Thursday, April 27, 2017

A primer on the world of European rail passes

The TGVs of France are among the fastest most efficient train
in Europe (wikipedia)
EUROPE  Rail travel through Europe is one of the fastest, most efficient ways to see the continent. Rail passes also include hidden practical bonuses many travelers never consider when planning a trip such as no high cost fuel expenses, travel city center to city center, eliminating parking costs, no more reading maps, ability to stretch your legs, on-board restrooms, food services and even an opportunity to work, take a nap or just relax.

Many American travelers frequently overlook the benefits of rail travel in Europe because we have become so dependent upon cars, or so unfamiliar with high quality rail service, that we fail to consider an alternative to the automobile.
Italy's high speed Italo
Rail Europe is a traveler's one stop shop for all things related to traveling by train, but with a little advanced understanding of how rail passes work will put you way ahead in the game of trying to manage the seemingly overwhelming number of tickets that are available.

In the simplest of terms, there are only two basic types of pass. The first is a consecutive day ticket and the second is called a "flexipass."
Trains take you city center to city center faster than planes
in many cases  (wikipedia)
The consecutive pass originated back in the days of "if-it's-Tuesday-it-must-be-Belgium" travel to Europe. At that time, a trip to Europe was considered a one-in-a-lifetime opportunity so travelers would go for extended periods and wear themselves out trying to see everything in a single itinerary.
Railway stations are your home away from home  (wikipedia)
A consecutive day rail pass was good for a given number of days such as 8, 12, two weeks or even as much as one or two months. Once validated however, if they did not use the pass every day, travelers felt as if they were losing money because they were not getting the full value of their rail ticket.

Thus evolved the "flexipass" which allows travelers to choose how many days they would like to ride the trains and to designate how long they plan to be in Europe. For example, a couple might opt to use four days of train travel within a two week period, thereby allowing them to ride the rails on any four days they chose until the validation period runs out.
Trains operate in any kind of
 weather (wikipedia)

Those two basic concepts have led to an infinite number of off-shoots and that is where passes can begin to get confusing.

As time went on, and travelers became more savvy, and the demand for a limited number of countries on a pass arose. Many visitors opted for a single country pass since they were only planning to stay in Germany, France or Italy, for example.

In an effort to make rail passes more flexible and adaptable for train riders, Rail Europe developed several plans that give a traveler virtually unlimited options while, at the same time, reducing fares.

National passes that are good for only a singe country have become very popular and, since all the travel is in a single country, the price is lower.
Steam train crosses Glenfinnian Viaduct in Scotland
Later, Rail Europe developed combination passes which include two, three, four or five countries depending upon the length of time a traveler plans to be in Europe.

The benefits of these passes are the bonuses which are often one of the most overlooked features of traveling by train. With a Swiss Travel Pass, for example, pass holders can use virtually every form of transportation in the country just by showing their pass. There are supplements for some of the most popular mountaintop excursions, but these are almost always discounted at 25 to 50%.
A British Sprinter train races through the countryside
Better yet, for visitors to Switzerland a rail pass allows free admission to nearly 500 museums throughout the country.

Certain countries are grouped together as a single destination such the Netherlands, Belgium and Luxembourg.

Le Train Bleu restaurant
is a reminder of an era past
To simplify things even more, rail passes have evolved so that  visitors can select several countries that border each other. Riders can choose which countries they desire based upon their individual travel program.

A Saverpass is a product which can be used by 2 to 5 people traveling together for a nice discount.

There are also Youthpasses providing special rates for travelers under 26, while children and youths who are under 16 and traveling with an adult or guardian often can ride for free.
A vista along the Cambrian Coast in Wales  (wikipedia)

Keep in mind that railway stations can be like your personal tourist office away from home where you can get information, schedules, food, restrooms, lockers, gifts, medicine and, in some places, book a hotel.

Rail pass prices go from calendar year to calendar year so there is no need to worry about changes in any given year.
Germany's sleek and comfortable ICE  (wikipedia)
Traveling by train through Europe is easy, fast, convenient, efficient and relaxing. A little reading on how rail passes can be your biggest ally will make you a true believer.

