Die Wasp, Die!

Well, it finally happened. After all these years—59 to be exact—I was stung by a wasp. Not just any wasp, but a house guest. Air conditioning is just about nonexistent here in Europe and another rarity is the window screen. In the summertime we find ourselves, swatters in hand, doing our best to escort flying insects across the “rainbow bridge.” This is clearly also a problem for the Germans, who have come up with a very handy little gadget to address the issue. It looks kind of like a badminton racket, only the strings have been replaced with a metal mesh. Pop in a couple of AA batteries, and presto! You become a human bug zapper. The brief flash followed by a faint whiff of smoke gives me a certain feeling of vengeance that I never knew I was capable of. Trust me, I’m bringing a couple of these babies back to the States with me.

They rolled out the yellow carpet for us

We noticed several weeks back that along with the hot summer weather, we seemed to have a lot of wasps in the house. Not just flying around, but actual carcasses on the floor. We were even more perplexed when we returned from four days away in France recently. We had closed up all the windows before we left but as we walked up the stairs, it looked like the remnants of a terrible wasp battle that both sides had lost. There in front of us were 50 or so dead wasps. We found out from our landlord that there might have been a slight problem a while back with wasps entering in the house through a small access point on the top floor. Well, the cooler temperatures are now arriving, and this pesky little problem is more or less behind us. But it did not happen soon enough for me and one of the little buggers hid inside a nightgown. OUCH! I found out rather quickly that yes, wasp stings really do hurt. Luckily, I don’t need an Epi-Pen fix since I’m not allergic. But the whole affair certainly made me happy to see Fall arrive. Nevertheless, I have my handy-dandy zapper at the ready if I need it.

A sampling of the local wildlife

We celebrated the arrival of autumn by going downtown to shop on a Sunday. Traditionally, you can only do this twice a year, as the stores are all closed. However, with the arrival of Spring and once again at the

Shells and spices to bring in the Fall
Shells and spices to bring in the Fall

beginning of Fall, the doors are flung open on Sunday so that people can better prepare for the coming cold (or warm) weather. Not to waste a wonderful opportunity, they also used that weekend for a city fest and craft market. Everywhere were artisans selling their handmade wares such as squirrels and hedgehogs made of straw, dried floral arrangements, honey and beeswax candles, and all manner of baked goods. Street performers were out in droves and the crowds were large. Normally, the downtown area is quite empty on Sunday, so this was rare opportunity to see everyone enjoying the extra day of retail therapy.


Now Honey, that’s good coffee…

The city laid out yellow carpeted runners in many of the smaller pedestrian streets and alleys downtown to direct crowds to some of the less frequented areas. The smaller shops get a little extra attention as locals meander down streets they might normally miss. One such path took us down into a small courtyard where we found the Hepa Kaffee Café. Their logo always reminds me of the old Lucky Strike cigarettes but the similarity ends there, because Hepa Coffee is really wonderful. The local radio classical music station was remotely broadcasting their afternoon

Enjoying some java and some Puccini

show in the courtyard in front of the café. We found ourselves a small bistro table in the sunshine. We enjoyed a lovely (and very large) cappuccino while the lilting strains of Italian opera floated through the courtyard. I only vaguely remembered the sting from the morning as I rubbed the affected spot. But it faded as I realized that life just doesn’t get much better than this. Sitting in the European sunshine with a great cup of coffee while being serenaded by Madame Butterfly takes a lot of sting out of life.


Somebody else heading for the fest

Wiesbaden is a lovely city that really doesn’t get the attention it deserves in the travel press. Because we live here, we often tend to overlook it ourselves. But since we started writing about our travels, I think we’ve gained a greater appreciation of our current adopted hometown. While our blog posts will be mostly about places farther afield, we will occasionally drop in a quick note about some of our favorite local events and attractions. Stay tuned.

Cruising Along the Rhine

We recently attended Bill’s annual organization day, an opportunity for the staff and their families to enjoy a day away from the office and engage in some social time. This often takes the form of a cook-out, or some pastime like bowling. Ah! But this is Europe, and so we took advantage of one of the opportunities that living and working here makes possible. The event? A round-trip river cruise from the lovely town of Rüdesheim (sort of pronounced “rude-es-heim”) down the Rhine to the charming village of St. Goar. We stopped there for several hours to see the sights and enjoy lunch at a sidewalk café.

