A Travellerspoint blog

The ingenious use of curves

… or how they designed the Bernina Pass Railway from Switzerland to Italy

sunny -6 °C
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Another day of 'riding the rails' – this time doing a return trip to Tirano in Italy on the Bernina Express before heading up to Zurich for our next nights accommodation.

The trip meant we had to catch our first train just after 10am to go the one stop needed to then catch the express. Standing around on Celerino Station before 10am certainly gave us cold fingers and toes – plenty of snow around and frosty breath.

At Samedan Station we were talking to one of the rail staff and he said Samedan was one of the coldest places in Switzerland and the temperature last night got down to minus 24 degrees. But it was a balmy minus 6 degrees (in the sun) on the platform at 10:30 in the morning.

Our Bernina Express was once again not really an express – because it stopped frequently, often at stations which had a 'stop on demand' status. The Bernina Express is said to provide a link between the cool beauty of the mountains and the warm charm of Italy and the 122 km of track is UNESCO World Heritage listed with 55 tunnels and over 196 bridges and viaducts.

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At one stage the train seems to be carving it's own track out through pristine snow fields at the top of a mountain and then it's zig-zagging it's way down into a valley and then it's trundling down the main street of a village. And it even went in circles at one stage as it spiralled it's way down or up – depending on which way you were going.

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The railway celebrates 100 years of continuous operation next year and is the highest altitude open mountain railway to operate all year round. And the title of this blog is how the commentary on the train described the design of the route.

It was quite a different ride from the Glacier Express of the day before, with equally stunning (but very different) views. Fir trees dripping with snow, frozen streams and waterfalls, frozen lakes, pristine snow, quaint alpine villages – the list could go on and on. We even saw a couple of guys para-skiing on a frozen lake near the highest point of the trip.

And then to top it off, we actually returned to Italy briefly (and the Italian-ness was obvious, especially with the drivers) .

Also we once again had a stunningly sunny day which maximised the views. It all just made us even more appreciate the wonders of God's creation.

The return trip covered some of the route we had done yesterday and again it was dark – so we missed on some of that scenery. But then it was onto the Intercity Express to get us up to Zurich fairly late – but highly satisfied with our day's outing.

Posted by thomastour 13:08 Archived in Switzerland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

291 Bridges, 91 Tunnels & Legendary Viaducts

… It's the Glacier Express!

sunny -6 °C
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We woke up this morning and shortly later were greeted by sunrise on a beautiful blue sky – however according to the TV in the restaurant at breakfast time it was a very crisp minus 12 degrees.

The view from our hotel window of the snow covered mountains and the similarly snow covered roofs of the town was a great start to the day. We then got an electric taxi for the bumpy ride down to the station (17 Swiss Francs – about $A18 for a trip of about 1.5km).

Our carriage on the Glacier Express was sparsely populated, being only 1/3 full so we were able to move across to the opposite window when the view commanded it. The trip itself involved covering 291 km in around 10 hours, starting at a height of 1604m, dropping down to 585m and rising again to 1775m. And for nearly all the time it was through snow covered valleys and mountain sides.

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And what a view we had, it is hard to describe, so all I can say is that we are really glad we did it – for us coastal dwellers, such alpine views are unreal.
For the first half of the trip we were pulled by a locomotive capable of operating on the cog railway, this was necessary because of the steepness of the track at a number of points.

We started from Zermatt which is almost in the shadow of the Matterhorn. The valleys that we traveled along were breathtaking, looking up at snow covered mountains and across, down and even up at villages that came right out of picture postcards. Endless miles of untraversed snow just waiting for someone to ski down it.

Then into Brig, a town founded in 1250 and which rose to prominence through trade across the various mountain passes with Italy and France. The man who opened these up became very rich and then had a sudden fall from grace by getting involved in politics and when charged with treason disappeared off to Italy by the very pass he had developed.

We reached the highest point of the trip (2,033m) at Oberalppas – the lowest was 585m and we started and finished at 1604m and 1775m respectively. There was never really a stage of the trip when we didn't have a fantastic view (except for the last hour and only then because it had got dark).