All it takes is a little basic training.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Germany's best places to visit according to Jen

Neuschwanstein Castle was Lugwig II's masterpiece
GERMANY -- Meet a travel blogger who goes only by the name of Jen. Jen has come up with a unique concept that lists the 100 best things to do in several countries in the world.

Using Jen's top 100 from Germany, here are some of her suggestions. To view the entire group just click on the link above to discover dozens of ideas for your next trip to Germany.

Steps to Sans Soucci Palace
Here are several suggestions listed in no particular order that were included because they sounded intriguing or fit into a familiar category in which we concurred with Jen.

Black Forest -- Situated in the southwest of Baden-Wurtenberg in the central German highlands, the Black Forest is a name familiar to us all. With dense woods, green and rolling hills and quaint half-timbered houses nestled beside cobblestone streets in sleepy villages, the Black Forest has much to offer travelers of any type including families with children.
The old castle in Baden Baden on the edge of the Black Forest
The Black Forest is easily accessible from the railway station in Freiburg (1 hr) or Karlsruhe (1 hr 20 mins). The nearest airport is Stuttgart.
Goslar Square is filled with olde world charm
Goslar -- Some people say the tiny village of Goslar in lower Saxony is the prettiest town in Germany. Founded in 922 and featuring more than 1,500 beautifully preserved timbered houses from various periods of history, Goslar  justifiably earned the designation as a UNESCO world heritage site in 1992.

Don't let the size fool you. There is plenty see and do including the old market place, pewter museum, the Stabkirche and the Rammelsberg silver mine which has been in continuous operation for over 1,000 years.

For visitors who enjoy off-season travel, the Christmas market is quite simply a must-see event. Goslar is around 25 miles from Brunswick (approximately 1 hour by car or train) and 50 miles from Hanover (around 1,5 hours). The closest airport is Hanover-Langenhagen.

Saalfeld's Fairy Grottoes defy the imagination
Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes -- Situated on the perimeter of Thurigia's slate mountains is the town of Saalfeld. Since 1530 alum has been extensively mined in the area to such a degree that the excavations have produced magical fairy grottoes. So impressive have these caves become that they are now designated by the "Guinness Book of Records" as the most colorful cave grottoes in the world.

There are regularly scheduled guided tours which include the history and geological composition of the mines along with stories and legends that have evolved with the caves.

The Saalfeld Fairy Grottoes attract over 160,000 visitors each year and are situated 1.5 hours south of Leipzig by car or train.

Hildesheim has been lovingly reconstructed after being leveled in World War II  (wikipedia)

Hildesheim -- Hildesheim is Germany's Phoenix that has risen from the ashes. Though completely destroyed during World War II in an air raid in March, 1945, one of Germany's oldest cities was lovingly restored between 1984 and 1990.

Hildesheim pre-World War II

Taking advantage of skilled professionals, Hildesheim is a miracle of restoration, returning to its glorious past when it was the seat of the bishopric beginning in 815. Today it is still regarded as one of the loveliest market places in the world.

It is located about 25 miles south of Hannover and is easily accessible by car or train in about 40 minutes.

Palace of Justice in Nuremburg where the war trials took place

Nuremberg Castle -- Chances are the name Nuremberg is familiar even if Nuremberg Castle is not. The oldest parts of Nuremberg's Imperial Castle date to the beginning of the 13th century, however it also served as an important fortress for the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages.

Of particular interest is the Deep Well which is probably as old as the castle itself. The well can only be visited as part of a guided tour. Other sites which can be seen on your own are the Palace and its Imperial Chapel and the Kaiserburg Museum.

The castle is 6 minutes by car of 15 minutes by bus for the railway station.

Germany isn't Germany without
beer  (wikipedia)

Hamburg Dungeons: Much like castles there's an eerie appeal to dungeons for travelers, and Hamburg's dungeons are among the most popular in Germany. A 90-minute program takes visitors through 600 years of history with reenactments that include the Inquisition, the plague, the great fire, a torture chamber, a variety of special effects and two rides.