Getting started at Rüdesheim

The weather Deities smiled on us that day; we had sunshine and blue skies, with a slight breeze to make the journey pleasant. If you ever plan to visit Germany, a Rhine cruise is a really nice way to spend a day. They are relatively inexpensive—roughly $25 round-trip per adult for a trip similar to ours. And you have a wide variety of origins and destinations to choose from. You could even ride the boat one way and take a train back. All the towns along the river (in this area, at least) are well served by Deutsche Bahn, or German Rail. Enjoying the views of the many vineyards and castles that have made the Rhine Valley famous is a memorable experience.

Castles, castles everywhere!

As I noted, our day began in the picturesque town of Rüdesheim. Germany has a number of places that attract a lot of tourists but are always fun to visit anyway. This popular destination is famous for its Riesling wines (and brandy) as well as the historic Drosselgasse, a very narrow street lined with shops, taverns, and restaurants. There is plenty to see and do but we will cover that in another post later. For this day, Rüdesheim was our jumping off point for a voyage down the Rhein!

And another…

The ride was smooth and even though there were three decks on the boat, most of us enjoyed the outside top deck. There were plenty of tables and chairs to relax and enjoy a cup of coffee or a glass of champagne. We expected the prices for beverages and snacks to be steep but we were pleasantly surprised to find they were about the same as we would find at a typical restaurant in our own neighborhood. We drifted past charming villages, each one sporting onion-domed churches, half-timbered buildings, and of course, vineyards hanging from the steep slopes. And oh, The castles! After about the first five we cruised by we lost count.

In the middle ages, the Rhine was the primary transportation route from south to north. If you had goods to transport, this was pretty much your only option, if you were going any distance at all. Every baron with the power and money to do it took advantage of the outstanding vantage points along the Rhine gorge to erect a castle so he could levy tolls on vessels using the river. Today, there is hardly a spot between Rüdesheim and Koblenz where you can’t see at least a couple of castles. Most are ruins but several have been well preserved and you can even book a stay in a few. Anyway, it’s all a feast for the eyes.

One of many riverside villages

We also cruised past the famous Lorelei, a 433-foot-high rock on the right bank of the river. Legend has it that a golden-haired siren would perch atop the rock and enchant the passing sailors, who would be lured to their deaths on the craggy rocks below. Not exactly a happy thought, but an interesting bit of history nonetheless. Today, it often serves as a venue for outdoor concerts.

We docked at Saint Goar for a few hours to explore and have lunch. We decided to take a walk up to Castle Rheinfels which was built in 1245. There is a tram of sorts that can also take you up, but its schedule seemed a bit erratic to us. We made the journey on foot, to ensure we would have time for lunch before getting back on the boat. It was a steep path with quite a few uneven stone steps, but it wasn’t overly taxing. With our stomachs rumbling, we elected not to take a tour of the castle once we reached it but the views of the valley and the river were well worth the hike.

Pfalzgrafenstein Castle on an island in the river

After the trek back down the mountain, we stopped on the main street and enjoyed a wonderful lunch al fresco. Finally, we got back on the boat. The return trip to Rüdesheim was a bit slower than the morning’s cruise, since we were going against the current. But it was no less pleasant for that. The open top deck of a boat on a warm summer day with just enough of a breeze to make it comfortable is a recipe for a very pleasant and relaxing afternoon. We will certainly be doing this again.

Automat Memories and One Very Tasty Meal

Good things await inside.

Automat. The word conjures up memories of old movies from the 40s where frugal New Yorkers on their lunch breaks could grab a bite to eat. It was the original fast food. The hungry secretary or executive-in-training would pop into the Automat to find rows of little glass-fronted doors, each with a coin slot. Behind the doors were little cubbies holding anything a famished person could want—sandwiches, soups, pie—all awaiting the drop of a coin to release them from captivity.

This little blast from the past was brought forward to the present day for me last weekend. We were invited to have lunch in a small town in Alsace, France by Gudrun, one of our German neighbors who lives down the street. She is a marvel. She has traveled extensively throughout her life and explores the world fearlessly. Her tales of travel, food, and people she has met along the way have enthralled and delighted us. We want to be just like Gudrun when we grow up. So when she asked if we would like to join her for lunch in Alsace along with her daughter Katarina, who was taking a holiday break from her Master’s Program, we heartily answered, “Yes!”

A meal to savor

Being able to go to places like France in a matter of a couple of hours is one of the aspects of living overseas that we love. So lunch in Alsace it was—and what a lunch! We arrived in the small village of Roppenheim at a quaint restaurant named Auberge à l’Agneau. The half-timbered building welcomed us with flower boxes overflowing with pink and red geraniums. The interior was the model of cozy comfort that decorators can only imitate. Its dark wood paneling and brightly painted yellow walls were adorned with vintage farm tools, enameled pots, and grapes hanging from the weathered beams. This, folks, was the real thing, and we prepared ourselves for a special meal.

