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Travel Review: Four Days In Rome, Italy

16 Oct

The very last leg of our Europe trip was Rome. This was one of my husband’s top choices, and it was high on my list of places I wanted to visit as well. I mean, my pre-teen Lizzie McGuire dreams had to be satisfied, am I right?

We arrived at the Roma Termini station and walked to our first hotel. We actually stayed in two hotels during our time in Rome; the second was a request of my husband’s. The first was one of the cheapest places we could find in the city–B&B Trinity.

Accommodation Review: B&B Trinity

This hotel is about a 10-15 minute walk from the Termini station and was easy to find with the directions provided. We were greeted by a friendly staff member on our arrival and shown to our room, which was a private double with an ensuite. Everything was clean and comfortable. The room seemed huge! It had air conditioning, which was an added bonus, and free wifi which worked wonderfully in our room.

Breakfast was included in the price, as it is with most B&Bs, and we found it was more of the same that we’d experienced at our other Italian hotels–croissant, those big crouton things, juice, and tea or coffee. It’s actually delivered to your door at a time that you request, which was pretty handy though I suppose if you don’t know what time you’re going to get up the next day it could be a bit of a nuisance.

I will say, the staff were super helpful. My sister-in-law joined us for our last few days in Rome and was going to be arriving late one evening and staying at Trinity. The owner ended up not being able to be there for the late arrival and arranged for another place for her to stay, which was close, and informed us about the change.

We’d highly recommend this as a basic sort of accommodation within easy walking distance of many of the main attractions.

Accommodation Review: Hotel Teatro di Pompeo

Our last night we stayed at Hotel Teatro di Pompeo, which is a higher-end hotel located in the heart of Rome. My husband chose this hotel because it’s supposedly built around the area where Julius Caesar was murdered, and he wanted “to see Caesar’s ghost.” ­čśë It was a bit expensive, but whatever!

The hotel was almost impossible to find. We knew we were in the right area, but it was tucked into a back alley and we struggled for a long time, having to ask at several different shops and getting different directions from each person we asked. Finally,we arrived and were greeted by a lady who was very nice in giving us tons of warnings about the “gypsies” that were around who would steal everything we had if we gave them half a chance. ­čśë We thought it was nice that she was looking after the guests’ best interests.

The room was clean with lots of extras like slippers, shoe shining polish, soap, shampoo… We felt like we pretty much got our money’s worth. Breakfast was included in the morning and it was a buffet style with many more options than we’d had the rest of our time in Italy; eggs, meats, yoghurt, various fruits and pastries (and yes, more of those crouton things!). All in all, a good stay, even if we didn’t see Caeasar’s ghost.

Day One

815Because we didn’t arrive until midday on our first day in Rome, we decided to take it easy and simply did a bit of cursory exploring, scoping out what we would do in the next few days. We walked over to the Colosseum and walked around a bit, buying lunch at one of the MANY vans with the brown overhangs that was parked around. The food there was actually pretty good, and it was only about 4 Euro per sandwich or pizza, which was pretty good value compared to going to a restaurant.

When we’d soaked in our fill and made something of a plan for the next day, we headed back to our hotel for a while. We ended up going back to the Termini station for dinner that night to eat at Ciao Ristorante, a self-service restaurant on the upper floor. We’d become fans of self-service over our time in Italy as we found it was a cheap, easy, no-fuss way to get food (in other words, our favourite way!). We went rather late for us (about 9 p.m.) and there wasn’t a ton of food out. But the chefs made up some pasta and pizza for us which was pretty good, and cheap too!

Day Two

741On the second day we headed out early to go inside the Colosseum. I had heard horror stories about the lines, but it wasn’t bad at all (we were there at probably 9:00 a.m. on a September weekday). It looked a bit intimidating at first, but it moved fast and we ended up standing in line for only about 10 minutes. While we were wandering around the outside, we were set upon by dozens of “tour guides” offering a “skip the line” tour… we weren’t sure if these guys were legit or not and decided it was best to avoid them. We also enjoyed the freedom of wandering around on our own without a tour weighing us down.

I’d say that a visit to the Colosseum is well worth the visit. It was a bit crowded inside, but there was so much history there it was difficult to know where to turn next! We had fun roaming and reading the various plaques and wandering through the museum. Tons of stuff to see!

When we had our fill, we headed up to Palantine Hill and the Roman Forum–these were actually included in our Colosseum771 tickets. Again, we wandered and read signs and soaked in the history. There was a lot here too, and the setting made for some picturesque photo ops.

It was also really cool to see some of the archaeological digs going on near to here–what I wouldn’t give to be part of that!

After our time in the forum, it was getting to be the hottest part of the day. Rome, we discovered, was ridiculously hot, even nearing the end of September. We headed back to our room to cool off and rest up before our ghost tour that evening.

Worth a mention is our dinner that night, near to where our ghost tour started — Pizzeria Florida on the Largo di Torre Argentina was some of the BEST pizza we had in Italy (and, indeed, our entire lives). It’s pay-by-weight, and we managed a large dinner for under 7 Euro altogether. Tons of different types of pizza, which they change each day (yes, we were back the next day… and the next.) I was satisfied with plain old margherita, while my husband swears by the one with a pumpkin cream sauce. Check it out if you’re in Rome!!