Children 14 and under must be accompanied by an adult while the dungeons are not recommended for children under 10.

Subway stations Stadthausbrucke or Baumwell are close to the dungeons as well as "Miniature Wonderland" and Hamburg Port. Steinhuder Meer, where the dungeons are located, is just 22 miles northeast of Hannover. The nearest airport is Hannover-Langenhagen.

Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses in Wittenburg
Martin Luther's Home -- This year marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation and the largest Reformation museum in the world can be found in Wittenburg where Luther put forth his "95 Theses." The Luther home was originally a monastery and later became part of the university.
Martin Luther  (wikipedia)

To travel to Wittenburg, Berlin and Dresden in October to celebrate Luther's anniversary, just click on this link "In theFootsteps of Martin Luther" for more information.

These are just nine of Jen's top 100 sites in Germany. She also included Neuschwanstein, the Romantik Road, the Fairy Tale Road, the Zugspitze, Checkpoint Charlie, Museum Island, Kurfurstendamm, Sanssouci Palace, Cologne Cathedral, Berchtesgaden Eagle's Nest, Heidelberg Castle and Brandenburg Gate plus dozens of others.

Berlin's Brandenburg Gate is a powerful symbol of Germany unity
If you thought you had problems trying to figure out where to go in Germany before, now you have more than enough options to overwhelm you.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Walking the footsteps of Jesus on Via Dolorosa

The Dome of the Rock has significance for three major religions in Old Jerusalem  (Taylor)

JERUSALEM -- Whenever a traveler has the opportunity to relive a pivital moment in history, it brings that historical moment to life in a way that cannot be described; it can only be felt. And the meaning is purely personal with each individual. Perhaps the most meaningful thing a visitor can do when traveling to Jerusalem is walk the Via Dolorosa in the footsteps of Jesus on the way to his crucifixion and burial.

Via Dolorosa has been a pilgrimage site for centuries though the route has changed on several occasions. That doesn't seem to matter to travelers who want to walk in some of the places where Christ trudged to his death through the ancient streets of Old Jerusalem.
The Lion's Gate where Jesus entered Jerusalem  (Taylor)
Via Dolorosa has been a popular pilgrimage location since the middle of the 4th century when Constantine legalized Christianity and the route became safe.
The Way of the Cross   (Taylor)
Today, there are 14 stations where visitors can stop for historical information about the final journey of Jesus. Byzantine pilgrims used to follow a similar path, however that route offered no stops.

In the 8th century the path began at the Garden of Gethsemane where Christ was arrested. Pilgrims then made their way south to Mount Zion before doubling back around the Temple Mount to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
The Garden of Gethsemane still looks much as it did 2000 years ago  (Taylor)
During the Middle Ages a split between the Latin Church and Western churches created a divided route where western pilgrims headed west while eastern visitors walked in the opposite direction.

For 200 years, between the 14th and 16th centuries, the path known as the Franciscan route was the most popular trail. Beginning at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, eight historic stations were added to provide details about Christ's journey. According to tradition there had been 14 Stations of the Cross, so six additional sites were added in order to avoid disappointing European travelers.

In its present incarnation, Via Dolorosa basically follows the route taken by the early Byzantine pilgrims which now includes the 14 stations. There are alternative routes that can be taken based upon varying opinions of actual locations where specific events took place.
Merchants still look much the same

Much of the difficulty of being able to grasp the full meaning of the crucifixion lies in the layers of history that have been built on top of the original route. Many experts believe the ordeal Christ undertook was, in general, a straight path, however it is impossible to do today because of the myriad of shops and stalls that line the way.

Most pilgrims find little importance in witnessing the precise location where specific events occurred but those who do may have a difficult time grasping the magnitude of that final walk as they attempt to reflect upon how it may have actually looked.

On the other hand, Old Jerusalem looks and feels very much today as it did two centuries ago, and, in that sense, the contemporary ambiance does not detract from the meaning.
Madrasa al-Omariya is where Jesus was condemned  (wikipedia)
Station 1 is Jesus' condemnation by Pontius Pilate. This event is held to have occurred at the site of Madrasa al-Omariya, 1,000 feet west of the Lion's Gate. An alternative location for this event is Herod's Palace at Jaffa Gate.
Christ's journey begins at the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation  (Taylor)
Station 2 is where Jesus took up his cross. It located next to the Franciscan Monastery of the Flagellation, across the road from the First Station.