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The Glacier Express is billed as the world's slowest express train – but it really isn't an express as it stops at a number of stations and even gives passengers a chance to get off and have a quick look around at some of them. This caught Cathy out at Chur because while she was off the train they shunted it out and onto another platform and added some other carriages. When she got back it wasn't where she had got off and in looking for it she didn't spot it on because the added carriages had different branding on them. Fortunately she got back on with 5 minutes to spare.

The train finished it's journey at St Moritz, but we got off a station earlier because that is where our hotel is. However we will briefly see St Moritz tomorrow from the train as we have booked to go on the Bernina Express tomorrow which will take us on a return trip to just over the Italian border and then we will change trains at Chur to get to Zurich in the evening. We had this trip recommended to us by a Canadian family we met on the train yesterday and because we have a Swiss Pass, it only costs us the booking fee.

One disadvantage of being in this beautiful alpine region is that everything is priced through the roof. This evening I had a Cappuccino and Cathy had a lukewarm 'hot' chocolate that cost a combined 8.80 Swiss Francs – we've paid less in swanky restaurants in capital cities!

Posted by thomastour 13:07 Archived in Switzerland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A perfect day.....

at minus 10!

sunny -10 °C
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Such a glorious day.........with clear skies the temperature in Geneva was nippy as we visited the Old Town; The Cathedral of St Pierre, The Town Hall(Hotel de Ville), Maison Tavel ( dating from the 12th century)and the old merchant buildings along Rue Le Grande. Down to Lake Geneva to see the floral clock, unusual light and tree exhibits in the English Garden including half a dozen parachutes and parachuters stuck in a tree! Often shown as a symbol of Geneva is the Jet d'eau, spouting a column of lake water as high as 450 feet, yep, where was it?? As none of the tourist info places were open we never got to the bottom of why there was no Jet d'eau.

Then we picked up our luggage from the hotel and headed for the train station and our train to Zermatt. What a gorgeous ride; from cities and towns along the lake front, vineyards terraced up steep hillsides, rich green panoramas sweeping up to rugged snow topped alps, swiss chalets and rushing snow fed rivers. The journey to Zermatt took us about 3 and1/2 hours, the time just flew, swapping trains at Visp we boarded a train on the cog railway. The scenery just got better and better. Lots of snow, log cabins with deep,snowy roof tops, frozen cascades and waterfalls, high mountains in every direction some with sugar frosting snow and others with thick custard snow, swiss villages,mountain goats and more! The blue sky and sunlight sparkling on the snow just added to the picture. How amazing that we are here and able to experience this........we are so blessed!

At Zermatt we hired a taxi, they are all electric here, and had a bumpy and sometimes amazingly narrow trip to our hotel! Zermatt is a gorgeous snow town lying below the Matterhorn (Switzerland's tallest mountain). Zermatt is 1,608 metres above sea level. After off loading our luggage and checking out the great views from the deck on the top floor of our little hotel we decided to board another train on Europe's highest open air cog railway for a steep climb to Gornergrat (3089m above sea level).

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Making several stops along the way for skiers and sightseers we climbed to Gornergrat, surrounded by breathtaking snow covered mountain views that include 29 four thousand metre peaks. Included in this of course is the Matterhorn. Snow is just such a novelty for us, we were blown away by the beauty of it all. There are 360 degree views from a viewing platform, a church, a `castle' housing shops, cafe and restaurant and access for skiers to downhill runs. It also has a large digital thermometer that showed the temperature was -10 degrees!!

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After admiring the views and identifying mountains we warmed ourselves up with hot drinks and watched the sun setting below the mountains before we caught the train back down. In the fading light the snow just seemed to glisten and we caught glimpses of the sparkling lights of Zermatt below.

Our next mission was to find somewhere to eat tea at a reasonable price, easier said than done in a ski resort! Still we found the most reasonable priced restaurant and had a delicious hot meal before heading back to our hotel.

What an amazing God we have who created such awesome beauty!! All glory to Him!!

Posted by thomastour 10:17 Archived in Switzerland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

I was blind, but now I can see.