Activity Review: Dark Heart of Rome Walking Tour

This tour was serviced by the same people who did the Dark Heart of Florence walking tour. If you read my last review, you’ll know that I wasn’t hugely impressed by that tour, so I went into the Dark Heart of Rome with some trepidation. However, I found it was MUCH more to my liking. Loved it!

784The tour starts just past the Largo di Torre Argentina. Apparently so many people had booked that they split us into two groups. Because we were early, we went with the first group. Our guide was American but had been living in the city for something like six years, so he knew it well. He did warn us that it wasn’t so much a ghost tour as a history tour, which suited me. As we walked around, we heard stories about famous people and not-so-famous people, ghosts, reasons why some things were the way they were in Rome, tips and tricks for getting around the city… we learned SO much and had a great time. Highly recommended!

Day Three

On our third day, we decided to head to the Vatican. Neither of us is religious at all, but hey–it’s one of those “must sees” right?788

We walked all the way there from our hotel, which was quite a walk but we stopped and saw various ruins along the way. The Vatican is gorgeous, lots of pretty buildings. There were priests, nuns, and brides everywhere. Plus, tons of rosaries. I mean, this is the place to be if you’re into that sort of thing!

Confession time, though (see what I did there?) — we didn’t go into the Sistine Chapel. the line was hugely long, it was hot, and we just weren’t feeling it. So, we just wandered around outside for a while. Apparently we had just missed hearing the Pope speak, which would have been a cool. I’m not sure how much notice they give for that sort of thing, but definitely have a look and see if he has any scheduled appearances on the days that you’re there.

Day Four

On our last day in Rome we met up with my husband’s sister. She had already been to Rome and was really just stopping 789by to see us on her way to Naples (we live in Australia, but she lives in New York, and it’d been about a year since we’d seen her!). We decided to┬ásee a few things we hadn’t seen yet–the Trevi Fountain, Spanish Steps, and Pantheon.

On our meandering route, we actually found the Pantheon first. It was really neat–a very cool building, and free to walk into. Worth a look on your way past!

The Trevi Fountain was a huge disappointment. Remember what I said about my Lizzie McGuire dreams? Dashed! The Trevi Fountain was empty and there was tons of scaffolding all around it–it was being cleaned as part of a huge Rome clean-up effort (the Colosseum was also partially affected by this, though it was still accessible). So, while I appreciated the clean-up, I was sad that I wasn’t able to toss a coin in the fountain.LizzieMcGuire

The Spanish Steps, to be honest, were a bit underwhelming as well. I don’t know what I was expecting here. The view from the top was really nice, but there were tons of those people with roses and trinkets trying to sell us stuff (word to the wise: it is illegal for them to sell you these things AND it is illegal for you to buy, so don’t do it!).

Overview

Okay, so we weren’t quite as lame in Rome as we were in Florence, but we still didn’t see as much as we could have. My husband’s favorite part was the Pizzeria Florida and the Largo di Torre Argentina, where there were tons of cats! I really do recommend that ghost tour we went on–it was really well done. I’d like to go back to Rome one day when we aren’t so exhausted and have another look around. There’s so much to see it seems impossible to see it all in one trip!

Travel Review: Two Days in Florence, Italy

15 Oct

I mentioned in my last post that the Italy portion of our trip became sort of a “fail” because we had exhausted ourselves in Germany. Venice might not have seemed quite so much of a failure, but Florence certainly was! We didn’t get out and about nearly as much as we should have and spent a lot of our time here sleeping. Oops! Oh, well–it turned out that Florence wasn’t quite up our alley anyway. While there is TONS of stuff to see–art, architecture, museums–we just weren’t all that into it.

We arrived around 2 p.m. that first day and honestly, spent the rest of the afternoon in our room before heading to a “ghost tour” (more on that later!) in the evening. After, we simply went back to the room and fell asleep again.

728On the second day, a Sunday, we decided to get our laundry done at a laundromat. We had washed our clothes in a sink back in Germany but we knew we wouldn’t have enough time for everything to dry without a fan in our room, so Cal took everything off to a laundromat in the morning while I was still waiting in line for a shower (more on THAT later too). After, we wandered around a bit… and went back to the room and took a nap.

I KNOW, you guys, I know! LAME. We were in FLORENCE, for goodness’ sake! But we were seriously just so exhausted. I write this post as a warning to everyone of what can happen while you’re travelling. Seriously, if you’re going for more than a few weeks, schedule in some time for yourself so that you can take a breather. Don’t wear yourself out like we did.

So, because of your lameness, I leave you with just these two reviews:

Accommodation Review: Hotel Garden

Hotel Garden was an easy enough walk from the Santa Maria Novella train station, and the directions provided were easy to follow. When we arrived, we were given our keys and the man behind the counter showed us to our room, which wasn’t in the building at all, but one block over. We thought this was a bit odd but didn’t think much of it–the street we were on was actually a bit less busy than the street the Hotel Garden building was on, so I think we might have escaped some road noise.

