March is not the time to visit northern Europe. It is rainy, maybe sleeting, gray, and kind of just cold and wet without being cold enough to be snowy and fun. BUT. That is when Bryan was going over to Germany for work, so the kids and I chose to overlap his trip, visit him a bit, and see my sister’s family at the same time.
We arrived on the final day of the Koln Carnival parade – the one light in the darkness at the end of wet winter. Bethany, my sister, had gotten us costumes and immediately upon landing in Dusseldorf I picked up our shitty car rental and drove to the designated IKEA for a meetup. We donned our outfits, fought the urge to sleep, and rode the tram into the city. It was packed, windy, and delayed. The kids loved the first half hour of floats and people screaming Camella for candy and Alaaf in an attempt to get flowers. Then we hit the wall, waited out some rain, filled two grocery bags with candy: not junky cheap candy, but nice German chocolates or Haribo gummis. And we trained back to the IKEA. Two hours was enough.
I was exhausted, but drove the rental (it was toooo expensive to add a driver) back to Bonn where Bethany lives and discovered that we couldn’t get to her apartment because of the Bonn parade. Yay. We street parked and walked, waited a few hours, and I dragged my butt back out to re-park the car. Finally, I slept like a dream.
We followed that with a sleepy morning in and an afternoon of watery fun at a big regional indoor water park called Aqualandia. My favorite was the spa. While the kids stayed with Bethany’s partner Jörn , us ladies ventured into naked-land to sit and steam, float in hot water, and then do a crazy hot Russian whip-around-a-towel-and-beat-each-other-with-branches treatment with a group of other nutjobs ready for torture. Loved it, and I felt like my sinuses cleared a years worth of desert dust. Sorry, no pics of that. Big loss.
Our big driving trip started the next day, and I learned that you get the crap car you pay for when choosing the cheapest five-seatbelt rental. In Ghent we all stayed in a cool apartment rental for a couple nights. We visited the old canal row, and then a search for a geocache led us to a nifty graffiti art alley. We had a beautiful sunny morning exploring the Gravensteen castle; and (a warning to conservative American parents) it’s hysterical, but includes sexual innuendo that would be mild during the middle ages and some foul words that added interest and flavor. My kids loved it! (of course they did) and so did, really. It made the whole place come to life and explained why this castle in Flanders was important.
After that highlight, we took a canal boat ride where the guide made it clear that we were all welcome to be in Ghent but you, my readers, are not. Go to Bruges. Ghent doesn’t want to be a UNESCO town and become overrun with tourists. So there. And then lightning cracked across the sky and it hailed giant balls that looked like dippin’ dots. Stay away! We waited for a break, thought it was over, and were sadly mistaken. We all ran ran ran under a bridge where a bunch of locals (also ill-prepared on bikes in the hail) were huddled and waiting. This was obviously not normal. After Bethany stopped whining about her cold wet feet, we popped into the cathedral for a gaze at Van Eycks altar mantel (well, the duplicate that is free to see). In the evening the kids and I just rode the tram around for a 2 hour pass, while Bethany and Jörn dried out. Why not? Its a cheap tour, and the loopy loop made us feel like locals.
From Ghent we drove to Luxembourg for a bit of a stopover to get coffee, wait for the rain again, keep our feet nice and cold and wet, and see the gorge. Check. It was pretty. We got a geocache and paid for parking, so it counts as a visit.
The weekend found all of us meeting up with my Bryan down at the military base where he had to work (and why we were on this trip at all). Bethany and I lived here as kids since our dad was stationed at the same base. So, it was fun to check out the new housing, and show Jörn the ole stompin’ grounds. The BX is massive now – a giant complex worthy of an America montage on Crash Course. We said our goodbyes to Bethany and Jörn, gave them a cake mix (some things are hard to find and overpriced in Germany), and popped them on a train back to Bonn.
The kids and I then took a vacay-within-a-vacay to London. You can be sure of a new blog entry for that one.
Back in Germany, we visited Bryan again and went for some lovely wet and drizzly cold hikes around the area…. to see castles, or ruins, grab a geocache, and generally enjoy the not bone dry weather. It was actually a nice respite from the desert we live in, but all the boots and coats and dreariness were getting a bit old. Castle Nanstein was a hoot, as there was a ‘secret’ massive dirt floored dungeon that Avi could run down into and we could yell down to him from an access well above. It was a glorious muddy mess. The view from the top was lovely. We also spent a lot of time in the base outdoor rec climbing gym. Wish we had one on our base!
When Bryan returned to working, the kids and I putzed down into the Alsace region of France. We weren’t quite prepared for how cold it would be at Château du Haut-Kœnigsbourg, but powered through because it was so neat. This was another medieval castle that showed off how great the wealthy people of that era had it. It was full of carvings and turrets and intricate fireplaces. The kids loved all the neat levels and the seemingly random layout of it all – it was added onto over the years which gives it this organically artistic feel. But it was cold up on top of that mountain!! Beauty and the Beast came to mind here – I could see why the story developed in this area with its inaccessible and mysterious castles on forested hilltops and quaint wine fields and villages along the valley.
In Strasbourg we stayed on a boat. It was very fun. There was a nice boat cat that visited us, purred and acted like he owned the place. He was welcome and super lovey; even ate a croissant like a good French kitty, until he got hissy and peed on the floor.
Aside from that highlight we wandered the old town canals with the scenic timbered buildings, visited a christmas shop, and stopped into the Notre Dame cathedral to watch the super cool astronomical clock. There was a whole afternoon spent playing in the sun at a very nice playground and walking along the canal. The water was very high, flowers were blooming, and the swans meandering. Another morning we spent at the Orangerie park to see the free zoo, explore the playground, and find a few geocaches. All in all, its a great town for kids and wandering in the feels.
After visiting Bryan once more… important conjungal duties…. we drove back to Bonn to stay with Bethany, visit the school she librarianates at, grab some Bonn geocaches, and pop back to the airport for our trip home. There were no Easter sheep cakes for sale, which bummed out the kids since we hoped to nab one for our holiday. Then the sun decided it was time for spring the begin the day we left. And, as a bonus, I got an extra 2 hours worth of time in the crappy rental due to insane traffic on the way to the airport. Made for a tight flight catch.