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Saturday, 3 January 2015

Christmas in Cologne, Germany.

Day 1

We had a stupidly early start this morning but Santa was there with two of his elves (the rest were still in bed), serving hot punch and waving us off for our week in Germany over Christmas.

At 5:45am we were on the road for Dover and I was hoping to make it in time to get on the earlier ferry. After a stop at motorway services for a 'splash and dash', we did make it to port early and were sailing across the channel 1 hour earlier than scheduled. The English Channel was a little choppy today with a bit of a swell and many of our passengers were feeling the effects. I, on the other hand, had a very good breakfast and slept until until we had docked at Calais, waking up feeling as bright as a button and ready for the 4 1/2hr drive to Cologne. 

We had two comfort stops on the journey, more for my benefit than anyone else's. After my alarm going off at 3:15 this morning, I wanted to keep the journey as easy as possible for myself, as well as everyone on board. We had a very clear and easy run across the motorways, then headed for the centre of cologne, which I don't mind admitting was probably the toughest drive I have ever done. I had not been into the centre of cologne before but I had been made aware of the many low bridges and one way road systems. I knew I had to approach our hotel from the North on the west side of the river in order to be able to drop off safely and unload luggage. It was dark. The road signs were poorly lit. I could see there were height restriction signs ahead of me but I could not read the height until I was committed to that route. I knew I had to turn right after crossing the river but I couldn't see the water. It was so dark. After a very slow and steady route through the city, I hadn't hit a bridge and had arrived at the hotel with all the passengers thinking I had been here before because I had made it look so easy. God only knows how that happened because 'easy' is not how I would have described it!

We checked into our hotel, the Maritim Hotel Koln, and the porters delivered the luggage. I had to take the coach away to park up and walk the mile back to the hotel.

When I walked into the front entrance of the hotel, I was very pleasantly surprised at what I saw. It is a very large, very classy looking hotel with shops, boutiques, restaurants and bars on the first two floors.

I checked in and made my way to my room, which is very spacious and I am very happy with.

I only had 20 minutes until I was expected at dinner with my group. So after a very quick wash I change I arrived in the restaurant where we were greeted with a drinks reception of champagne before a very tasty 3 course buffet dinner.

After dinner, with having had a bit of time to relax and having a full tummy, I was all of a sudden feeling incredibly tired. So I made my excuses and had the best nights sleep.

Day 2

After a very good nights sleep I showered and went to breakfast where there was champagne on the buffet. Seeing as I am not driving today I made the most of the opportunity and spoiled myself! 

My courier, Lorraine and I met the group after breakfast at 10:15 to hand out their tickets to the chocolate museum before I walked them the 400m to it.

The futuristic museum's complex, made of steel and glass, is situated right on the banks of the Rhine River, close to Cologne's Old Town. 

In its exhibition, you can learn about the history of chocolate, from the Mayan’s chocolate “drink of the gods” to today's commercial chocolates. You can stroll through the museum's greenhouse with its cocoa trees, and find out how the cocoa bean becomes a chocolate bar from start to finish in the museum's mini-production unit. You can also taste the chocolate from the chocolate fountain.

Our group had a free flow tour of the museum and had the rest of the day at leisure to explore the final day of the Christmas markets.

Every year, the city centre of Cologne is touched by the magic of the festivities in the run-up to Christmas. When the Christmas markets in Cologne open their gates on the last Monday before Advent, millions of visitors from around the world delight at the goods on sale at the quaintly designed huts (or "Buden").

Christmas music, arts and crafts, toys, Christmas decorations and the scent of the Christmas bakeries create a wonderful atmosphere. It is not just children's eyes that light up when pewter pourers, wreath binders and glassblowers demonstrate their art, and the aroma of mulled wine, hot chestnuts and gingerbread fills the air.

Lorraine and I had a very enjoyable afternoon, wandering around the market and enjoying the gluwein before heading back to the hotel for a cheeky afternoon nap to try and catch up on some sleep before dinner.

Once again, we had a very enjoyable meal before relaxing in the piano bar. I could very easily get used to this standard of living!!

Day 3

We had another leisurely breakfast this morning with, yes you've guessed it, more champagne, before we all met our local guide André, at 11am for a city walking tour. He gave a very interesting, informative tour of the city and I very much enjoyed looking at his peachy little bottom!

Cologne (Köln) offers seemingly endless attractions, led by its famous cathedral whose filigree twin spires dominate the skyline. It’s regularly voted the country’s single most popular tourist attraction. The city’s museum landscape is especially strong when it comes to art but also has something in store for fans of chocolate, sports and even Roman history. Its people are well known for their liberalism and joie de vivre and it’s easy to have a good time right along with them year-round in the beer halls of the Altstadt (old town) or during the springtime Carnival.

Cologne is like a 3-D textbook on history and architecture. Drifting about town you’ll stumble upon an ancient Roman wall, medieval churches galore, nondescript postwar buildings, avant-garde structures and even a new postmodern quarter right on the Rhine. Germany’s fourth-largest city was founded by the Romans in 38 BC and given the lofty name Colonia Claudia Ara Aggripinensium. It grew into a major trading centre, a tradition it solidified in the Middle Ages and continues to uphold today.