Our room was a private double, but with a shared bathroom. We hadn’t run into any problems with shared bathrooms so far in our travels, but this one was a big problem! There was one bathroom (shower + toilet together in one room, not separated) for at least six double rooms, all of which were full that first night. There was something about locking the bathroom door when you left, too, so it was impossible to know if anyone was in there, making it awkward to knock every time there wasn’t a line outside. I HATE the idea of people waiting for me, so I always felt awkward when I was in there and once took all of 7 minutes to shower, brush my teeth, and put make up on–a record!

Aside from the annoying bathroom situation, the room was clean, comfortable, and the staff service was good. Breakfast, which was included, was in the Hotel Garden building (short walk, honestly, and not that big of an issue to get to in the morning). It was pretty basic, the standard fare that we ended up getting in all our Italy accommodation–croissant, those weird giant crouton things, various condiments, juice, and a selection of hot beverages.

All in all, an okay stay, but I would definitely recommend paying extra for a private bathroom and avoiding that whole mess!

Activity Review: Dark Heart of Florence Walking Tour

729This tour, offered by Dark Rome, is advertised as a “ghost tour” with ghost stories, historical stories, legends, myths, etc. I thought it would be something I’d enjoy, but I have to say that I was sorely disappointed! We found the place where the tour met up easily enough, and when we got there we had to put in headphones and listen to our tour guide through them–I guess I understand that this was to a) make sure everyone could hear and b) others not on the tour couldn’t join in without paying. But it was difficult to understand our tour guide through these devices, the sound kept cutting in and out, and every time we all tried to fix it, there wasn’t much of a fix.

The tour itself was not at all what I was expecting. The tour guide went over things like architecture and art, which was interesting enough for some but I was expecting history and legends and stories. I’m not going to lie, I was SO bored! The most interesting part was when we were told a story about the Medici brothers, but that was the only story that was told that I can remember. :/

I will say, my husband was much more interested than I was and took it all in stride. At the end of the tour, we were treated to a generous cone of gelato at an excellent gelateria. While this was a fun surprise at the end of the tour, overall I was not impressed and wouldn’t go on this tour again.

Travel Review: Three Days in Venice

10 Oct

661In my last review I mentioned how well-rested we were after our CNL experience. In the short term, this was true. That said, we were just weary and exhausted by the time we hit Italy, and it’s going to show in these next few reviews. Going from doing very little each day to walking many miles and seeing so many new things wasn’t just physically exhausting, it was mentally exhausting too! We felt like we had to pack everything we could into this trip and not take any breaks–so by the time we arrived in Italy, halfway through, the pace had caught up with us. I highly recommend throwing in a few rest days here and there if you have a trip longer than a week or two–and don’t push yourselves too hard, or you’ll burn out!

Accommodation Review: B&B Ca’Contarini

We started off our time in Venice trying to find our B&B. I had already been to Venice once before for a few days, so I knew how difficult it could be to navigate the canals. Nevertheless, we headed off from the train station with the directions from the B&B and… found ourselves hopelessly lost. My advice is to print off your own directions before you start out, because Ca’Contarini’s just weren’t up to snuff. The first thing it tells you is to find the Accademia Bridge. There are signs pointing to this, but we couldn’t see any from where we exited the train station. This was one of the most difficult parts of getting to the hotel.

Just past the Accademia Bridge is Campo┬áSan Stefano, which is where we needed to be to find the hotel–BUT the directions say “campo san stefano and there ask on calle dei orbi( corte de la vida) door number 3025.” This makes it sound like Calle Dei Orbi is just off Campo San Stefano. Really it’s off another road that’s off Campo San Stefano, which we figured out by looking at the building numbers. If you’re curious, it’s on the left between two restaurants with outdoor seating.

We arrived early of course, but we were able to leave our bags in an open area by the door which felt safe enough as the owner’s office was just above this and he had to open the door for anyone without keys to come in. When we came back, we discovered our room was very clean, open, and comfortable. The owner is very friendly and made us feel very welcome.

The bathroom was shared, but we never had any trouble with having to wait for it to be open. I will say, the shower is a bit small so shaving was not the easiest of tasks, and it drained very slowly. We found the best method was to get hair wet, turn the water off, lather up shampoo, rinse, turn water off, etc. Not hugely inconvenient and you’re saving water that way anyway!

Breakfast was a lot of packaged foods, which some people complain about, but they were filling. Breakfast is served in a small room with a single dining table, which leads itself to either eating awkwardly with people you don’t know, or making friends! We experienced both. The first morning we were joined by couples from other rooms who clearly knew each other and didn’t speak much English, so it was a pretty awkward, silent meal. The next morning we ate with a couple from Brazil, one of whom did speak English, and we had a great conversation about our travels.

Ca’Contarini is convenient to the Rialto and Piazza San Marco, but removed enough that you can get a quiet, restful night’s sleep. I’d stay there again if we ever visit Venice again!

Getting Lost in Venice

645Before going to Venice the first time, I read that the best way to see the place is to get lost there. Wander around until you have no idea where you are and try out a restaurant you stumble across, or simply enjoy a stroll down some canal or other. This method of tourism is obviously best done with the accompaniment of a map so you can make your way back to where you’re staying, but my friend and I had fun with it back in 2011 and my husband and I had fun with it on this trip.

