The Plan: Rent a car, and drive from Krakow, Poland to Bamberg, Germany spending five days making our way up the Romantic Road. It was a good plan. In theory it should have worked.
The Execution: After discovering that there would be a SUBSTANTIAL fee for renting a car in Poland and dropping it off in Germany, Bob came up with the next most logical plan. He'd take a bus to the airport in Krakow, fly to Cologne, sit in the airport for four hours, fly back across Germany to Dresden, rent the car there, drive five hours back to Poland, get a good night's sleep and hit the road the next day. Sure!
So on a beautiful, sunny Thursday in the last week of August we packed the car to the brim, and headed out of Krakow (stopping oh so briefly on our way out of town to snap a pic at our favorite curmudgeony meat counter and then get chased out of the store by the security guard). Farewell Poland -- Hello Romantic Road!
An hour out of Krakow, Owen threw up in the backseat (actually ON the backseat, the front seat, the door, the floor mat, his backpack and himself). Poor guy. "This is bad," he kept saying, looking around at the damage while Bob tried to get to the nearest exit. "This is really bad!" After about an hour of Hazmat work on the rental car we refueled and Bob learned that you really don't want to top off the gas tank in Europe. They don't have those gas-catching-accordion-tube-things like we do in the US, so the gas splashes out. All over the guy whose kid just vomited. So Bob added his diesel-soaked shirt to the bag of "dirties" that Owen had changed out of, and sealed it all in plastic bags for the next few days, and we bought one of those awful ubiquitous pine tree shaped air-fresheners, and we were off again. Farewell Polish truck stop -- Hello Romantic road.
Now the nearly new rental car stinks. Bad. Almost chain-reaction-puking bad. Even the vomit and diesel fumes were better than the god-awful orange pine tree air-freshener Bob had hanging on the vent. Four hours of holding my breath later, we hit a cute sleepy little border town called Görlitz, where we planned to spend the night. Görlitz isn't big, and not really a tourist place, so we thought we'd get in around five o'clock, and have no trouble finding a hotel. With all of our delays we rolled into town smelly, tired and hungry around 8pm.
Now, to find a hotel. The first one wasn't booked, but it was small and lacked charm -- and for some unknown reason we decided to be picky. The next several hotels we checked were all booked. It was past time to eat dinner, so we found a tiny place that served Italian and Mexican (she's German and he's from Cuba so that makes sense). The owner told us that the whole city was preparing for a huge festival that started the next day. So that's why there aren't any rooms! Bob and I were getting a little concerned. The kids couldn't have cared less, cause the nice restaurant lady surprised them with ice cream with sprinkles. We left the restaurant at 10pm, having decided to drive on another hour to Dresden and try to get a hotel there.
With the kids asleep in the car we pulled into our first Dresden hotel to check it out just before midnight. Booked. They suggested a place just down the street. Booked. They suggested a place just a few kilometers away. This one was booked too, and suggested trying the big hotels farther into town. We ended up carrying sleeping children into a Hilton at one in the morning, and paying three times the price of the hotel we'd passed up hours earlier. I must say however, that the included breakfast the next morning was simply lovely.
Having learned our lesson the night before, I started the next day (after my lovely included breakfast), on the phone trying to book someplace for that night. After the Hilton on the riverfront, CHEAP was the word of the day. I got lucky, and booked for the next two nights in quick succession, feeling very proud of myself for pulling German out of places I didn't know I had to communicate with, and we headed to the Deutsches Museum, where I sat on benches, feeling queasy with Owen's stomach bug, while my family wandered among submarines and ships and airplanes. Awesome museum.
Our next stop was the town of Pfronten, and the most delightful little family hotel -- The Hotel Birkenhof. The owners, Michael and Martha, were so warm and friendly! They sent us to a traditional beer garden down the street for dinner, where Bob and I revealed ourselves as the only tourists in the place by ordering ridiculously large beers. I had to pick mine up using both hands. Seriously. The locals were laughing. Hopefully with us...
When Bob woke up the next morning with the bug (it couldn't have been a hangover. He only had one beer!), Martha sent up camomile tea and dry toast to the room, and in a few hours Bob was a little queezy, but good to go.
From there, it was up the Romantic Road to Neuschwanstein Castle, which really is such an incredibly lovely, surreal, and fairy-tale-like place, no matter whether you call it castle or folly. That particular area of Bavaria is just breathtaking. It's the most beautiful landscape we've seen. We hiked up to the castle, following the pictures on the signs more than the words, and ended up not at the castle, but on a bridge that had a really wonderful view of the castle. Or it would have, if that entire side of the castle hadn't been covered in scaffolding. Seems restoration time was at hand. It's quite often restoration time in Europe evidently, because many (many) of the beautiful buildings we've been looking forward to seeing have been covered in scaffolding. We're thinking of devoting a Flickr page to "Great European Buildings We Didn't Quite See." Keep your ears to the ground for that one. Anyway - I decided to not be bothered by a botched view of Neuschwanstein. I'd already bought a postcard!
It was a chilly morning, but a warm and sunny day, and when we got back into the rental car the bag of Gummi Bears in the center console had liquified into one Big Gummi. Everything would have been all right if there hadn't been a huge rip in the bottom of the bag. Owen, Ella and Bob took turns sticking their fingers in the puddle of gummy goo lying in the car console, competing to see who could pull the longest string off before they ate it, which was SO GROSS and looked like a giant sheet of glistening red and blue slime! We scooped the rest of the mess out of the console the best we could, muttering apologizes to our poor car.
Next -- to Rothenburg, the medieval walled city. Rothenburg has been around for a thousand years, but it fell a bit out of favor during the Black Plague. Upside? It got frozen in time in the 17th century. We stayed in a funky, wonderful, 650-year-old Inn with six rooms called Hotel Altfränkische-Weinstube am Klosterhof. They have every taxidermied animal you can think of, peeking and lurking out of every corner of the lobby. At dinner that night in the Hotel restaurant we met two locals, and let them order our dinner for us. I got a wonderful pork something with spätzle. Bob got cold meat and vegetables in aspic. He ate it all, while our new friends watched. They showed us how to toast when drinking a weissbier (from the bottom only!), and about where to wander in Rothenburg. They're in a local band that's been together for 30 years.
The next day we walked the wall, climbed the towers, looked at more scaffolding, and watched the kids peer out of ramparts. Ella had Jeero with her, and Owen was busy figuring out what kind of weapon (Crossbow? Longbow? Bucket of boiling oil?) would best suit the imaginary attack. Then it was back into the somewhat less smelly car, and on to Bamberg. Home for now. I have to say that it's becoming clear to me that the two-week whirlwind vacation just would not work well for this family. Everyone needs more time and space than it allows, and we all end up a little cranky. Of course it could have been the stomach bug. Or the smell.
When Bob returned the rental car, the woman at the desk asked if everything went well. Bob smiled and nodded.