After our tour, we had the rest of the day free. After a walk to check the coach and give it a quick clean we headed back to the beer halls of the old town. We got talking to 3 Dutch people who had been in the city for a one night stay to visit the Christmas markets and get into the festive mood. We spent the afternoon chatting with them and had a lot of fun before returning to the hotel. 

I noticed that no one was in the pool so I took advantage of that and the sauna before getting ready for our German buffet dinner. I had Roast Goose which was absolutely delicious! We spent the rest of the evening socialising with our passengers in the Piano Bar. I was sat enjoying the good company and the flowing wine when all of a sudden, the lady on the table next to me screamed, threw her drink in the air and jumped out of her seat and stood on the table, because a mouse had just ran past her foot! I couldn't help laughing! The waitress rushed over to see what the problem was and did not seem surprised that we had seen a mouse and eventually said "yes, the mouse is a problem of the house!" After another enjoyable evening, I went to bed and had a really good nights sleep.

Christmas Day

We had a late, leisurely breakfast this morning, once again with champagne, before going to get dressed for lunch.

Lorraine and I arrived at the restaurant early because our company has provided Christmas crackers and Christmas presents for our guests, so we just had to spend a minute putting crackers on the tables and hide the presents so we could hand them out at the lunch table. Our people started to arrive and some had got into the spirit with their Christmas hats.

Our company had requested a Roast Turkey dinner with stuffing. I can never quite understand why they do this. It is my opinion that if you go to Germany for Christmas, it is to embrace the German traditions and to experience the way which they do Christmas, including the food. However, the turkey was very nice but the stuffing was weird! Germans don't eat stuffing and in previous years we have had it served up with the Christmas pudding because they just don't know what to do with it! Luckily this year, the stuffing was actually inside the turkey but it was not what we would recognise to be stuffing! I can't even describe what is was, but it was quite revolting!! Other than that, the meal was very nice. After lunch, a group of us went to the Bellevue restaurant, on the fifth floor overlooking the city, for a social glass of wine. I went for a relax in the jacuzzi before we had to start eating again at this evenings dinner. We really didn't need any more food! It was an enjoyable evening though.

Boxing Day

Today I am happy to be getting back behind the wheel. We have our guide, André, joining us again today. Once again it was a long leisurely breakfast before I had to walk the mile up the river to where the coach was parked. I was back at the hotel to collect our passengers at 11am. André gave us a quick city tour of Cologne on board the coach, mostly to show off the city skyline, before we made our way to Maria Laach.

Maria Laach Abbey is a Benedictine abbey in northwestern Germany. Picturesquely located on the wooded shores of a crater lake, Maria Laach's abbey church is a beautiful and important example of German Romanesque architecture.

The Abbey of Maria Laach was founded in 1093 by the Count Palatine of the Rhine Heinrich II (d.1095) and his wife Adelheid (1100). They were unable to have children and donated what would have been spent on a dowry on the foundation of a monastery across the lake from their castle. The founding document read:

The foundation was accepted and overseen by the Archbishop of Trier and the first monks came from the monastery of St. Maximin near Trier. Built on the west side of the lake now known as the Laacher See, the monastery became known as the Abbatia ad Lacum, "Lake Abbey."

In 1112, Count Palatine Siegfried of Ballenstedt, stepson of Heinrich, gave the monastery to Affligem Abbey in modern-day Belgium. Laach monastery became a Priory and its 40 monks were led by Prior Gilbert of Affligem from 1127. In 1138, Laach became an independent abbey with Gilbert as its first abbot.

Laach Abbey was dissolved on August 6, 1802, as part of the "Secularization" of all lands west of the Rhine under Napoleon. The abbey became the property of the occupying French, and then the Prussian state in 1815. Most of the monastic buildings were sold to private owners. The monastic buildings were badly damaged by arson in 1855, but the church was spared.

Benedictine monks from Beuron Abbey acquired the monastery in 1892 and in 1893 Maria Laach attained abbey status once again. The church of Maria Laach is widely considered a masterpiece of German Romanesque architecture. Its relatively short length and multitude of towers and turrets give it the appearance of a fairy-tale fortress, which is further accentuated by its scenic lakeside setting.

The Abbey is just north of Koblenz, so from here we had the opportunity of a scenic drive along the bank of the Rhine to Königswinter, where we were booked in for afternoon tea at our sister hotel. We arrived to quite an impressive spread of sandwiches and cakes, and the way in which everyone was going for the food, you'd have thought they hadn't been fed for a week!

After copious amounts of tea, we got back on board the coach and made our way back towards Cologne, travelling through the centre of Bonn so that André could show us some points of interest. Personally, I think Bonn is the most boring city tour I have ever done! It is all about how they 'used to be' or 'used to have'. So there is a lot of history there, but nothing to physically be seen. 

We arrived back at the hotel at about 1715. I dropped everyone off and went to park up. On the walk back, I decided I would cross the river and have a look at the skyline which André was so keen to show off this morning and even in the dark, I could see why.

I arrived back at the hotel and had a bit of a mad dash to get myself ready for dinner. We had another enjoyable meal before moving through to the piano bar in search of the pet mouse. 

Day 6

I was indulging in champagne at breakfast again this morning before meeting the group for today's two visits. The weather was not very pleasant this morning. It was windy and trying to snow between the raindrops. The only good thing about today was that we only had a couple of short walks to get to where we were going.