That said, it’s nearly impossible to escape the crowds that swarm Venice, so be prepared for that–there are people and tacky souvenir shops wherever you go. I knew from experience that I wanted a bit more out of the city this time, so I looked for things that would allow us to learn a bit more about Venice’s history than we did on the last trip. I ended up finding a few things to fill our three nights. So while we simply wandered around Venice by day, stuffing our faces with as much pizza and gelato as we could find, our nights were a bit more structured.

We did do a few different things during the day — we went to the┬áDoge’s Palace and┬áMurano. The Doge’s Palace was the662 same as I remembered it–gorgeous and filled with lots of different information inside. It was fun being able to cross the Bridge of Sighs (which, this time, had no construction around it!). I’d call the palace a must-see in Venice. Murano, on the other hand, was a bit disappointing. If you don’t know, Murano is where a lot of Venetian glass is made. I think our disappointment arose from lack of research–I don’t think we got off the boat at the right stop. We didn’t get to see much of anything, it was a rainy, dreary day, and we were exhausted. So we didn’t spend much time there and opted instead to go back to the hotel and take a nap. If you’re going to Murano, I’d recommend researching where you’re supposed to get off the boat to see the most stuff!

Night #1: Venice Ghost Walking Tour

652This ghost tour, offered by Viator, starts on the Rialto Bridge and covers a lot of ground and stories about Venice. It was a bit different than I expected, as many of the stories were told nowhere near where they happened, but I didn’t find this to be too disruptive to the overall spooky feel of the tour. We learned about some famous Venetian ghosts, some haunted places including hotels where some members of the tour were staying, where the Venitian graveyards were, and other helpful information like why streets were named the way they were (after the businesses that were on the street, mostly– Rio Terra dei Assassini, anyone?)

While it wasn’t the best ghost tour I’ve ever been on, it certainly wasn’t the worst either. I thought we learned a lot of history and folklore, which I loved, and we ducked down various streets that we likely wouldn’t have come across if we hadn’t gone on the tour in the first place. Worth the money!

Night #2: Teatro San Gallo and Venezia!

I had seen mixed reviews about the Venezia play at Teatro San Gallo but decided to give it a shot. My husband and I purchased the “dinner and a show” tickets. I was under the impression that we were served dinner at the theatre, but actually we were sent to a nearby restaurant to eat. If you purchase your tickets online, you may be just as confused as we were because they don’t send you a receipt or any information about where you’re supposed to go when. We ended up inquiring at the theatre itself earlier in the day, and they said we could come earlier for the dinner or we could eat after the show let out (around 9).

672We opted to arrive around 6. The friendly staff printed our tickets and pointed us in the direction of the restaurant which was just a short walk away. The staff there knew we were coming and led us to a table. There was no one else there, which was a bit of a shame–the restaurant across the street seemed to be full of people, and the food at our restaurant was actually quite good! We ordered off a set menu and both had lasagna as our first course (YUM!). I had chicken as my second course, and y husband had a mixed seafood plate–again, both were very good! The meal was accompanied by a bread basket, water, and glass of wine each. We left stuffed!

Afterwards, we headed back to the theatre to see a short movie before the play (included in the ticket price). I could see why the reviews were mixed–this movie must have been filmed in the 70’s and it was a bit cheesy, BUT it did include a lot of history of Venice that I didn’t know before and I enjoyed watching it.

The play is performed by 5 people in various costumes and it goes over some of the information covered in the movie, but it does so in a humorous way. The English spoken by everyone was excellent (we had an inkling that one of the actresses actually was English, but can’t confirm our suspicions!) so the play was very easy to understand. They kept us laughing for the duration, and we enjoyed ourselves and–again–learned a lot.

I probably wouldn’t go again, but if you’re in Venice it’s definitely worth checking out once.

Night #3: Gondola Ride and Serenade

645Several months before our trip I received an e-mail from British Airways saying my Avios Points from my trip to and from London in 2011 were about to expire. I hopped on to see what I could get, and it turns out a Venice gondola ride was one of the options listed. I had to pay a bit extra on top of the points to get a gondola ride for two, but it was much less than it would have cost for both of us to go otherwise.

Gondola rides are quite expensive for what they are, but they’re also part of the Venice experience, so I knew we had to go! This particular gondola ride and serenade probably wasn’t worth the money (apparently some people spent 80 Euro on theirs!), but because we got ours mostly free I didn’t mind it.

Basically, we were packed in to a gondola with two other couples and shoved off as part of a flotilla onto the Grand Canal while a musician and singer in another boat serenaded the lot of us (though we could barely hear him at times!). The boats kept knocking into each other. I think all up we were on the water for 20 minutes. Seriously, not worth it. But I know I’m not going to convince most people of that–if you’re in Venice, you have to do the gondola thing, right? But if you’re on the fence, know that the whole experience isn’t really that great and if you don’t do it, you’re not missing out on much.