From here, Via Dolorosa turns south on Tariq Bab al-Ghawanima and passes the northwestern gate of the Temple Mount, Bab al-Ghawanima.
Some historians dispute
Stations 3 and 4 (Taylor)
A relief sculpture above the door of a small Polish chapel at the junction with al-Wad Road marks Station 3 where Jesus fell for the first time under the weight of his cross. At Station 4, Mary watched her son pass by with the cross. It is commemorated at the Armenian Church of Our Lady of the Spasm.

Though neither of these events is recorded in the Bible, do not fail to go inside the church to view the 5th-century floor mosaic which includes an outline of a pair of sandals, said to be Mary's footprints.

Roman soldiers forced Simon of Cyrene to help Jesus carry his cross at Station 5.
Jesus also had to negotiate hills and steps en route to Calvary  (Taylor)
From here the path goes up a steep hill to Station 6, where, according to a tradition dating from the 14th century, St. Veronica wiped Jesus' face with her handkerchief, leaving his image imprinted on the cloth.
Jesus took the second of three falls at Station 7.

Station 8 is across the market street and up the steps of Aqabat al-Khanqah. A cross and a Greek inscription mark the site where Jesus consoled the lamenting women of Jerusalem (Lk 23:27-31)
The fish market looks much as it did during the time of Christ  (Taylor)
Though some historians dispute the third fall, Station 9 is said to be that location.

The Dome of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre  (Taylor)
The remaining  stations are inside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. At Station 10, Jesus is stripped before being nailed to the cross at Station 11. 

Station 12 marks the site where Jesus dies on the cross

Jesus is taken down from the cross at Station 13, and at Station 14, Jesus is laid on the main floor in his tomb.
Boats still do regular trips back across the sea of Galilee  (Taylor)
Walking the footsteps of Jesus, even if the path has been somewhat obscured by time, is once-in-a lifetime experience.

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Scotlland's fortitude is personified in Edinburgh Castle

The Edinburgh Military Tattoo is a festival unlike any other
EDINBURGH, SCOTLAND  For some mysterious reason, medieval castles have a long history of appeal for travelers of all ages. Perhaps it has something to do with the fairy tales we have all heard since we were children. Or possibly there is a sense of foreboding that drains all color from their exteriors, turning them into darkened silhouettes peering down from elevated hilltops. Little girls dream of being a princess and living in colorful Camelot-style environs in a world filled with rainbows.
The castle dominates from
above  (wikipedia)
Whatever the mystique, Edinburgh Castle is a symbol of strength and resilience for the people of Scotland. People who have for centuries been a stronghold of freedom, liberty and self-reliance.
Massive and dominating in size, Edinburgh Castle sits atop a rock overlooking the city as a powerful symbol of  Scotland's national heritage. There is evidence that the site has been occupied by humans as far back as the Iron Age.
Loch Lomond at twilight is another familiar Scottish landmark  (wikipedia)
One thing is certain, there has been a royal castle on the site since the 12th century, and it continued to be a royal residence until 1633.
Situated at one of the extremities of the Royal Mile, Edinburgh Castle is the most-visited paid tourist attraction in Scotland playing host to more than 1.4 million people each year.
The Edinburgh Tattoo attracts thousands to Edinburgh Castle each summer
It also serves as the site for the Edinburgh Military Tattoo which has taken place on the Esplanade during the annual Edinburgh International Festival each August since 1952. The Tattoo has become such a fixture in Scottish tradition that the annual live audience attracts nearly 220,000 visitors while television broadcasts reaches 100,000 million viewers in more than 30 countries.
Parades, pipers, drums and performers from every corner of the world join with Scottish regiments to participate in the grand military celebration that always concludes with a lone piper on the castle battlements playing a traditional "pibroch."
Another tradition, the one o'clock
gun (
A pibroch consists of a medley of extended compositions featuring elaborate variations. In the simplest of terms pibroch means "piping."
The castle was built upon an extinct volcano which rose about 350 million years ago and was then "plugged." With rocky cliffs rising 450 feet above sea level on three sides, the only readily accessible route to the castle is from the east, making it an obvious defensive stronghold.
The Royal Mile from the castle to Holyrood Palace is famous for its "closes" (wikipedia)
Edinburgh, with its ancient alleyways  known as "closes," emerges from the main street, or Royal Mile at the castle, to Holyrood Palace which is the official residence of Her Majesty the Queen in Scotland. Closes are small private alleys and courtyards branching off to the north and south and were usually named after a memorable resident.
Scotland's highland sheep
Compactly nestled among heather-carpeted hills, wind swept valleys and dales and illustrious citizens like Robert the Bruce, Robert Burns, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, J.K Rowling, John Knox, Sir Walter Scott, Mary Queen of Scots and Robert Louis Stevenson to mention a few among hundreds, Edinburgh conjures images of a perpetual time machine.
The castle is only accessible on one side  (wikipedia)
The first documented reference to a castle at Edinburgh was written in an account of the death of King Malcolm III by John of Fordun in "Castle of Maidens" in the fall of 1093.
Upon the death of King Alexander III in 1288, Edward I of England was appointed to determine competing claims for the vacant Scottish crown. He later chose to attack Edinburgh and claim the throne for himself in the First War of Scottish Independence in 1296. 
The one o'clock gun always
draws a crowd