After a walk across the square, feeling the the pied piper, we arrived at our first visit. Cologne Cathedral. We met our guide, Sylvia, and we were all given headsets in order to be able to hear Sylvia through her microphone.

There are big celebrations in Cologne this year because this is the 850th anniversary of the relics of the Three Wise Men being housed in the Cathedral, after they were stolen from the Italians. Sorry, I mean 'acquired'!

 Cologne Cathedral is a building of superlatives that is the centre and hallmark of this city on the Rhine. The cornerstone of this Gothic cathedral was laid on the Feast of the Assumption of Mary on 15 August 1248. The previous building was apparently no longer deemed impressive enough to house the remains of the Three Wise Men, which Archbishop Rainald von Dassel had brought to Cologne from Milan after the latter city was conquered in 1164. Because of these relics, the cathedral became one of the most important places of pilgrimage in Europe. Its two massive towers have dominated the city’s skyline since their completion in 1880. At 157.38 metres, the northern tower is 7cm taller than the southern one.

Today the cathedral is Cologne’s second-tallest structure, surpassed only by the telecommunications tower. The cathedral covers almost 8,000 square metres of floor space and can hold more than 20,000 people. Due to the building’s impressive Gothic architecture, the shrine of the Three Wise Men, the outstanding stained-glass windows and the many other important works of art, UNESCO declared Cologne Cathedral a World Heritage Site in 1996.

The building of the Cathedral started in 1248 and was not completed until 1880. Cologne's medieval builders had planned a grand structure to house the reliquary of the Three Kings and fit its role as a place of worship for the Holy Roman Emperor. Despite having been left incomplete during the medieval period, Cologne Cathedral eventually became unified as "a masterpiece of exceptional intrinsic value" and "a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe".

Behind the high altar, the Shrine of the Three Kings rises up; the relics of Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar-the city patrons of Cologne-rest here alongside the relics of Saints Felix and Nabor and Saint Gregory of Spoleto. This impressive work of medieval gold craftsmanship surpasses all other shrines in the Western world in terms of size and grandeur.

The Shrine of the Three Kings is approximately 43 inches (110 cm) wide, 60 inches (153 cm) high, and 87 inches (220 cm) long. It is shaped like a basilicatwo sarcophagi stand next to each other, with the third sarcophagus resting on their roof ridges. The ends are completely covered, so there is no space visible between the sarcophagi. The basic structure is made of wood, with gold and silver overlay decorated with filigree, enamel, and over 1000 jewels and beads. The latter include a large number of cameos and intaglio pieces, some pre-Christian.

Our guide was exceptionally good and very cleverly worded topics which were a little controversial. She had given a very well informed, interesting tour and Sylvia is a guide I will recommend and request again.

After time for a quick coffee in the Dom Forum, we took the short walk to the Schnütgen Museum which is currently home to the exhibition of the Three Wise Men, which is the reason for our visit here and we have another guide to bring it to life for us.

The Museum Schnütgen is celebrating the 850th anniversary of the arrival of the remains of the Magi in Cologne with a large special exhibition. The exhibition will bring together ivories, sculptures, paintings, manuscripts and works of treasury art that offer an interesting interpretation of the subject and are artistically of especially high quality. These works were created between the 5th to 16th centuries and hail from various artistic regions such as Italy, Germany or France.

After our tour, I was all 'wise men'd out! We had the rest of the day to ourselves so Lorraine and I headed back to the skating rink where there were a few remaining market stalls and bars. We found a nice warm corner and sat enjoying gluwein and bratwurst. 

We returned to the hotel at about 4pm. I made use of the pool and the sauna before packing my case and dressing for dinner. I had an early night after tonight's dinner. Tomorrow was going to be a long day travelling home.

Day 7

There was a lot of snow on the ground on our journey back across to Calais. Not enough to slow us down or cause us a problem though. Everything this morning ran very smoothly. Luggage was delivered to me on time and loaded. All bills paid, keys handed in. We stopped at P&J's Chocolate Factory near Oostende and we arrived at Calais in good time. We got on the ferry we were booked on. I was sat on board ship eating my lunch when an announcement came over that we were delayed because 4 clandestines had managed to get on board ship. Police had caught 2 and were in pursuit of the other 2. We were half an hour late leaving dock but the captain put his foot down and made up a lot of time.

We had an easy journey up and around the M25 and onward home. Our company director was waiting at the depot to welcome us home. It had been a successful tour and I'd had a lot of fun over the week. Nevertheless, I was looking forward to having a few days off over New Year, my first New Year off for I can't remember how many years, so I have a lot of partying to catch up on!

Thank you all for following me through 2014, I hope you will all keep following through 2015. Happy New Year everyone! x

Tuesday, 2 December 2014

School 'Meet My PenPal' Trip to Epernay, France.

Apologies for the 'blogging absence' over the last six weeks. I've been having a pretty quiet time and pulling my hair out being stuck on day work and school runs, so I'm glad to be getting back out there!