THE BEST GELATO IN VENICE: Suso Gelatoteca

This place is so worth a mention. We stumbled on it by chance and found it was the best, most reasonably priced gelato place in Venice. It’s on Calle della Bissa near Piazza San Marco, but because that’s probably going to be difficult to find if you look at a map, here’s how we found it: at the Rialto, follow the signs to San Marco. At some point, you’ll go through this little “tunnel” area with lots of shops. Suso is noticeable by its big sign in the shop.

There aren’t as many flavour options here as there are at other places, but the quality and price is amazing. It was 1.60 Euro for a very generous scoop (there are some places on Piazza San Marco that offer it for 1 Euro and give you the a little bite of gelato and that’s it–not worth it!). Our favourite flavour by far was “Opera” which was essentially a hazelnut gelato with a thick layer of Nutella-like substance on top. So. GOOD.

Needless to say, we were back every single day, multiple times a day. We didn’t find gelato this good in Florence or Rome either–so if you’re there, check it out! LOVED it!

**Oh, and by the way… Venice flooded while we were there! That didn’t happen last time. The whole Piazza San Marco was under water for a few hours each day. Fun times.

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Travel Review: City Night Line Train, Munich to Venice Review

9 Oct

Traveling by night train was probably one of the best decisions we made on our trip. Eating up miles while we slept was hugely helpful, and I’d recommend it to anyone who might be traveling some distance during their trips. I will say that we splurged a bit on this and got a private cabin with its own bathroom. I think that the private cabin was a fantastic idea, and though the bathroom was probably not a necessity, we quite enjoyed it.

To start off, after we left Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau we took a train to Munich where we boarded the CNL to Venice. We were a bit confused at first because the train also serviced Budapest and a few other cities which we didn’t think should have been on the route–little did we realize our travels would take us around the Alps rather than over or through them! We went through quite a few different countries while we were asleep and barely registered it.

Anyway–back to Munich. The train was incredibly long, but the platform had some clearly labelled signs that helped to let us know where we needed to be. We were so grateful for that, because by the time the train left around midnight, we were exhausted and didn’t feel like running up and down the train trying to find our cabin.

When the train pulled up, we jumped on, and the attendant unlocked our door for us. The cabin was relatively small–but I mean, it’s a train, you can’t expect to have something the size of a hotel room on there! There was a single set of bunk beds and plenty of storage up top for our bags. Little pockets near each bed to put documents (or in my case, a glasses case), a socket so we could charge things, a main light and individual bed lights, plus an alarm system that the attendant used to wake us up in the morning.

Then there’s the bathroom, which had a toilet like an airplane toilet, a sink, and a shower. That was probably one of the coolest and most convenient things about having the bathroom–we could be totally refreshed and ready to go when we reached our destination. The shower was tiny and slow to drain, and you had to keep pushing a button to make the water come out (not a constant stream), but again–it’s a train, so what more could you ask for?

One thing I will say is that our cabin was hot! There was an air conditioner, supposedly, but it didn’t work. We didn’t end up asking the attendant about it, but I’m sure we could have. We ended up sleeping with the window open most of the night, which wasn’t too bothersome for us (we can barely sleep without white noise and air movement anyway–we had a fan on in our room at home all winter, despite the cold!).

The beds were comfortable enough that we did manage at least 5-6 hours of sleep each. I woke up a few times and noticed that it was mostly when we stopped–lack of movement must have jolted me awake. But we both felt well rested when we arrived in Venice, which is the most important thing.

Breakfast was served in the morning as part of our package–I’m not sure if breakfast is available to people in shared cabins or seats–and was relatively modest, but filling enough. It did come with an individual bottle of champagne each, presumably to make mimosas. We smuggled ours off and kept it for the evening.

All in all, a lovely experience on a CNL service. We arrived in Venice Santa Lucia well rested and ready to tackle the maze of Venetian canals. Taking a night train is a great way to tackle accommodation and ground travel all in one. Go to sleep and arrive in your next destination in the morning–can’t beat that.

Travel Review: Neuschwanstein and Hohenscwhangau

5 Oct
Neuschwanstein!

Neuschwanstein!

Schloss Neuschwanstein is probably one of the most recognizable castles in the world. It looks like it belongs in a fairy tale or Disney World–and, indeed, it was inspired by fairy tales and in turn inspired the design of Cinderella’s Castle. But aside from being pretty, Neuschwanstein is entrenched in some strange history, and it’s no wonder that millions of tourists flock here every year.

I’ve been wanting to visit Neuschwanstein for years and years, so when my husband and I were coming up with lists of places we wanted to see on our trip, it was my #1. That said, I had read others’ reviews of the castle and had prepared myself to be disappointed. When you’ve been looking forward to something for so long, sometimes it’s hard for that thing to live up to expectations.

However, I thought Neuschwanstein was fantastic! Perhaps part of it was going in prepared with the idea that it was going to be crowded, and the tour was going to be short, and “it’s not that great on the inside anyway.” But I was pleasantly surprised and did not find any of the above to be true.

Accommodation Review: L.A. City Hostel

Let me start at the beginning. We arrived in Fussen around 7 p.m. by train and walked to our hostel, L.A. City Hostel. The directions we were given were crystal clear and it was only about a 5-10 minute walk from the station, which is great. When we arrived, we were greeted by a very friendly young woman who took our payment and handed us our keys. She gave us a map and directions for how to get to the castles the next day.