Heaven on a plate

We were not disappointed. Our lunch began with a small tasting-sized bowl of cream of mussel soup to whet our appetites.  We opted for the bean soup for our starter with thick slabs of crusty bread. Our main course was tournedos of beef in a rich, savory sauce with Roquefort cheese crumbled over the top. This was served with the sweetest carrots I have ever eaten and lightly fried patties of grated zucchini. A large communal dish of French fries was served up, as well as a garden-fresh salad. The meal was one of the best we’ve eaten in a very long time. We finished up with espresso and dessert. I had the homemade chocolate mousse with vanilla sauce and Bill had the sour cherry ice cream served with a vanilla cream sauce and whole marinated cherries. Truly a wonderful lunch.

roppenheim-8aWe went for a small walk through the tiny village after our feast and something caught our eye from across the street. It was a farmer’s version of an automat. It stood beneath a sort of lean-to structure and had a series of little glass doors with signs boasting that their “ATM farm products” were available 24/7! Sure enough, we saw farm fresh eggs, bunches of newly picked garlic, bags of onions, potatoes, bottles of hand pressed canola oil, and more. The prices were handwritten on each selection with a small number to identify them. Pop your coins in the slot, key in the number on the central keypad and presto! the door opens and the item is yours. But instead of the piece of pie or sandwich of yesteryear, it was fresh produce to fix dinner with.

New potatoes

Europe has not quite been overrun by the retail 24/7 phenomenon, and we like it that way. Stores are closed on Sundays, but we can feel the slow infiltration of longer opening hours. Yes, it makes life a bit more convenient, but I hate to see everything being turned into an all day, all night, everyday shopper’s wonderland. This produce automat seems the perfect compromise. For a minute, I felt like I did when I was a very little girl on a trip back east when my parents took me to one of the last surviving automats for lunch. It made an impression on me and for a moment, I was transported back to the time I gazed up transfixed at all those little glass doors with wonderful surprises behind each one.

“Plan B” Travel and Really, Really Good Chocolate!

It’s safe to say that Bill and I LOVE chocolate! We’ll admit it, we’re chocolate snobs, although sometimes it’s hard to beat the perfection of a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Living overseas has allowed us to try some of the best that Europe has to offer. Up until now, Belgium reigned supreme when it came to the smack-down competition for the best confections. But–we might have a new champion!

Heaven waits within.

We just returned from a glorious three days in Troyes, France. We had planned on going to Lille, France for the annual flea market. This historic event runs for 33-hours straight and has taken place each year for the last couple of centuries (except during wartime). It’s a lollapalooza spanning the city’s streets with millions of visitors in attendance each year, except this one. Unfortunately, the city mayor canceled this year’s bacchanalia of bric-a-brac due to security concerns.

Where to begin?

Disappointed–but not dejected–we came up with a Plan B; Troyes. We will go into much greater detail in a later post about this wonderful city. But remember, I started with the subject of chocolate and that is our topic for today’s dispatch.

We have a knack for spotting chocolate shops wherever we go and this time was no different. We seem to have an inner GPS pegged on “search for chocolate” and our internal compasses did not fail us. The shop was called “Pascal-Caffet” and they sold some of the most delicious artisan chocolates we had ever tasted. They utilize only the finest chocolate from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela, Madagascar, and many other exotic locales for their sweets.

The lovely lady behind the counter greeted us in English and began singing her siren song. “Would Monsieur or Madame like a sample?” She slid the clear acrylic cover to the side and the luscious aroma of the confections hit us like chocolate pheromones. Her delicate gloved hand searched for just the right arrow that she knew would pierce any rational thought. “Does Monsieur or Madame like pistachio?” By this time a tiny trickle of drool was starting from the corner of my mouth. Grasping for words, all we could manage was an uncontrollable nodding of our heads. But inside we were screaming, “Yes! Yes! For God’s sake YES! Pistachio!!”

You must try one of these.

We were done for. She plopped the petite indulgences into our eager little palms and we popped them into our mouths. What happened next? It’s difficult to say since we were enraptured by one of the most delicious flavors we had ever experienced. “First you taste zee Venezuelan chocolate, zen, the pistache, zen you finish with zee chocolate last. Non?” We could hear her lilting French accent off in the distance, but the world melted away like the chocolate on our tongues. Forget Godiva, or Dutch, German, Swiss, or Belgian chocolate. This was a mind-blowing religious experience! I almost felt like I needed a cigarette. We left with a small bag of about 100 grams which was about 8 pieces for roughly 10 Euros (or $11.50) and worth every Euro cent.