… or how Geoff left his glasses in the hire car when we returned it.

0 °C
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When the sun rose this morning, we discovered a beautiful clear sky (but sub-zero temperatures) at our overnight stop in Simonswald. From our balcony we had magnificent views of grassland and hills, with touches of snow on the tops of the hills. Cathy described it as Heidi country, all the houses would look good on a picture postcard.

Unfortunately it was -2 degrees which meant sorting out the car and our luggage ready for the handing in of the car later in the day was a cold task. Our host at the Gasthoff put on a simple but lovely breakfast, it turns out he is Swiss and a great cook.

The first part of our trip was along secondary roads and we really enjoyed the views and the slower pace. But all too soon it was onto the autobahn and speeding toward Switzerland. Most of the time we were traveling the temperature fluctuated between -2 and zero and for quite a bit of it there was very light snow falling (but not settling on anything near the road).

For quite a bit of the trip we were in Switzerland, with the weather closing in, so the views weren't as good as when we started. And then for the final bit of the trip we entered French territory to return the car to the French side of Geneva Airport. We had been led to expect that this would involve some awkward navigation, but the GPS unit we had brought with us from Australia came good and was able to accept the required destination and took us on a trip through the outskirts of Geneva on some quite roads around the lake to bring us right to where we needed to be at the airport. It was then that I made the mistake of leaving my glasses in the car and only realising it just before we got to the hotel. Without them it is very hard to read the fine print on forms that you get asked to fill out, or to read instructions.

Getting from the airport to the hotel was easy by train with a station right in the airport and the main Geneva station only a couple of hundred metres from our hotel. However our welcome to the city was a rude awakening as a girl ran past us screaming 'he's stolen my bag' aimed at the fellow ahead of her running with a bag in his hand. Several young guys took chase, but we don't know the outcome.

With regard to my glasses, we were able to phone the car rental company and they had already found them, so I did a quick return trip to the airport to pick them up. In the process I went through customs twice (entering and leaving the French section of the airport) and had to detour around a cordoned off area at the airport because of a bomb scare. In the meantime Cathy had a bit of a look around the city and found her way to the lake.

Not surprising, it is quite cool here as the sun disappears and we will shortly be going out for tea. That in itself was a shock with all the restaurant prices being sky high – just as well we are only here for one night.

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postscript: Our dinner in Geneva was in a Mexican Restaurant served by a witer speaking French and English with an American accent - isn't it a small world?

Posted by thomastour 10:19 Archived in Switzerland Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Just like sugar frosting sprinkled over the trees

... it was snowing in Germany

overcast 4 °C
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Today we were off into the Black Forest – relying on our trusty (?) GPS rather than a trail of breadcrumbs and looking to have an enjoyable time not a Grimm experience.

We headed off for the town of Triburg right in the heart of the Black Forest and home to the Cuckoo Clock. As we headed off it was only 2 degrees and drizzling, but as we got near we could see what looked like a very fine sprinkling of white on the higher tree tops but didn't really think we would see snow. But as we climbed higher and got closer to Triburg it became obvious that it was snow and that there was more than just a light sprinkling. Anything stationary had quite a layer on it and the drizzle had turned to snow flakes. The temperature had also dropped to -1 degree.

Triburg was a delightful little village that seems to be a popular tourist destination (mainly in summer) and is the original home of the famous Cuckoo Clocks. We visited a number of stores selling clocks and amazed ourselves with the carving on them – we saw some wonderful examples that were priced at over 3,000 euro (about $A4,800). The choices were amazing, you could have a 1 day or an 8 day mechanical movement and you could have just a cuckoo or a cuckoo and music., or for the el-cheapo you could have a quartz movement with fake weights.

But as well as the clocks for sale, there were several huge versions promoting different shops – one we saw was promoted as the largest cuckoo clock in the world and another which was almost as large also had 34 moving figures on it. You had a man ringing the bell, a woodsman, kids on a see-saw, some dancers, a band and quite a bit more.