Day 1

I was up early this morning, 4:30am and I have a long day ahead of me, which is going to finish tight on my hours. I arrived at the yard and packed my coach before going to get a coffee in the drivers room. My, very sleepy, boss was on duty this morning. He bought me a coffee and said I was his best [and only] female tour driver and if I were ever to leave, he wanted to clone me first! I think he's after a Christmas present!! So after coffee, I left the yard for the one hour drive to my pick up at the school.

I was in position before any of the group arrived so there was time for 20 minutes shut eye. Three of the teachers arrived first, then all the kids, then the group organiser! The kids are 14/15 years old and they seem to be a really nice group. The teachers seem pretty laid back but the organiser seems a little twitchy! I don't understand why she would be too worried about the trip because she ran the exact same trip 2 years ago, only with half as many students. Nevertheless, I am starting out with a good feeling about the whole thing.

We left the school pretty much on time and pressed on for our channel crossing on the eurotunnel. We managed to get a train 2 hours earlier than we were booked on and didn't have to waste time at the terminal building. For most of the group, it was their first time on the eurotunnel. I had been winding them up, telling them to look out for the fish! As always, the teachers were impressed at how a coach has to manoeuvre to get into that narrow little carriage! About 15 minutes of the train journey was wasted looking for fish before they realised there are no fish!

This evenings meal is being provided at the school by the penpals. According to the itinerary, we are to travel straight to the school in Epernay, to arrive at 19:30, to meet their penpals and eat before going to their hotel and checking in. I am booked into a hotel on the opposite side of town to the group and I need to be off the road by 21:30. I had suggested to the organiser that we press on to enable them to check in at the hotel before going to the school, which she agreed to, so that's what we did. I was starting to feel tired so I appreciated an hours peace while they checked in. 

We left the hotel 10 minutes late to go to the school. We had left everywhere late all day today. Only by a few minutes, but tonight a few minutes will be the difference between me staying legal or not. So I had to lay the law down. All the teachers were aware of my driving hours but they still looked horrified when I said if they were late, I wouldn't be waiting! It's never a good thing to have to do on the first day of a tour! So ten minutes before I was due to take them back to the hotel, I went into the school and gave them their '10 minute warning'! The kids seemed to be having a great time and were really enjoying their evening and I felt awful to be the one breaking up the party. I went back to the coach. After a few minutes, the organiser came out and said they weren't ready to leave and that they would walk back. And that is why I wanted to get them into their hotel first! So I said goodnight and went to find my hotel, feeling like a zombie!

Day 2

The alarm went off this morning and I felt like I still needed another 3 hours sleep. It was going to be another long day, but hopefully a more enjoyable one! 

I joined the group at their hotel for breakfast before leaving 10 minutes late for today's excursion to Paris. 

Last year, I was in Paris at least once a month. This year, this is my first visit there and the year is nearly done! 

We had an easy journey into the city centre and I gave them a little bit of a tour around on the way through to the Eiffel Tower. There is quite a lot to see just from the river banks. One of the teachers on board is French, so I asked her to come on the microphone to point things out to the students. Even if I do say so myself, between us we did a pretty good job! 

We drove in past Notre Dame where we mentioned Quasimodo and the bells! The Montparnasse Tower, one of the tallest buildings in Paris, could be seen when looking down the side streets. The impressive Hotel de Ville could be seen on the opposite bank of the river. We drove past the Musee D'Orsay, famous for housing the worlds largest collection of  impressionist and post-impressionist art, including pieces by Manet, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. On the opposite side of the river, the Musee de Louvre with its most iconic piece being Leonardo da Vinci's 'Mona Lisa'. The Louvre is the worlds most visited museum, receiving more than 9.7 million visitors in 2012.

The obelisk at the centre of Place de la Concorde was pointed out and the National Assembly before having a lovely view down the Esplanade to Hotel des Invalides. 

We came around the bend and were at the base of the Eiffel Tower where I was going to park and the group were going to the top.

Unfortunately, one of our girls was pick pocketed and had her phone stolen just before the group returned to the coach. Obviously this had to be reported and so we were delayed. While we were waiting, I took the rest of the group to Trocadero for a photo opportunity. From here there is the best view of the Eiffel tour and the Champ de Mars.

We collected the teacher and student after them reporting the phone stolen and headed up to the Sacre Coeur via the Arc de Triomphe where I had to drive twice round in order to point out the line of landmarks.

The Grand Arch at Le Defense, the Arc de Triompe, the obelisk at Place de la Concorde and the Pyriamids at the Louvre, which all line up with each other. Driving around the Arc de Triomphe is quite an experience and is always a relief to get off without a damaged vehicle! This is one of the few places where you are not insured to drive because you are so likely to have an accident! Follow the link to see a video taken from YouTube of 'Crazy Paris Traffic' at the Arc de Triomphe.

We drove past the infamous Moulin Rouge where every surrounding shop is a sex shop. The reaction from the students was quite funny as we were sat at the traffic lights next to a shop window full of toys, costumes and accessories!

We arrived at the drop off point where the group then had to walk to the Sacre Coeur for an hour free time while I had to go and find somewhere to park up. I ended up next to where the homeless have made camp under a railway bridge by the Gare du Nord. The whole area is dirty and smelly (not surprising with the amount of people who just wee in the street, and that's not just the homeless) and undesirable. I didn't leave my coach and I was happy to only be there for less than an hour.