We asked about their operating hours since we knew we’d make at least one more visit to buy a few treats for the road. We needed to get them while still in town. They have shops in France, Italy, the UK, and Japan and none of them ship outside those countries. Due to possible delivery delays or less than optimal temperatures while in transit, they cannot guarantee freshness on arrival. So being able to purchase a few more grams before our drive home was imperative. Needless to say, the chocolates never made it all the way back.

And it’s more than just chocolates…

Here is the link for the UK site in English. Even though you can only live vicariously, it’s worth a look to see what these tasty morsels look like. http://www.pascalcaffet.co.uk/


Brussels—A Grand Place

Brussels has been getting a lot of bad press in recent months. There is no denying that a shadow of sadness has been cast over this beautiful metropolis. However, Brussels and its people seem stronger than ever and they are open for business as usual. So if you are planning a trip that includes Belgium’s capital, here are some of our tips to make your visit not only memorable, but economical as well.

The Grand Place
The Grand Place

Brussels is a beautiful and expensive place to visit, unless you come on a weekend. Yes, you read that right. Since it’s the capital of the European Union and Headquarters for NATO, it’s filled with politicians, diplomats, and civil servants. They all head for their respective homes and countries starting on Friday. As a result, many expensive hotels drop their prices drastically for the weekends. We took advantage by booking a lovely room in the historic 5-star Hotel Metropole in the heart of the city. Its location was perfect and an easy walk to the majestic Grand Place (the unofficial city center). This was probably one of the few times in our lives we were able to actually afford a 5-star hotel. We’ve stayed there a couple of times and we got great deals each time.

Hotel Metropole 01
The Hotel Metropole

The Metropole was built in 1895 and is considered a historic landmark; it didn’t disappoint. Our room was lovely and the crest-emblazoned robes and slippers that were left folded on the bed were luxuries we could get very used to! But the real glory of the Metropole is its historic lobby. It seemed a bit like we had stepped into a time machine that swept us a century or so back in time. Even if you don’t stay here, the lobby is worth a stop. We parked the car at a convenient underground garage across the street since we wouldn’t need it the entire time we were in the city.

Brussels Grand Place at NIght 01
The Grand Place at Night

We always start our explorations at the Grand Place, and it never fails to take our breath away. It’s majestic during the day, but at night it’s really unbelievable. The buildings and towers are lit up and people are everywhere taking pictures of the incredible spectacle. Brussels is also known for the famous fountain the Manneken Pis (Little Peeing Boy). It’s a small bronze sculpture of a (you guessed it!) little boy peeing into the fountain. It’s rather small and tucked away on a side street, but it sort of

Shop Babies 01
Get yours today!

represents a tradition and people from all over just have to get a photo of the fountain. And of course the souvenir shops overflowed with Manneken Pis bottle openers, key chains, corkscrews (my personal favorite), molded chocolates, and full-sized garden statues for the really classy tourist that wants to bring a little bit of Belgian charm to their backyards.

Brussels is also the European home for comics. Sides of buildings throughout the city have painted murals of famous comic scenes and characters. The city is the birthplace of Tintin. I’ve been a fan of his since childhood, long before Steven Spielberg ever turned him into a CG

Tintin Mural 01
Tintin and Captain Haddock

animated movie. I raced home from school when I was little to see Tintin cartoons on TV. Over the years I’ve amassed quite a collection of books, miniatures, and just about anything Tintin that I could get my grubby little hands on. Between visits to the Belgian Comic Strip Center Museum and various shops—including one completely devoted to all things Tintin—I have added substantially to my collection of goodies.

Beer 01

Speaking of goodies, you can’t go to Belgium without some culinary indulgence. There are four things in particular that you must try. First, Belgian waffles. They come out of the waffle iron with a caramelized sugar coating. You can get them plain or with different toppings, like whipped cream or Nutella. We opted for the whipped cream and never looked back. Inexpensive and easy to eat while walking. Second are the fries (Pommes Frites). They are everywhere! Belgium as a country is famous for their frites. Do what the locals do. Dive into your frites served up with a big dollop of mayonnaise or any one of the countless exotic sauce choices they offer. To American ears, mayonnaise on French fries sounds a bit weird. But we’re not talking about the garden-variety off-the-shelf stuff from Safeway. It’s really tasty. Third, Belgian beer! They brew many varieties and all of them are great. My favorite is Kriek, which uses sour cherries in the fermenting process, making a delicious and refreshing beer that’s a perfect cooler on a hot summer day.