Our room–a private double–was downstairs. It was very clean and neat, and everything looked quite new. There was a double bed as well as a single bed, table and chairs, and a sliding door opening up into a courtyard. The bathroom and separate toilet were also quite clean, and we found the hostel to be relatively quiet and the beds pretty comfortable.

For dinner that first night and the night after, we ate at Cafe Relax which is in the town centre just up from the train station. We thought it was pretty good both nights and reasonably priced for portion size–friendly English-speaking staff and English menus available upon request.

At the hostel, free breakfast in the morning was served a bit late due to the delivery of rolls being late. It was just tea/coffee, juice, and rolls with various spreads, but we found it was satisfying enough. Pretty good stay here, and you can’t beat the price!

Attraction Review: Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau

The lake at the base of the mountains.

The lake at the base of the mountains.

In the morning, we headed back to the train station early to put our bags in the lockers there. There are quite a few lockers which cost 3 Euro for 24 hours. We grabbed one and were able to stuff both of our big bags in. If you’re going during a busier time, I’d try to get a locker the day before just so you don’t run into difficulties the morning of your visit. Just outside the train station is a bus stop where several buses stop at regular intervals to take you up to the castles. It’s not a long ride, but you almost certainly wouldn’t want to walk.

We heard that you should reserve tickets in advance, so we reserved the “King’s Ticket” online months in advance. The King’s Ticket allows you entrance into both Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, plus the museum. There are a couple different packages so you can pick the one that best suits you.

After getting dropped off by the bus, we headed to the ticket centre. With our reservation, we were able to go to the “express” line, but honestly, there was only one person queued in the regular line so this wouldn’t have been an issue. We were there pretty early–around 9:00–so if you make your reservation for later in the day or come at peak season, you’ll definitely want to do express check-in.

Schloss Hohenschwangau

Schloss Hohenschwangau

The first stop on our tour was Hohenschwangau. If you don’t know, Hohenschwangau was the childhood home of King Ludwig II, the mad king who commissioned Neuschwanstein. The two castles are very close–Ludwig actually had a telescope set up in his bedroom at Hohenschwangau pointing at Neuschwanstein so he could keep tabs on the workers. The guided tour was in English and took us through many different rooms in the castle. We were given a lot of history and background about the people who lived there, which is something I really enjoy (in some places, it’s all about the architecture or the paintings–people are much more interesting to me!). Our tour guide spoke excellent English and allowed us to loiter in some of the rooms for as long as we wanted. She was also open to answering any questions we had.

The front of Neuschwanstein.

The front of Neuschwanstein.

After Hohenschwangau, we had a tour scheduled at Neuschwanstein. When you purchase the King’s Ticket, your tours are scheduled for you, giving you enough time to get from one place to the other without rushing around too much–at least, that would be the case if you didn’t encounter a torrential downpour like we did! It had already been a bit rainy, but when we came out of Hohenschwangau it was pouring. A mad dash to cover found us dripping wet, and we didn’t dare keep walking down. We decided to take the horse drawn carriage down the hill because it was covered, but the horses weren’t moving in the rain either. Yikes!

By the time we got down the Hohenschwangau hill, we felt like were were running out of time to get up the Neuschwanstein one. We walked VERY fast, and we did make it, but with only a few minutes to spare. Just be aware of that when you go — get moving right away if you can.

The Neuschwanstein Tour felt much more rushed, and the tour group was much larger than our Hohenschwangau one. But like I said, I had prepared myself for this and I think that helped me stay impressed with the whole thing. I managed to stay up front near the tour guide, who once again regaled us with many stories about the castle. The interior of the castle is hugely impressive, and I was disappointed that we couldn’t take photos of it, but I’m happy to have seen it! There are paintings and ornate furniture and a massive chandelier and a room that was built to look like an artificial cave. I mean, the guy was crazy, but he had some pretty interesting ideas!

Neuschwanstein from Marienbrucke. (You'd never guess it had just been pouring, would you?)

Neuschwanstein from Marienbrucke. (You’d never guess it had just been pouring, would you?)

After our tour–which honestly was lengthier than I thought–we headed over to the Marienbrucke Bridge. This is the bridge from which you can get some of those awesome shots of the castle. Be warned–it isn’t for the faint-hearted! There is no supervision of the structure, which meant it was hugely crowded with the boards moving under our feet and I was made uncomfortable by it. For the people who managed to get down the bridge quite a ways, it was practically impossible for them to get back off. We saw one poor man with his 3 or 4 year old daughter in a small pram struggle for ages. However, the shots are pretty good, so you’ll have to weigh your options. There’s no charge for the bridge.

Hohenschwangau from the path to Marienbrucke.

Hohenschwangau from the path to Marienbrucke.

Eventually we meandered back down to the main area, where there are tons of shops and restaurants, and the museum. At the museum you need to place bags in the lockers provided and there is also a complimentary audio tour. I’ll admit, I’m not a huge fan of museums. I much prefer to see things as they were in history┬á(for instance, walking through a castle)┬árather than locked up in displays, but the audio tour had some great info that I enjoyed listening to. I know my husband enjoyed it even more than I did! However, I wouldn’t say that the museum is a “must see” or anything, so if you’re debating between including it in your time there, that’s my two cents.

