Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.
It might have seemed impractical to give ourselves only two weeks to visit France, Germany, and Italy on this trip, especially since we were on a one-year journey and could theoretically allocate a lot more time for each (or go to fewer of them). But these were places we definitely wanted the boys to see, so we just decided to be well thought-out with where we’d go. Besides, when you compare this to the amount of time a typical American can allot for a vacation, this didn’t seem like such a stretch.
We left France after spending three days in Paris and two in the countryside. Euro Disney was not on our agenda. Instead, we opted for the real-life place that in part inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty castle: the Neuschwanstein Castle, nestled amid the stunning landscape of southwest Bavaria. The traffic was extra light on Easter Sunday, so we got to the German border relatively quickly, but not after having to dish out over 60 euro (about $90) in tolls that covered only about 200 miles of roadway. Then I was forced to break my vow not to use any GPS on this trip, not because I wanted to, but because our rental car had it installed. This proved not to be such a bad thing since the roads around the Alps are tricky and one wrong turn could end you up in a different country. Furthermore, reading a map while trying to negotiate hairpin turns wasn’t the best idea.
After choosing one of several pleasant outdoor restaurants for lunch along the bustling shores of the Bodensee (Lake Constance), we got back in the car and followed our trusty new navigation assistant straight to the castle. Arriving without any prearranged accommodations (which is inadvisable in the busy summer months), we discovered that the Akzent Hotel Muller right at the base of the castle had a family suite for the same price we’d pay for two modest B&B-type rooms found in town. Even though it’s catered specifically for tourists, which is something we generally try to avoid, it was a treat to be within easy walking distance of the castle and not have to spend any time in the car the next day, so we booked it.
Our five days in Germany were a big hit with the entire family. The boys loved exploring the castles, which included the neighboring Hohenschwangau Castle, the childhood residence of the infamous King Ludwig II. The food was quite appetizing, especially for someone who grew up in a German household, and being there in the spring meant that the crowds were small and everything was in bloom, which really enhanced the romantic atmosphere. On the way to Munich, we couldn’t resist stopping to see Ludwig II’s Linderhof Palace, the only residence actually completed during the king’s abbreviated lifetime (he died of mysterious circumstances shortly after being evicted from the premises). It showcased his eccentricity, especially the elaborate Venus Grotto that was built to host plays and operas only for the king’s attendance.
Munich, like most cities, didn’t hold as much appeal to us personally as the countryside, so we didn’t stay long. Our brief time there, however, was well spent thanks to Mike’s Bike Tours, which came highly recommended. It’s fabulous to tour a city on two wheels and proved to be an entertaining way to learn about its history and see the major attractions. Our young guide, who happened to be Irish, had a particularly wicked sense of humor and made the experience really enjoyable for kids. Afterwards, we did the mandatory visit to the Hofbrauhaus, another source of amusement for the boys.
Per the aforementioned part about driving distances in my last post, I figured since all three countries bordered each other, we could cover them easily by car. The original plan to drive from Bavaria to Rome was quickly aborted, however, when I realized it would mean two days of driving just to get there. Instead, we booked a flight with the lowest-cost carrier (which is faster and less expensive than by train), which was Air Berlin, or as it’s now called: Niki Air after the famous Austrian Grand Prix driver. It required a stopover in Vienna, but the savings were well worth the extra two hours.
Our five days here would include a combination of touring and free time to make sure we saw all the major sites, and there are many. If you’re like us, you tend to shun organized city tours in favor of doing it at your own pace. In Rome, however, we wanted to get a real understanding and appreciation of what we were looking at since most of it was “old, important, and made by dead people” as the kids jokingly referred to the paintings, sculptures and ruins. And because there’s so much to see, it really helps to have someone walk you through the highlights and point out hidden gems. To find an outfitter, we consulted TripAdvisor, which to our surprise listed an organized tour (Eden Walking Tours) as the #1 activity in all of Rome. Continuing our trust in strong recommendations, we signed on and ended up with another young and knowledgeable guide who made the hours wandering through the Vatican Museum the highlight of our entire stay. Our city tour with another operator wasn’t nearly as engaging, or in my opinion, as necessary, as the excursion through the Vatican. We spent more time walking from place to place than getting insider information about attractions like the Forum, Colosseum and Trevi Fountain that we couldn’t get from your average guidebook.
Five days in Rome actually proved long enough. As someone commented to me on one of our tours, Rome isn’t ‘the real’ Italy. Having traveled throughout the country before, I agreed with him. Although I’m sure there are fabulous restaurants in the city that our budget didn’t permit, the food we did have was certainly good, not great, whereas no matter where we seemed to dine during our previous visits to the more rural areas, everything was simply mouthwatering.
On our last day, I was reminded that April 22nd was Earth Day when we passed through the Piazza Popolo to find preparations being made for a free National Geographic Music concert to celebrate the day. Being a National Geographic employee as well as a fan of the headliner, Ben Harper, I capped off my time in Rome with 35,000 partying Italians, many of whom like me, believed Ben Harper as he declared that we could make the world a better place with our own two hands.
Photos: Rainer Jenss