The Great Wine Barrel of Heidelberg

I hiked up the steep road winding its way up to the castle. The morning cold was taking my breath away.

Heidelberg Castle view
The castle is on the hill above the old town.

As the hotel clerk told me, visiting Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss) at the end of winter meant I wouldn’t have to share it with hordes of Asian tourists in their tour group hats. It also meant the funicular train from the Altstadt up to the top of the hill was closed for maintenance.

I huffed and puffed my way across the cobblestones as the path wound its way around and up the hill. The physical effort was worth it once I saw the view of the town and the Neckar River.

Altstadt of Heidelberg
The Altstadt of Heidelberg, Germany.

The castle was originally built in 1214, expanded greatly in the 1400s and 1500s, and partially destroyed by two lightning strikes and multiple battles.

Mark Twain described it in his 1880 travel book called A Tramp Abroad:

“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude.

Heidelberg castle
A dry moat protects the inner structures.

Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.”

That was a better literary description that I could ever write.  Thanks Mr. Clemens.

After going through the main gate, I entered the deserted courtyard. Since the castle was built and destroyed at times over the centuries, the architecture is varied.

Heidelberg Castle wall.
Inside view of a Heidelberg Castle wall.

Seeking some warmth, I headed for the wine cellar. A large café welcomes tourist groups with apfel strudel and bratwurst, wine and coffee. At one end of the cellar is the Great Heidelberg Tun – a gigantic wine barrel.

The great Heidelberg wine barrel. That's a lot of wine!
The great Heidelberg wine barrel. That’s a lot of wine!
drinking man
Guten abend Herr! What are you drinking?

The barrel is so big (a grosse fass in German) I felt like Mickey Mouse in that animated classic Mickey and the Beanstalk. The wine barrel must be owned by a giant. I was afraid the giant might be coming to eat me.

The barrel was built in 1751 to hold up to 58,000 gallons of wine that was contributed by local landowners as a tax on agricultural production. It is reputed that 130 oak trees were used in its construction. A few years after it was built the barrel started leaking and it has been used only as a tourist attraction ever since.  When Napoleon’s army captured the castle, the French soldiers believed the empty wine barrel to be full of wine; their hatchet marks are still visible on the barrel.

If this was a barrel of monkeys, how many would fit inside?

 

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Three ways to visit Tulum

I kept driving down the narrow road through the Sian Ka’an Ecological Preserve of the Yucatan Peninsula looking for a break in the jungle. I knew the Caribbean Sea was on my left. I could see glimpses of the water every now and then through the trees. After an eternity I came upon a sandy spot where the road widened slightly. There was a car parked half on the road, half in the brush. There was just enough room behind the car for me to park.

I got my beach towel and climbed a small dune. Ahead of me the turquoise water sparkled brilliantly in the afternoon sunshine. The small waves crashed into the shore onto smooth sand. To either side, the strand stretched as far as the eye could see. Not a person in sight, I was like Robinson Crusoe discovering a beach paradise.

Tulum beach
A beach paradise south of Tulum, Mexico.

Until the sound of hip hop assaulted my ears from a boom box twenty yards away. A guy was lounging in the shade of an impromptu lean-to made out of sticks and fabric. He had a cooler of beer, snacks, a Speedo, and a little black Dachshund that followed him out to the water and yipped when the guy went under the surf.

Still, I was almost alone on an incredibly beautiful beach on the Riviera Maya. It was warm and the sun was shining. It was a good day to be alive.

Caribbean Sea
The turquoise sea…. Natural… nobody cleans up the seaweed.

My first stop that day in Tulum was at the famous archeological ruins. The pre-Colombian Maya built a major port city on the site in the 13th through 15th centuries. The city, with 1,000 to 5,000 inhabitants, was situated on top of 40 foot high cliffs above the beach. Tulum appears to have been an important site for the worship of a “Diving” or “Descending” god. The people were probably wiped out by smallpox brought by the Spanish conquistadors.

As I walked around the site in an hour, I kept thinking of the movie called Apocolypto. Luckily, while I was there nobody got sacrificed or had their heart ripped out.

Mayan ruins
Some of the Mayan ruins at Tulum.

Next, I went into the nearby pueblo (town) for lunch at a traditional local restaurant. As I sat on a plastic chair on the sidewalk, munching excellent taco chips and salsa, a smooth jazz trio played a tight groove behind me. It was a good change from the mariachi bands prevalent in the tourist areas. I was the only outsider in the place.

Fortified with a burrito and a local beer called Sol, I went in search of a Mexican beach to call my own. I drove down a road called Highway 109, which quickly degenerated into a narrow path into the hotel zone south of Tulum. The Tulum hotel zone is quite different than Cancun’s abomination of a hotel zone. Places to stay on this part of the coast are small boutique hotels, beachfront cabanas, and eco-camping spots. The place had a hippie vibe to it. It was the kind of place to hide away from the world for a while. Just turn off the cell phone, have a margarita and relax.

Tulum ice cream truck.
The Tulum ice cream man.

Unfortunately I wasn’t staying at any of those retro chic resorts. The properties were enclosed by fences, there was no parking, and no obvious public access to the beach. So I kept driving south farther into the preserve, hoping for a break in the fencing.

I drove until I finally discovered the only car parked along the Preserve road, and saw the path to the beach. It was worth the drive.

Tulum beach
A hidden beach below the Tulum ruins.

Millions vacation every year at the mega-resorts in the Cancun hotel zone. If you like a swim-up bar, noisy pool volleyball, multi-level marketing bonus groups from Sheboygan, and kids kicking sand in your direction, please stay there.

For peace and relaxation, and maybe a little isolation, head south of Tulum until you can find your spot in the sun.