I picked up the group and we made our way out of Paris and back to Epernay where we were booked in at a restaurant, Le Sardaigne, for our evening meal. The food was delicious and very reasonably priced and the service was outstanding. I really enjoyed my meal. More so because I hadn't had a proper meal yesterday. It was very well received.

I returned the group to their hotel and was told that I wasn't required tomorrow and that I could have a lie in in the morning. That would be lovely, thank you very much!

Day 3

After a long lie in and a leisurely breakfast I spent a couple of hours on the coach, cleaning and pottering, before walking into the town centre. I have visited Mercier Champagne House on the outskirts several times but never made it into the town centre. I was very pleasantly surprised at what I found.

In the central and oldest quarter of the town, the streets are narrow and irregular; the surrounding suburbs, however, are modern and more spacious, with La Folie to the East, for example, containing many villas belonging to rich wine merchants. The town has also spread to the right bank of the Marne.

One of its churches retains a portal and stained-glass windows from the sixteenth century, but the other public buildings are of modern construction. The most famous street in Épernay is the Avenue de Champagne which features the leading Champagne manufacturers.

After a few cheeky champagne tastings I headed back to my hotel for an afternoon nap before having a takeaway pizza for dinner in my room while watching Netflix! I'd had a nice lazy day!

Day 4

 It was back to work again today. Our first visit was to the Fossier biscuit factory in Reims.

Biscuits Fossier is a Reims based manufacturer of biscuits, gingerbread, sweets and marzipan-based confectionery.

Originating in Reims, Biscuit rose de Reims is a product of the Biscuits Fossier company. It is customary to dip the biscuit in champagne or red wine. The biscuit was created around 1690 in Reims. A baker wanted to make the most of the heat in the bread oven between the two batches, so he had the idea of creating a special dough; cooking it twice, which is where the name "biscuit" or "bis-cuit" meaning "cooked twice" in French. The biscuit initially was white. In order to add flavor to it, a pod of vanilla was introduced into the recipe. This vanilla left brown traces on the biscuit. In order to hide them, the baker decided to add a natural colour based on cochineal, a scarlet dye, to disguise his mistake. From this sequence of events, the Biscuit Rose de Reims was born. The biscuit is oblong in shape, and is lightly sprinkled with caster sugar. Enthusiasts for the biscuit included King Charles X, Leopold II of Belgium, the Russian tzar and the Marquise de Polignac. It is commonly dipped in champagne.
It quickly became a great success in terms of confectionery throughout France. The original recipe of the famous "Biscuit Rose" is still kept a secret by Fossier's confectioners. Despite the basic ingredients that include eggs, sugar, flour, and vanilla, the traditional French recipe demands special mastery and daintiness. The production of the biscuits is largely done by hand and therefore is described as 'artisanal'.

After spending an hour here, we'd had a tour of the factory and time for tasting and shopping. We then made our way into Reims centre.

Reims played a prominent ceremonial role in French monarchical history as the traditional site of the crowning of the kings of France. The Cathedral of Reims (damaged by the Germans during the First World War but restored since) played the same role in France as Westminster Abbey has in the United Kingdom. It housed the Holy Ampulla (Sainte Ampoule) containing the Saint Chrême (chrism), allegedly brought by a white dove (the Holy Spirit) at the baptism of Clovis in 496. It was used for the anointing, the most important part of the coronation of French kings. The cathedral became a UNESCO world heritage site in 1991.

After a brief visit to the cathedral, we had free time for shopping or to look around the Christmas market. 

The Christmas Village at the Place d'Erion is made up of 125 chalets offering beautiful seasonal gifts, decorations and festive delicacies. There is much street entertainment including carol singers, jazz bands and magicians. In his special chalet, Father Christmas is also on hand each day to delight the children. Reims is where the first French Christmas celebration was reportedly held; in 496 three thousand warriors were baptised on Christmas day. The city is rich in noble heritage.

We left Reims and headed back to Epernay, arriving back at the hotel at about 5pm. My days work was done but the students still had plenty to do to keep them out of mischief! They had 1 hour to start their packing and tidy their rooms for room inspections! Then they had to walk to school for their dinner at 7pm before going to the cinema at 8:30.

I went back to my hotel and parked up for the night, had a shower and decided to walk into town to the Restaurant we had eaten in on Sunday. I had just got seated and ordered a large glass of wine when my group came in. I went to join them. It turned out that there was enough money left in their kitty to eat out again tonight, so they were all happy. I was also happy to have some company.

After dinner, I went for an early night while the group walked to the cinema.

Day 5

Today was going to be a boring day. The day travelling home is always the worst day of a tour for me, I just can't wait to get it done!

The group surprised me this morning, for the first time all tour they were on time! We left the hotel and paid a quick visit back at the school to say goodbye to the penpals. Then we were on the road for Calais. The group wanted to visit a supermarket so in order to have the time to do it, we didn't have a comfort break and went 'express' from Epernay to Cite Europe. I've not stopped anywhere near Calais since the immigrant camps were cleared out so I was a little apprehensive of stopping there. I had heard on the grapevine that they now have security at the coach park because they were losing so much business with coaches staying away. Nevertheless, I stood on guard by my coach, broom in hand, making sure I had no stowaways!