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Also in Triburg is Germany's tallest waterfall – we walked up in the snow to have a look at it, but unfortunately they would only let you go to the base (probably considered too slippery up higher). It looked really good between snow capped rocks and trees.

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Moving on from Triburg, we headed to Freiburg and hit a traffic jam in town. This is a city around the size of Wollongong and it looks like Saturday afternoon is when everyone wants to go to the city. Once we found some parking (just a little bit away from the centre) we walked back into the city and past an ice skating rink that had been set up for Christmas. Then we looked at Munster Cathedral which was built between the 13th & 16th Centuries and is considered by one historian as Christianity's most impressive monument because it amazes the viewer from every angle. It was a bit hard to see it in all it's glory, because (surprise, surprise!) there was scaffolding around the top of the tower and up one side of it.

And not far from the cathedral we found the Christmas Markets – this time with absolutely hoards of people. We worked out later that there were bus groups from other places (including France) also there. Cathy seems to have this knack of finding Christmas markets anywhere, and once they are spotted there is no avoiding them.

Walking around the markets and the crowded shopping streets nearby we were amazed at the number of police (many with riot gear) – I hope it is a just a precautionary measure and deterrent. But at one point I suggested to Cathy that they wanted to stop her taking photos's – she was walking up the mall photographing what would have been a city gate and just a few steps behind her were about 6 policemen all looking serious.

Anyway, we got away okay and headed off to Simonswald (about 25km away) for our nights accommodation. We are staying in this lovely Gasthoff Ratsstuble in a large room with it's own private balcony and are possibly the only guests. The host is cooking tea for us shortly.

Posted by thomastour 09:32 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Farewell to the Mosel Valley...

hello to the Black Forest

overcast 7 °C
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After our relaxing week in the beautiful Mosel valley it was time to move on and we'd decided to visit Heidelberg on our way through. Only a couple of hours from Leiwen it was a good place for a break and a beautiful town in it's own right. The Heidelberg Schloss (castle) was built in the 14th century and is a battered beauty having been through two wars, 1622 & 1693, and hit once by lightning, 1764. In fact one huge tower looks to have been sliced in half with the fallen half still leaning at the bottom. The castle is in a prime position,on a mount overlooking the town. The castle gardens offer spectacular views of the town and river below. The cellars of the schloss house the `gross fass', a 221,726 litre capacity wine barrel, the largest ever used.

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Next stop, Kornmarkt, Heidelberg's market place and currently housing ....Christmas markets!

We wandered through the markets, appreciating the elegance of the town from the 14th century Helliggeist-kirche with it's tall tower to the Bruckentor, twin domed gate house looming over the 18th century,Alte Bruck(bridge). From there we headed to Walldorf , a quiet town, very quiet as it turned out most businesses were closed for lunch! Including the post office which was the whole reason we stopped there! Never mind we did find a patisserie open so we filled in the time and our tummies with hot chocolate, cappucino and apfelkuchen! We were amused to find the large church in the middle of town had scaffolding on one side, keeping up with the trend! At 1.45pm the church bell started chiming and kept chiming till nearly 2pm, Geoff thinks it's telling everyone it's time to stop lunch and get back to work. Anyway it just finished chiming when the church at the other end of town started! Underneath the first church bell tower there are 3 statues of men gazing up in wonder and the way the church bell kept going I think I know why! We posted our parcel home, lowering the weight in our bags ready for train travel in Switzerland next week.

Then it was onto Baden Baden on the edge of the Black Forest and guess what? More Christmas Markets! Lots of them! Geoff was so excited!!We strolled through the brightly lit stalls, munching on crunchy coated cashews and smelling hot cider and wine. Each market seems to have a nativity scene and they were playing a Christmas song `Oh God, do they know that you sent your own dear Son.....' From the market we walked around the old town admiring the New Castle, fancy casino, the Rathous (council building), Catholic church, Caracalla Thermal Baths as well as the Christmas lights and trees throughout the town. With dusk approaching, before 5pm, we found our accommodation for the night, Gasthaus Linde and I'm looking forward to dinner here, It looks gorgeous, very German, with beautiful wooden trimming and Christmas decorations filling the restaurant downstairs.

