With three kids in tow, Ron and Deanna Wetsch made a two-week trip to meet their eldest Caitlin, a student at Heidelberg University, and explore the castles and Alpine churches of Germany and Austria.
Great local meal… Dinner in Heidelberg. It was Christmas, and there weren't a lot of restaurants open, but we went into Palmbrau Gasse, a small quaint place that's one of Caitlin's favorites. We each had flamkuchen, a German-style pizza made with crème fraîche (a type of sour cream) rather than a standard tomato sauce. After a long, cold day of hiking around Heidelberg and the castle that overlooks the town, it was absolutely delicious.
Our favorite part… Exploring the ancient German city of Trier, located on the French-Luxembourg border. Originally settled by the Romans in the first century B.C., the town has Roman baths and a colosseum that are still standing. We visited several cathedrals and wandered around the old city, then went to the Christmas market in the picturesque main square. We sampled treats from the many different stalls and, of course, a mug or two of gluhwein (a hot mulled wine).
Worth every penny… Prior to the trip, we paid to download a Germany-Austria-Switzerland map for our GPS. I can't imagine trying to find our way in and out of some of these ancient cities, with their narrow cobblestoned and one-way streets, without it. The map was worth its weight in gold and saved us a lot of time.
Total rip-off… Driving into Austria on the autobahn, you are required to buy a window sticker (called a vignette) at the border for €8, which allows you to travel on their autobahn for 10 days. It isn't explained very well at the border, but if you fail to buy it on the way in, they will fine you very heavily (€110) when you try to get back out of the country. Luckily, the friends we visited in Austria warned us beforehand.
Fun surprise… In Bavaria, we spent part of an afternoon visiting the Wieskirche (church) in Wies and the Ettal monastery in nearby Ettal. Both were free (except for parking) and boasted absolutely beautiful rococo interiors. Also, both are located in small towns, with no crowds or traffic. The monks at the monastery even brew their own beer, which is available at nearby stores, and was quite good.
Overrated… The Neuschwanstein castle tour was a bit disappointing, as it involved a fairly long wait, especially considering it was off-season. And the brief tour itself was not very informative. But with three daughters who grew up watching Disney's Cinderella, we had to see it.
Moment when things got tense… We had a scheduled four-hour layover in Manchester, where the airport had an archaic and confusing system for transferring passengers and baggage between airlines. When we arrived, we talked with fellow travelers who had been stuck at the airport due to the blizzards occurring throughout Europe. One passenger was at the airport for her fourth straight day. Our layover eventually doubled to eight hours, but we made it out and arrived in Stuttgart with our luggage intact. Next time I will try to fly the same airline throughout or at least avoid Manchester.
Hotel we liked… We avoided hotels because, with a party of six and the small size of many European hotel rooms, we would have needed to rent two or three rooms each night. That would have busted our budget. Instead, for half the cost of the hotels, we rented an apartment in Heidelberg near the old city through homeaway.com and then one floor of a large chalet in Weissenbach in the Austrian Alps through tyrol.tl. Having the extra room to spread out and a kitchen where we could keep food and drinks was a definite plus.