Again, we left on time, with no dramas, to check in at the eurotunnel. I was offered a train 30 mins early, so we cleared customs and passport control and went straight round to board the train. We arrived back at the school one hour early. The kids had been messy all week and their time keeping was lowsy, but they are such a nice group of people and I took pleasure in telling them so and thanking them for including me in everything. I hope I have the pleasure of taking this school again. I left the school and headed for home. I knew I had been pushing my luck and only 12 miles from home, I ran out of hours and had to pull over for a 45 minute break. So frustrating! However, we were all home safe and sound at the end of another successful tour.

Wednesday, 1 October 2014

The Romantic Rhine and Black Forest

Well I'm quite excited to be doing another tour to an area I've never been to before and my first proper long haul tour for quite some time. A tour to the Rhine and the Black Forest in Germany. 

Day 1

This morning is the only real downside I can see of this tour and that is the ridiculously early start! I arrived at work at 4am to prepare to leave at 5am. Everything went according to plan. We collected all our passengers without a hitch and had an easy journey to Dover where I was hoping to catch an early ferry. I wasn't that lucky but we sailed out of Dover on time on our booked ferry where I had finished breakfast before we had left port and I spent the rest of the time asleep on the table!

We arrived in Calais and started the long drive to our first hotel in Germany, another 5 hours driving away. For the next 4 nights we will be staying at the Maritim Hotel, Konigswinter, on the bank of the river Rhine. We arrived shortly after 7pm (6pm UK time), unloaded luggage, parked the coach, dumped my stuff in my room and went straight to dinner, now feeling like a zombie! I don't remember what I had for dinner or whether I enjoyed it and I am now going for a well deserved sleep! Goodnight!

Day 2

I almost feel human again! I had a nice big breakfast with lots of strong coffee and know I'm ready to entertain the troops again.

This morning the group are booked on the Drachenfels Bahn which is just a short walk from our hotel and this afternoon is free. So I have a day off from driving.

We took the ride on Germany's oldest rack railway to the legendary Drachenfels, taking in the breathtaking views of 'the romantic Rhine valley'. Visibility wasn't at its best this morning with lots of low lying mist but the view was still beautiful.

Since it's completion in 1883 - at the time still operating with a steam locomotive - the Drachenfels Railway has been taking tourists to the top of the 321m high mountain. Drachenfels soon became one of the most popular attractions. In 2005 the old valley station was turned into a tourist station and the mid-station was modernised following extensive restoration of Schloss Drachenburg in 2011 to offer the opportunity of a stop over visit to the castle.

Schloss Drachenberg is an unusual edifice, built between 1882-84 for Stephen von Sarter, the son of a Bonn Innkeeper and is one of the most important castles erected in Germany towards the end of the 19th century. Stephen von Sarter, who commissioned the castle, attained wealth and honours as a stock market analyst. After being made a baron in 1881 he laid the foundation stone for his dream castle, which was completed, amazingly, in less than 3 years.

I really liked this castle. I can see myself living there! It wasn't overly big and the rooms inside were warm and homely, unlike so many of the castles I've seen. Plus, I would look good living here!

After a coffee we went back down to the town and had a little look around the shops on the Main Street before settling outside a riverside cafe where I enjoyed a couple of hours sitting in the sun, sipping Prosecco, watching the world go by.

Day 3

This morning we are going for a scenic drive along the banks of the Rhine and the Mosel to the pretty little town of Cochem with its fairytale castle on the hill.

Few towns in Germany can match the charm of Cochem. Its picturesque beauty, makes it a favourite place for visitors. Legend, folklore and a rich web of history is woven into every street. Situated in an area of outstanding natural beauty in the Mosel river valley, between the Eifel and Hundsrück. It is surrounded by high elevations, steep vineyards and typical wine villages, offering tastings, festivals and genuine hospitality.

Cochem, itself, is a showpiece gem and rated as one of the prettiest villages along the Mosel. Little seems to have changed for centuries. The town has many fine buildings, quaint cottages, black & tan guild houses and winding streets. The town square, lined with its half-timbered houses, is particularly fine and Cochem Castle, (Schloss Reichsburg) dramatically rises above the town. Cochem is the center of the Mosel wine trade. Fondly known for it's regional wines due to the presence of the many vineyards and small family run wineries in the nearby towns along the river.

Early in the 19th century the first real tourists came to Cochem. Mostly English artists, they recorded the romance and beauty of the Mosel Valley, in their drawings and paintings. The development of Cochem into the first real tourist center on the Moselle came in the 1930s.

After spending long enough here to get some lunch we travelled the short journey alongside the river to the little town of Alken where we were booked in for a wine tasting at Anton Hammes Wine Estate. 

The wine cellars of the Anton Hammes wine estate have been owned by the family for more than 150 years, and are more than 300 years old in total. They were part of the Wiltburg castle complex, owned by the former free lords of Wiltberg. Wine is matured in the traditional style in old oak barrels, in the 300-year-old vaulted cellar. Here the grapes are processed after picking, the wine is given time to rest in the old oak barrels, time to develop its incomparable bouquet, and to mature. Obviously I couldn't indulge in the tasting being 'DES' (designated driver!) but I was given a couple of bottles to take home. Personally, I am yet to come across a German wine that I enjoy.