Posted by thomastour 09:00 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

A day of organising & catching up

... last full day in Liewen

all seasons in one day 10 °C
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Today was a bit of a catch up day - Cathy had a booking at a local salon to have her hair done and I had to spend time on the computer making a series of hotel bookings for the rest of the trip.

I have to admit that it is painful doing the computer work at the moment - we have to go to the restaurant at the resort and I'm forced to buy a cappuccino while I work on the computer! Life is hard!

We have been organising most of our accommodation just a few days (sometimes only 1 day) ahead with the exception of some of the key parts of the trip where we knew there could be issues if we left it too late. Anyway, today I polished off all the remaining reservations - Innsbruck (Austria), Altenstadt, Wurzberg & Munich (Germany) & Zurich (Switzerland). That's it, no more desperation around whether I have internet access.

So this afternoon we went back to Trier to see a bit more of the town and especially some of the evidence of the Roman occupation of the area. Off course it also meant the obligatory walk back through their Christmas Markets.

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I didn't see as much as Cathy because i also had to chase around the shops to find a new suitcase. One of the ones we have with us has developed terminal handle failure and it would be likely to pull apart on me loading it onto and off trains in the coming days - so it has been binned and a replacement called in.

Amongst the sites in Trier were the remains of Porta Nigra (probably one of the main gates into the town) - it is interesting that the gate and it's 2 towers look very Roman and then a further tower built on one side looks from a later time and a building on the other side that is joined to it is from a later time again. Just shows how things get added to and changed over the centuries.

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Well tomorrow it's on the road again and into the Black Forest.

Posted by thomastour 09:29 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

We decided to just pop into Luxembourg for the day

... and still got home in time for tea.

overcast 8 °C
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It took us less than an hour to be in Luxembourg City this morning. Within another 15 minutes or so we could have been in France or Belgium also! After arming ourselves with a city map from the tourist bureau we were ready to explore Luxembourg. The city population is around 76, 000 so not too big. It is a mixture of old and new with vestiges of the old fortress and very modern buildings and houses and shops in between. While there are some lovely old buildings and looking down into the valley with fortress ruins and viaducts spanning the narrow river is a great view, Luxembourg doesn't have the wow factor of some of the other places we've seen.

There was a market set up in Guillaume II Place with lots of fruit & vegetables stalls and lots of flowers. From there it was a short stroll to the Palais Grand-Ducal, complete with a couple of armed soldiers on duty out the front. The small parliament building is next door and the Church and former refuge of St Maximin are nearby. We circled the large Cathedral to the blessed virgin ( which of course had scaffolding as they were working on it!) and discovered views across the valley to two palatial looking buildings that turned out to be banks! In Constitution Square we discovered a monument commemorating those who fought in the Battle of the Somme and Petrusse Casemates ( old fort tunnels). In the Place D'Armes we found the City Palace and Christmas markets and then headed for St Michael's on the fringe of the old fortress and towers. The city's first fortress was built in AD 963 and it's network of fortifications has expanded so far over the years that it has earned the nickname `Gibraltar of the North.' The casemates are an intricate network of tunnels through the fortress walls totalling 17km in length. We read some of the history of the place as we walked down into the valley de la Petrusse below. The valley houses a citadel, a viaduct, a hospital and several homes and the canal and then opens into parkland. It seems lots of workers spend their lunch break jogging through the park , at least there were lots when we were there. Unfortunately having gone down we had to come back up again! Quite a hike that warmed us up nicely!

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After climbing up again we headed through the city via Christmas markets and skewered strawberries covered in dark chocolate! Yummy! Approaching the fortress from the opposite side of the road we climbed down again and found it quite a hike to get up into the suburb of Kirchberg but the complete Fort Thungen and views over the valley were worth it. This area also houses some very modern glass , stone and metal buildings including the Philharmonic Luxembourg. Some are done well and some not!