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Rising U.S. Dollar Turns Your Euro Trip Into Reality

Nice signs
Which way should I go?

Plan ahead and spend your spring and summer vacations in Europe as the strong dollar veers tourists away from the United States, giving them more incentive to travel to culturally rich destinations such as France, Spain and Greece. The value of the dollar hasn’t been this high since 2003 ($1.10 for one euro as of today). It’s no secret that the euro value is diminishing, among other currencies, which makes 2015 the perfect time to visit the notoriously expensive continent.

Europe has transformed into a buyer’s market especially for American travelers. Research shows that the number of bookings to Europe was high even before the dollar’s value spike. The strengthening dollar with the increased rate of advanced ticket bookings is indicative of “an explosive year for Europe.” Some speculate that European tourism won’t bloom until 2016 since the dramatic value rises in currencies tend to have a delayed effect on the travel industry.

Vienna scene
To Vienna we ride!

A report from Expedia reveals that it’s best to book international flight 171 days, or just under six months, prior to the date of travel. Typically, Americans book their tickets around 31 to 90 days before they travel to Europe. With dwindling prices of oil, and competition between budget and larger airlines in terms of “unbundling” amenities, flights to Europe are going to be more economical than ever. Thus, planning for summer, and even winter getaways, are crucial at this point of time.

In comparison to the euro, the dollar isn’t as strong against the pound. However, exchange rates are more favorable than they have been for quite some time, so traveling to the UK could still fit right within your budget. London has two of the busiest airports in Europe, Heathrow being the top and Gatwick listed as the tenth according to Parking4Less, and with dream vacations in Europe looking more affordable, passenger traffic at these airports is likely to increase.

Athena temple
The ruins of the Temple of Athena, Lindos, Greece.

Although exchange rates will work in your favor, the travel industry is always going to look for ways so that tourists don’t have access to too many cheap deals. One of the worst places, if not the worst, to exchange currencies is at an airport, yet because of its convenient location, tourists continue to lose valuable bucks instead of making the most out of their budget. Some suggestions from travel guidebook writer Pauline Frommer include using your credit card to get to your accommodations from the airport, or only exchanging a small amount before traveling. The rest can be exchanged at a local bank.

If you’ve been wanting to go to Europe for awhile, now is the time to go. Be prepared, however, to see many American tourists there with you…

sign of Europa cafe
To Europe and beyond
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The Mexican Police Holdup

The man and woman got into their rental car on a lazy Sunday morning in the hotel zone of Cancun, Mexico. A drive down the coast of the Mayan Riviera was ahead of them. Sunshine, blue sky, warm sand, taco chips and salsa.

Cancun beach from hotel
Cancun beach view.

Boulevard Kukulkan was nearly empty of cars. Most tourists were sleeping off their margarita induced comas. Hotel vans and taxis sped by the rental car, maximizing their potential of tips by rapidly getting their passengers where they needed to go. The man, however, drove slowly, sticking to the posted 70 kilometers per hour speed limit. He had read about how corrupt the Mexican police were and wanted to obey the law.

After slowing down to take a sharp turn, the man accelerated back up to the speed limit. As he was daydreaming about which beach to go to, the siren came to life and the flashing lights came on. It was the Mexican police.

Tulum ruins beach
The beach below the ruins at Tulum.

Obediently, he pulled over and stopped. The police car stopped close by, blocking his potential escape. The policeman in the passenger seat got out of the car, leaving his partner behind the wheel. Inexplicably, another police officer sat in the back seat. This police officer smiled at the man, like it was his fourth birthday, or maybe he had found a winning lottery ticket.

The policeman rattled off a stream of Spanish at the man, who stared blankly back.
“No hablo español,” said the man. “Inglés por favor.”

Tulum beach view
Deserted beach south of Tulum.

“You’ve been speeding,” said the policeman.
“I don’t think I was. I see that the posted speed is 70 km/h on this road. I was sticking to the speed limit. I even slowed down to take that turn,” said the man.
“The speed limit in this stretch is 40 km/h. You were going faster than that. I am going to have to give you a ticket,” said the policeman in heavily accented English.
“I never saw a sign for 40 km/h.”

The policeman ignored this remark and started writing the ticket.

skeleton
What you might look like after visiting a Mexican jail.

“Why are the taxis and hotel vans going twice as fast as me, but I am the one being pulled over?” asked the man. This comment was also ignored.

“You will have to go into the city tomorrow and pay this ticket. On the other hand, I can save you the trouble if you pay the fine to me right now,” said the policeman.

“How much is the fine?”
“$150 US dollars.”
“Why isn’t the fine in Mexican pesos?” asked the man.
“Never mind that. Give me $150 US dollars, or I will take your driver’s license. Then you can go to the police station in Cancun tomorrow, pay the fine, and get your license back.” The other two police officers in the car were smirking at the man.

“OK, I’m staying in the area. I’ll go tomorrow to pay the fine,” replied the man.
“If you pay cash to me today, I can reduce the fine a little bit,” said the policeman.
“I’ll give you $40 US dollars.”
“I don’t think that is enough. The fine is $150. I might be able take $125.”
“I only have $40. That’s all I can do right now,” said the man, as he took two twenty dollar bills out of his pocket.

The policeman grabbed the money, and got back into the police car.

“Cheap bastard!” grunted the policeman as the car took off, looking for the next gringo victim.

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Walking the Streets of Munich Again

After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).

leaves on building in Munich
Fall in Munich.

On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.

“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).

The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.

Haidhausen cafe
A cafe in Haidhausen.

Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.

Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.

Munich street scene.
A typical Munich street scene.

At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…

Munich store
Christmas decorations on a department store

I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.

Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.

Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead.  You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.

Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall.  Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.

I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.

toilet sign
German humor! Extremely long compound words!
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