Day 4

We were in Bonn for the day today. When we arrived, we picked up our guide, Fiona, who took us on a tour of the city on the board the coach. She was very knowledgable about the city and knew her history but I don't think she had done much guiding on coaches. For one thing, she had 'mic fright'! She didn't seem at all comfortable with using the microphone and held it in the most peculiar way, mostly in her lap! Lucky my mic is sensitive enough to pick up her voice! Secondly, she was a useless navigator! Leaving it far to late to tell me to turn and she got me into a couple of really sticky situations in places that I'm not even sure we should have been! Nevertheless, the passengers enjoyed it and it all worked out well in the end. After the tour, we had the rest of he day free in the city to get some lunch and explore further.

Bonn's beginning dates between 13 - 9 BC when Romans began building roads, bridges, and fortresses at a location known as "Bonna." One well-documented event was the maryrdom of two Thebaean legionaries. The Thebaean Legion was an all Christian legion, which refused to worship the emperor as a god. As punishment, the Thebaean Legion's commander, Mauritius was executed in St. Moritz as were many other Thebaean legionaries including Cassius and Florentius, Bonn's patron saints, who were martyred at the location of the present-day Münster basilica (above).

After the Romans left, the town had a very tumultuous history. Bonn has been destroyed and pummeled on so many occasions that it nearly became a pastime. Norman invaders were the first to burn the town to the ground in 881 and again in 892. In 1198, King Philip of Swabia and Duke Heinrich von Brabant layed siege to Bonn. In 1244 Konrad von Hochstaden, archbishop of Cologne ordered Bonn to be fortified. The reasons for fortification may have been for the Archbishop's protection as he had apparently begun fighting with Cologne's leaders and often resided in Bonn after the dispute. In 1288 under Sigfried II von Westerburg the archbishopric was transferred from Cologne to Bonn, which has since been transferred back to Cologne.

In 1582 Archbishop Gebhard Truchsess von Waldburg converted to Calvinism and refused to give up his position as elector. In February of 1583 Waldburg married and was in April of the same year excommunicated by Pope Gregory XIII. After the Truschessian War Gebhard fled to Strasbourg, but not before Bonn felt the rapture of Bavarian troops, who blew up the Godesberg (the archbishop's residence) with 1,500 pounds of gun powder. While the town survived the Thirty Years war Bonn was completely destroyed in 1689 as a result of the War of the Grand Alliance.

In December 1770 Bonn's most famous son, Ludwig van Beethoven, was born on Bonngasse. Bonn is probably best known as Beethoven's birth place and this fact is well advertised by the city despite Beethoven's vehement disgust towards his hometown. Beethoven spent some time in Vienna hoping to study with Mozart, but after his mother's death he was forced to return to Bonn for five years to raise his two younger brothers since his alcoholic father was unable to. In 1792 Beethoven returned to Vienna and never came back to Bonn.

This evening, at dinner, we watched the most beautiful sunset over the Rhine, before having to pack our cases ready for the second stage of our holiday.

Day 5

This morning we are leaving Konigswinter after a very pleasant stay at the Hotel Maritim. We had good food, good service and nice rooms. I hope we are as fortunate with our next hotel. 

We had a lot of miles to cover today before reaching our second hotel, after having a very pleasant lunch stop in the town of Heidelberg.

It is no secret that Heidelberg is a jewel among German travel destinations. Heidelberg is in the Neckar river valley right where the legend-rich Odenwald (Forest of Odes or Odin) opens up towards the plains of the Rhine Valley. Heidelberg is home to the oldest university in Germany (est. 1386). With 28,000 students, the Ruprecht-Karls-Universität (or Ruperto Carola, the Latin equivalent of its name) is one of Germany's larger academic institutions and boasts the full spectrum of an ancient academy, from Egyptian Studies to Computer Linguistics. The faculties for Medicine, Law and Natural Sciences are considered to be among the best in Germany. The university fostered the establishment of several other world class research institutions such as the German Cancer Research Centre (DKFZ), the European Molecular Biological Laboratory (EMBL), Centre for Molecular Biology (ZMBH), Max Planck Institutes for Medicine, Astronomy, Nuclear Physics, among others. Generally speaking, Heidelberg is an academic city with a long and rich history and is similar in many ways to cities such as Cambridge or Oxford (Heidelberg and Cambridge, England are twinned).

During WWII, the city was almost completely spared allied bombings which destroyed many of Germany's larger inner cities. As a result, Heidelberg has retained its baroque charm of narrow streets, picturesque houses and of course the world-famous Schloss (castle ruins). After World War II, the US Army built large barracks at the southern end of the city. Heidelberg's 147,000 inhabitants thus include not only 28,000 students at the university but also nearly 30,000 US citizens, almost all of them soldiers and their families. With hundreds of thousands of tourists flocking to the city annually, Heidelberg is truly a culturally diverse and international destination, despite its small size.