In the Neuschwanstein courtyard.

In the Neuschwanstein courtyard.

All up, we spent a good eight or nine hours in the Neuschwanstein area–a solid day packed full of fun and adventure. I loved it and thought it really did live up to all of my expectations–I count it among my favourite memories of our Europe trip.

Have any questions about Neuschwanstein or Hohenschwangau? Feel free to leave a comment below and I’ll answer if I can! I’d also love to hear about your experiences there.

Travel Review: Schloss Sigmaringen

4 Oct

The day after we visited Hohenzollern we were traveling to Fussen which was going to be a lengthy trip compared to those we’d already taken. I wanted to break it up a bit and started researching castles that we could see more or less “on the way.” We really wanted to see Lichtenstein Castle, but it ended up being too complicated by public transport (if you have a car, look into it! It looks neat!). The next suggestion I found was Schloss Sigmaringen, which is listed on its website as a “sister castle” to Hohenzollern. A pretty good fit, I think!

We ended up getting a much less direct train route to Fussen, but it didn’t matter too much. Our first leg was Hechingen to Sigmaringen, which was about an hour. We gave ourselves four hours to get to the castle, see it, and get back to the train station, which was ample time. The castle is probably 5-10 minutes’ walk from the train station and is well-marked with signs. Once you see the castle, you have to keep going up a bit of a hill (again, marked, but it took us a while to find it!).

Once inside, the gift shop also acts as a ticket office. We purchased our tickets for the tour, which started in just a few minutes, and a booklet in English. The tours are only in German, but they have booklets of all the information in various languages so that you can follow along in each room. We decided to skim through while we waited for the tour to start.

Our tour guide did speak English, which was great. She directed us to a locked room where we could leave our luggage, and I’m sure if we’d had any questions she would have been able to answer them for us despite the rest of the tour being in German. We were a bit nervous about being able to follow along, but we were given plenty of time to read through the information in our booklets in each room while she talked.

Other reviewers have mentioned that they thought people without a booklet were getting more information, because there were times when the rest of the group would laugh at something the guide said and we were skimming through the pages wondering what was so funny. But this didn’t bother us–if the guide simply said everything that was in the packet, it would have been boring for the people listening. You have to cater to different forms of information delivery. We looked at it as, well, we’re in Germany–if we wanted to know what was funny we should have learned to speak German!

There was tons of information here, and I remember thinking the tour was quite long. We were able to see so much of the palace: bedrooms, bathrooms, sitting rooms, dining rooms, the armoury, an entire room filled with hunting trophies, the courtyard… the rooms were all beautiful and unique and contained so much well-explained history that I’d say Sigmaringen was actually among my favourites, and definitely worth the extra stop. Reading along with a tour in a different language might not be for everyone, though, so just prepare yourself for that if you’re visiting!

We weren’t allowed to take pictures in the rooms, sadly, and surprisingly I don’t actually have any pictures from the outside of the castle either. You’ll just have to trust me when I say it was pretty stunning.

After the tour, we headed back to the train station where we grabbed some food at the little shop there and sat down to read a bit. There were lots of shops in the rest of town but it didn’t look like there was too much else of interest to us, so we opted to rest up rather than wander. Worth the visit!

Travel Review: Hechingen, Germany and Burg Hohenzollern

3 Oct

South of Heidelberg is Hechingen, a town that–admittedly–we didn’t see much of. We arrived on the train and immediately had a “Oh no, how do we get anywhere?” moment. We didn’t see any taxis (though of course, the next day when we went back to the train station by taxi there were several there). There were a couple of buses that seemed to be going up to the castle, though, and we knew th497at our hotel was at the base of the castle’s hill. Let’s hop on, we thought. It will be easy, we thought.

The first bus looked a bit more like a city bus, but the driver pointed us to the bus ahead of us which looked more like a coach. We had a hugely embarrassing conversation with the driver of the second bus, who didn’t speak much English, and ended up having to get a translation by one of the other passengers. We had asked to buy two adult tickets. Apparently, the driver wanted to see our train tickets. I was confused, but handed it over. He sort of shook his head and just waved us through without us paying anything.

I say all of this because I really don’t think we were supposed to have been on that bus. I looked at our tickets and the Bahn.com website where we purchased them, and apparently there is an option to add on “city public transport” to your destination for an extra cost, but it was something we hadn’t done. The bus did wind around Hechingen a bit, which told us it at least wasn’t a direct-to-castle shuttle, but as it flew past our hotel we resigned ourselves to wearing our big bags and trying to figure out how to get back down eventually.

A note on the bags, because I realize I’ve been complaining about them a bit through these reviews. A lot of this whole Europe trip would not have been doable with a rolling suitcase, and certainly the adventure we had at Hohenzollern would have been even more miserable. But our bags were not hugely comfortable, at least at this stage, and we struggled with them at some points–I’ll be doing a separate review of those later.