It took Edward just three days to accomplish the task.
In 1314, Robert the Bruce hand-picked thirty men to attack the castle along its north face, where it was believed to be easier to scale the wall, hoping to reclaim the fortress.
In his epic poem "The Brus," John Barbour relates that when Bruce succeeded, he immediately ordered the destruction of the castle walls to prevent re-occupation by the British.
By then, Bruce had re-taken most of the castles in Scotland, and four months later, he won a decisive victory at Bannockburn, a date as memorable for every Scot as the Fourth of July is for Americans.
It took 14 more years for Robert the Bruce to eventually claim full victory at the negotiating table, but the victorious he was, and it remains, in its own way, Scotland's version of D-Day.
Who better to guard the entrance than Robert the Bruce and William Wallace (wikipedia)
Today, statues of Robert the Bruce by Thomas Clapperton and William Wallace by Alexander Carrick have watched over the Gatehouse entrance of Edinburgh Castle since 1929.
In the mid-16th century, the only surviving legitimate child of James V of Scotland was his daughter Mary who was only six days old when her father died.

Mary spent most of her youth in France, while Scotland was run by regents. She returned to Scotland in August, 1561 nine months after the death of her husband, King Francis II. Following a tumultuous reign, Mary, Queen of Scots was beheaded in 1587 as a result of a death warrant signed by her half sister Elizabeth I. 
The oldest building in the castle, as well as Edinburgh itself, is tiny St. Margaret's Chapel. Constructed as a private chapel for the royal family in the 12th century, it is still used today used for religious ceremonies, such as weddings.
The main courtyard of the fortress was designed in the 15th century by James III. Now known as Crown Square, or Palace Yard, the vaults were used as a prison until the 19th century.
Grand finale at the Edinburgh Military Tattoo -- Now that's a tattoo (wikipedia)
The square is comprised of the Royal Palace to the east, the Great Hall to the south, the Queen Anne Building to the west, and the National War Memorial to the north.
The Scottish National War Memorial honors Scottish soldiers and those who have served or are serving in Scottish regiments, as well as soldiers who died in the two world wars and more recent conflicts.
Perhaps the best known tradition at Edinburgh Castle is the One O'clock gun which is fired every day precisely at 1 p.m. except Sundays, Good Friday and Christmas Day. The tradition was established in 1861 as a signal for ships in the Harbor of Leith and the Firth of Forth so they would know the time. 
Edinburgh Castle is massive, but it beckons to be explored
You see there are castles and then there are CASTLES, and everyone should agree that Edinburgh Castle is readily worthy of its very own Tattoo.