Over the years, Heidelberg has attracted numerous artists, intellectuals and academics from all over Europe and has sometimes been referred to as Germany's unofficial intellectual capital. People who have lived and worked in the city include the poets Joseph von Eichendorff, Jean Paul, Goethe and Iqbal, scientists such as Bunsen and Kirchhoff, philosophers such as the founder of the "Illuminati" order von-Knigge, atheist Ludwig Feuerbach, existentialist Karl Jaspers, political theorist Hannah Arendt, architect Albert Speer, and many more. Mark Twain wrote in 'A Tramp Abroad':

..."Out of a billowy upheaval of vivid green foliage ...rises the huge ruin of Heidelberg Castle, with empty window arches, ivy-mailed battlements, moldering towers—the Lear of inanimate nature—deserted, discrowned, beaten by the storms, but royal still, and beautiful."

We were here for a couple of hours before having to move on to our hotel for the next 3 nights, Hotel Maritim Titisee in the Black Forest.

Day 6

Today I had another day off and I was looking forward to it! I had champagne for breakfast whilst  admiring the beautiful view over lake Titisee from the restaurant of our hotel. 

Titisee is a relatively new town having been developed after the late 1800's following the introduction of the railways, bringing tourists to the area. 

This morning we were all booked on a boat trip around the lake which was a nice relaxing way to start the day. There was a very brief commentary on board the boat but in all honesty, there is very little to talk about, just the outstanding scenery to admire.

After a cup of coffee with some of the passengers in a lake side cafe, we were all booked on the little town land train. This wasn't something I was particular excited about and I wasn't going to bother going but I am so glad I did.

Our driver was Willie. He was a continental coach driver for 25 years before starting his business with his little land train. I asked if I could drive and he was very keen for me to sit up front. Little did I know his English wasn't very good and he quite promptly handed me the microphone for me to do the commentary! It was hard work trying to understand what he was trying to tell me but I think I got the general gist of what he was saying! Even if I wasn't quite accurate, it was better than no commentary at all.

He took us out of the town and up into the hills of the Black Forest where we could see the Black Forest highest mountain, Feldburg, the Austrian Alps and the Swiss Alps. He explained how the Black Forest is maintained at 70% with 25% farmlands and just 5% of the area being towns. It was a lovely scenic hour long ride and not at all what anyone expected.

I spent some time cleaning and pottering around on the coach before having a really lazy afternoon, sitting on the lakeside terrace in the sun with a couple of glasses of Prosecco!

Day 7

Today is the day I had been looking forward to most of all. A very scenic day of driving around the Black Forest with a few nice stops and we had lovely weather which was the icing on the cake.

This ancient mountain range is famous for its legends and the black fir trees that cover the landscape. While not particularly high, the mountains offer a wonderful place to go hiking or mountain biking. There are a few skiing resorts as well offering average but crowded conditions. Better to head south to the Alps if you are a serious skier or boarder. The Black Forest is a mountainous terrain at about 200 - 1,500 meters above sea level, the highest point being the Feldberg (the field mountain) at 1,493 m.

The region is famous for its cuckoo clocks, watchmaking, skiing and tourism. There is a large high-tech light engineering industry in the region stemming from the gold-mining and watchmaking days.

Our hotel had arranged for us to stop at an old mill for coffee and cake, Hexonlochmuhle. It was a lovely drive to get to it and well off the beaten track. At one point I was wandering where we were being sent, but it was a lovely stop.

We were served up with the most enormous pieces of Black Forest Gateaux which was absolutely delicious. From here we headed for Triberg after a couple of stops for photo opportunities. The first was just in a layby on the side of the road at the top off a hill, looking down the valley.

Our second photo stop was at the Cuckoo Clock which is in the Guinness book of records for being the worlds largest. We arrived just in time to see it strike 1 o'clock when there was a very un impressive, solitary, 'cuckoo'!

Then we moved on to Triberg, where we spent a couple of hours. This little city is famous for its waterfall and cuckoo clocks and relies completely on tourism. It is a very pretty place built on a steep hill but a few hours is a long enough time to spend here.

We left here and headed directly back to our hotel for a couple of hours rest before getting back on the coach and going out for our traditional German meal with folk entertainment.

We were all given silly hats to wear and there were a lot of procussion instruments handed around for us to join in with the traditional music and singing. We had a 5 course meal served which was lovely, although, apart from more Black Forest gateaux, I couldn't tell you what we ate! It was an evening of great fun which everyone got involved in and enjoyed. We got back to the hotel at about half past 10 where I sat in the bar and enjoyed a glass of beer before bed.

Day 8

Well this morning we checked out of our hotel and started our long journey back to the UK, but not before visiting Freiburg and staying for some lunch. 

Lying in a secluded wine-rich corner of the German state of Baden-Württemberg, Freiburg is a laid-back, beautiful university city. Known throughout Germany for Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg, good weather, and vineyards, Freiburg is considered by Germans to be a desirable place to live.

Due to its secluded location at the border triangle of Germany, France, and Switzerland, and being fairly removed from any other larger German cities, locals will frequently go shopping in France and Switzerland for their respective native products and go to museums and theaters in Basel or Zürich. You can find a strong local patriotism, which shows itself in the anthem of Baden (a former independent state), which can be heard more often than the national anthem.

After staying long enough for some lunch, we hit the road to Metz for our overnight stay. Tomorrow we will be racing for our ferry and arriving home at about 9pm. A day purely of travelling.

In my opinion, this tour has been a great success. We have had a great group of passengers who have all got along, joined in and looked out for each other. Our hotels have been good and we've been well fed. To top it off, we've had great weather from start to finish. Another good job done!