Whatever bus we were o469n ended up dropping us off at a parking lot near a gift shop/ticket counter where we purchased our tickets. There was an option to go on a shuttle bus up to the castle, but my husband thought it would be a good idea to walk on the path. Pro Tip:┬áIt was NOT A GOOD IDEA TO WALK ON THE PATH. Not when you’re burdened with 30 extra pounds of stuff. It certainly would have been manageable if we had just had our day packs, but the rest of it was too much for me. I struggled up the first little section–my legs would barely carry me due to how steep this hill was — and Cal ended up taking my big bag along with his big bag, while I carried both of the day packs.┬áLet’s just say, he didn’t have much fun with that.

When we finally got up to the castle, I was in a grumpy mood because I was uncomfortable with the bag and felt like pictures would be ruined by them (so silly, I know) and we wouldn’t be able to move around in the rooms anyway with these big honking things on our backs. Even the idea that Hohenzollern looks like Hogwarts couldn’t break through my gloom.460

Then we discovered that the information centre beside the gift shop in the castle actually allows you to leave bags with them. Sigh of relief! What wonderful people. We noticed a few items in there when we passed by and I thought it couldn’t hurt to check. The bags were simply left out–not put into a cloak room or lockers or anything — but there were people there to watch them and it seemed relatively safe for bags filled with dirty clothes. We carried our valuables with us. (Moral of the story, folks? Figure out how to get to your hotel FIRST, maybe before you leave for the trip, drop off your bags, and then go to the castle!)

At last, we were free of the weight! We celebrated with some food at the outdoor restaurant–I had a schnitzel again, while Cal had currywurst. It was a bit overpriced for what it was, but you can’t begrudge them when the views are so spectacular.

Hohenzollern really is as beautiful as the pictures make it look. After you walk through the castle gates you’ll walk up a winding pathway with arched windows looking into a little garden. Then there’s an outer courtyard area with little towers, what looked a bit like a mini-cemetery, 476statues of various kings, and lots of photo ops–the views are seriously gorgeous.

In the inner courtyard, there’s the restaurant I talked about, a little ice cream cart, and the entrance to the children’s museum just up the staircase to your right. Honestly, I didn’t love the museum, but it was interesting enough to walk through.

As for the castle itself, you’re able to see quite a few rooms. We started in the chapel–we couldn’t explore the whole thing because a wedding was taking place there later (how cool would that be?) but I think it’s usually mostly open to the public. We then went into the interior rooms, exploring the dining room, living areas, and (unless I’m getting my castles mixed up!) bedrooms and bathroom. For part of our self-guided tour, we had to wear slippers so as to maintain the floor’s integrity, which was kind of fun (they were very slippery!).

All in all, I really did have a good time at Hohenzollern despite the rocky start and the rain that started to fall. We ended up taking the shuttle back down rather than risk slipping down the wet mountain with our heavy bags. The shuttle took us to a lower parking lot. We had no idea where buses were or how to call for a taxi. So we decided: well, heck. Let’s walk. We’d seen our hotel on the way up so we knew it wasn’t that far, and that the whole thing was downhill.

It turned out to be pretty fun, actually! I was apprehenisive as there are no sidewalks on the way, but the road wasn’t tha494t busy. At one point we did cross over onto a farm path so we could be off the road a bit. We did have a moment of indecision when we reached the big highway as we didn’t know exactly where to go. We took a chance and it paid off–there was our hotel right in front of us!

Accommodation Review: Hotel Brielhof

We picked Hotel Brielhof because of its proximity to the castle and its relatively good pricing–about 80 Euro for the night, including breakfast. We were astonished to find how nice it was. Our double room also contained a couch and a little balcony and a wonderful bathroom–we felt so pampered we might have been in the castle hotel again!

Brielhof is also a restaurant, so when we walked in and saw a bunch of tables we were a bit confused and wondered if there was a different entrance for the hotel, but nope, that was it! We were greeted by friendly staff who gave us our key to our room and directed us up. We were surprised by how quiet it was because it was such a nice place for the price. After my husband had a soak in the tub (I mean, come on, the guy did just carry something like 30 kilos up a mountain!), we headed downstairs for dinner. We knew this wasn’t going to be the most cost-effective meal, but it was sure better than trying to find somewhere else to eat when we were so far removed from the rest of the town.

The meal itself was really good. I can’t remember what we had, save for the drinks: my still water still tasted a bit like sparkling water, though it was most definitely still, and Cal’s local beer tasted oddly like bananas. Also, we had absolutely amazing service by the waiter who went above and beyond, telling us local history and stories, recommending things to do and places to see in Germany, and being super friendly. Loved it!

After we ate, we went to bed (because we’re such party animals) and tinkered on the internet for a little while. Free wifi, but the internet was a bit spotty in our room.

Breakfast was a bit embarrassing, as it demonstrated that we were very likely the only people who had stayed in the hotel the night before! They asked us when we wanted to eat and we were like, “Oh, maybe 7 or 7:30 or maybe 8?” and they were too polite to ask us to pick a time. When we went down, we were shown to a tiny buffet and a table for two. The buffet contained breads, meats, and cheeses–more than enough for the two of us, but not much if more people were going to show up. We felt so bad! But, the food was good and we felt full for a long while afterwards.

The hotel was also kind enough to call us a taxi to the train station when we left in the morning.

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