Time was on our side so we decided to head to Vianden about 43km from Luxembourg. Vianden is home to the impressive Chateau de Vianden which towers over the picturesque village from it's vantage point on a tall mount overlooking the town. The Chateau is a patchwork of different architecture styles including Gothic and renaissance, a river rushes through the centre of the villages, cobbled streets and quaint village houses make the place a delightful spot.

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Vianden is back on the border with Germany so we let the GPS guide us home wandering through rich green valleys and country towns before joining the highway to speed us home.

Posted by thomastour 11:18 Archived in Luxembourg Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Stories of heavenly nectar

… and bare bottomed boys

rain 6 °C
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Another day exploring the region around the River Mosel – and today we headed north again.

It's so hard to briefly describe the region and the multitude of small towns which are separated only by grapevines. This is a region that has seen habitation by so many peoples - Celts, Romans, Franks, French and Prussians – and it carries traditions from all of them as well as it's own environmental influences. It is obvious that the major source of income is the vine with each town being full of Wien Guts & no these are not the local version of a beer gut, but a merchant or maker of good wine. And in every town there will be a lot of premises (in some cases even churches) with an old wine press out the front. The people also seem very 'religious' as throughout the towns and at intervals in the vineyards are small shrines and every town has at least one significant size church in it – even if the next town is less than 1 km away.

Anyway, back onto today – we drove through numerous towns, stopping for the occasional photo and in some cases to wander around a little bit. The age of interesting buildings in the towns ranged from the middle ages to 19th century (and off course there are more modern ones, but we weren't interested in those). And there were castles – mainly ruins on the hill tops overlooking a number of the towns.

One place we stopped at was Krov where when the Frankish Kings held court there the wine was described as a heavenly nectar. However the word 'nektar' was treated with ridicule and changed to 'nacktarsch' which means 'bare bottomed'. A local winery picked this up quite a while ago and now has a wine label showing the vitner spanking a bare bottomed boy. This appears as a statue outside their premises as well as being on the labels.

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Other great towns with lots of interest in them included Traben-Trarbach (a town spanning the river and connected by bridge) and Cochan.

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Cochan is overlooked by what could almost be described as a fairy tale castle (still habitable) that was first started in the 11th century, was a ruin by 1330 and was then reconstructed 200 years later. Also interesting in the town is a half timbered house (we often refer to these as Tudor style) that was built as an Inn and amusement house (?) by a man who is supposed to have made his living from burning witches.

Enough of the history lesson – if you ever get to spend time in Germany, this region is a must visit place.

Posted by thomastour 11:17 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

Can you ever have enough of Christmas Markets?

... no!

overcast 8 °C
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With all the shops reopening for business today it was time to buy some supplies so we can cook for ourselves and make the most of having a kitchen! We also tried the tourist information booth again only to find a handwritten note on the door in German of course. Using Maz & Jerry's translator, which has come in very handy, we worked out that someone was sick and thus the office wouldn't be open till Wednesday!

We decided to visit the town of Bernkastel-Kues further down the River Mosel, stopping at Neumagen-Drohn along the way. With their position on the river and vineyards on the hills behind these towns are gorgeous. Neumagen was known as `Noviomagus' in Roman times and had a huge fortification with 14 towers built by Emperor Constantine at the height of the Roman Empire. We strolled through the town and read some of the history of the place, admired the beautiful architecture of some of the houses and churches.

Heading on to Bernkastel we discovered another delightful village, with history dating back to 4000-3000 BC. The twin town is located at a wide bend in the Mosel in the mouth of the Tiefenbach Valley. The ruins of Landshut Castle stand on the mount above the town.

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The very beautiful market square with it's half timbered facades shows the quintessence of old German architecture. With Christmas markets spilling out from the square into the narrow streets beyond, decorated Christmas trees, nativity scene, children's carousel, model castle and more the town was just gorgeous.

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The weather cleared today so that sunlight sparkled on the river, white swans swam with the ducks and Kues on the opposite bank shone in the sunlight. I felt like a child in a toyshop wandering through the town. We are so enjoying this slower pace for a while, catching our breath, in such a beautiful setting. God is so good!!

Posted by thomastour 11:13 Archived in Germany Tagged tourist_sites Comments (0)

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