's left it unscathed after blowing up all the other bridges in their retreat.

We found the streets in the medieval core of Florence to be pretty much pedestrian walkways. This was the case in Rome too. You kept watch for vehicals but they were rather rare on many smaller streets. Especially at night when the restaurants actually put their tables out in the street and everyone is out and about socializing.

We went on a guided walking tour with an Italian art expert which allowed us to better absorb all the stuff we would see. These are the amazingly detailed bronze doors of the Baptistry Church. Click for more details.

Then it can't be avoided any more. The mightly Duomo, finished in 1469 after 170 years of construction! It has a gigantic dome that was the worlds largest until 1881. Amazing engineering. But what was most fascinating to us was the lovely intricate outer shell made of beautiful white, green and red marble. Along with the giant dome, there is also a skyscraper bell tower called the Campanile.

There is also another medieval skyscaper in town and it sprouts from the town hall called the Palazzo Vecchio(more later). This is where Michelangelo's famous "David" statue stood for several centuries. It was later moved inside but a duplicate still stands at the original location. We did go inside the Galleria dell'Accademia to see the real "David" which was amazing. A must see. We also toured the Uffizi Gallery which is home of the Botticelli masterpiece "The Birth of Venus" among many many other master works. The big guns of the renaissance art scene all worked here. We have no photos since they are forbidden.

Sunsets in Florence are a treat and we headed up to the bluff of Piazzale Michelangelo to see the stellar sight. CLICK TO ENLARGE

 

Here you can see the Palazzo Vecchio tower and the Duomo. Both are about 25-30 stories tall

All that walking around = reward = GELATO!!!

The next day we were drawn back to the Duomo and just had to climb the big dome. On the way up you also get nice views of the inside of the dome which is a feast for the eyes.

The view from the top is awesome. The red tiled roofs and lovely hills of Tuscany in the distance. Florence movie clip.

Among many indoor options to see, we decided on Palazzo Vecchio. It was very ornately decorated and gilded. The ruling clan of Florence, The Medici Family, resided here for a long time. They were so rich they lent money to the king of France. Lots of art in here too, including this giant painting by Michelangelo. There were 3 others this size by other masters in the main hall. There were many rooms to explorer here. Nowadays, the Florence City Council convenes in this building.

Well you know that Italy has its high fashion, Firenze seems to be a hot bed for it.

Although you could spend a week in Florence, we had to move on to Rome. Our first night we walked around and found it very safe and clean, a real joy. And there were thousands of people out enjoying the pleasant evening. Here we are at the Trevi Fountain.

Since the current city of Rome is built right on top of the ancient one, there are all kinds of sites that have been excavated to show some old temple. And they are all lit up at night.

Here's the Pantheon with lots of people hanging out late into the evening.

The next morning we rented bikes from our excellent host Silvie at our guesthouse and rode out to the Via Appia Attica or "Appian Way" how I remember it from history class. The old Roman super highway B.C. It makes for a very pleasant Sunday bike ride since no traffic is allowed. The extra bonus was the blooming poppies we saw everywhere!

Our goal of the ride was to get out to the Calisto Catacombs. We took a tour and learned about the early Christians using these catacombs for burials. There is a complex of several catacombs which included a half a million burials in miles and miles of passage ways.

Here is a section of the road that looks similar to 2000 years ago. Fortuately, most of the route is on modern cobble stone or we'd have rattled our tooth fillings out! Movie of riding bike.

Had to sneak in another nice poppy shot.

We also walked through the Roman Forum a bit. This was where the center of the Roman government stood with many temples, administrative buildings and the colosseum. Much of it is only a slight resemblance of what it was like in the glory years. You had to use your imagination to put yourself back in the days of the emperors.

That night we had a traditional Italian meal which means a delicious multicourse feast that lasts 2-3 hours. Yummy!

OK, that thing was made to have pictures like this, we simply couldn't resist!

On to the Vatican.....

Well, the Vatican. It exceeded any preconceived imagery that I had. It just blew me away. Photos do not do it justice. A person needs to go there and see it for themselves. Here is one of the long corridors called the hall of maps. Italy in fine detail.

A scan of a postcard from the Sistine Chapel(no photos allowed). Simply astonishing. We spent a half an hour soaking it in.

The largest church in the world is St. Peters Basilica. A massive building finished with remarkable works of art such as Michelangelo's Pieta which he completed when he was just 23 years old.

It's impossible to capture the grandeur with a snapshot. 60,000 people can attend mass in here. But this is looking up at the main dome. Here's a movie clip.

Outside in St. Peters Square

You know us and climbing; up we go into the St. Peter's dome. Check out the human ants down below.

We made it. A great view of Rome!

We walked back through the city. Here is the inside of the impressive Pantheon which is a giant dome built back in 125AD and is still standing!

We hung out in here for a while to aborb the significance of the place.

OK, time for the big kahuna that everyone wants to see. The Colosseum! CLICK TO ENLARGE

 

We went on an archeologist lead tour. As with our other tours in Florence and Rome, they use radios or head phones so you can hear them even in noisy places. Here is Sharon taking in the views to the description of the guide.

The outside. As is evident, much of the colosseum had been destroyed over the ages, its dominance gone. But it is still a sight to behold of a civilization that once dominated the entire Mediterranean and Europe.

Another view of the Roman Forum before calling it a trip, and an epic one it was....

Ha, check out the cops on the segways at the Rome train station!


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