Those Wonderful Frites 01
I’ll take mine with mayo, S’il vous plait…

Finally, you really must treat yourself to liberal doses of CHOCOLATE. Belgian chocolates look a lot like the ones that come in those boxes you see around Valentine’s day. But they’re in a whole different class. We’ve had world-class chocolates from France, Germany, Switzerland, The Netherlands, Italy, and Austria, but Belgium always seems to come in at the top of this class. You’ll do your waistline no favors, but you will have plenty of time to pay for your sins when you get home. In Brussels, we stopped at a wonderful little chocolate shop called—of all things—Mary,  and indulged in some of the loveliest chocolates we’ve ever eaten. The woman who served us especially recommended a variety with a filling made from the tropical tonka bean. Of course, they were delicious. Mary is the chocolatier to the Belgian Royal Family and many of the beautifully decorated treats are named after members of that dynasty.

As a parting note, be aware that in August the EU and NATO offices close for a month, so it may be possible to find some great hotel deals during that time. We are thinking that we might make a return visit next year. We’ll see!

Anytime is a good time for a wine fest!

2016 was a good year…

We’ve lived in Germany for about 3½ years now, nearly twelve years in total. And one thing we’ve learned is that Germans do fests really well. We used to joke about what happens when you get more than 5 Germans together–a fest. These celebrations happen all year long but more often in the summer and for a whole host of reasons. Back in the 1700s there might have been an awesome garlic crop, and so presto! a garlic fest! Many of these events commemorate a particular saint, a town, a village’s founder, a specific fruit (such as cherry or strawberry fest), or possibly the time when more than 5 locals got together 300 years ago.

A lot of people think that fests are all about beer but Germany also produces wonderful wines and so we have the inevitable wine fests to celebrate. Our city of Wiesbaden has an annual one called the ‘Rheingauer Weinwoche Wiesbaden’ (or Rheingau Wine Week Wiesbaden). Even though it’s called wine week, the fest actually runs for 10 days. This year heralded the 41st annual Weinwoche which ran from 12–21 August with offerings from over 100 vintners from the Rheingau district which surrounds the city. This is no small affair. Tens of thousands of thirsty fest-goers attend where an estimated 300,000 bottles of wine and sekt (sparkling wines) are

Our first glass of the evening

consumed. And since that is quite a number of people imbibing, the city offers special discounted bus tickets. Present your validated ticket at the city-sponsored booth and you receive a card for a free glass of wine to start off the festivities. This is also the place where you can pick up your custom wine glasses that are created each year by the city of Wiesbaden. They are inexpensive souvenirs (2 Euros a piece) which are not only decorative, but awfully handy while you try out the various wines.


Dinner is served!

There are always bands performing all types of music on three different stages and you are sure to find something wonderful to eat at one of the many food vendors. In addition to the noble bratwurst, you can find wonderful selections that pair perfectly with whatever wine you like. You’ll find merchants preparing platters of antipasti with a selections of cheeses, meats, fruit, and breads. Or giant soft baked pretzels with a side of Spundekäse which is a mixture of cream cheese, quark (a German spreadable cheese), onions, garlic, and sweet paprika. There are lots of other tasty delicacies that are too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say, you will not go hungry.

Festive indeed.

Germans always seem to have a great time at fests, whatever the theme or reason. We have noticed at these types of events, alcohol—whether beer or wine—sometimes flows at an alarming rate. If this were in the States, I’m sure I’d see news reports the next day of drunken brawls with arrests being made. But here? To paraphrase Cyndi Lauper, Germans “just want to have fun.” You’ll see them sitting at fest tables, engaged in conversation and enjoying life along with their wine and Spundekäse. A few break into unusual forms of interpretive dance while a local cover band plays hits of the ‘80s. The Germans are often thought of as a very staunch and practical people. But give them a fest and they can have fun with the best of them.

Next year’s Weinwoche is scheduled for 11–20 August. You should consider giving it a try for your next holiday. You won’t be sorry, except perhaps for that slight headache you might experience the morning after—but it’s well worth it!

Bad Ems—Really Not Bad After All

Bad Ems, situated on the banks of the River Lahn, dates back to Roman times and historically was the place for a rest cure for the rich, the famous, and the royal. This beautiful town has also been known as the “Emperor’s Spa,” due to the fact that the Emperor Wilhelm I visited Bad Ems regularly for almost twenty years in the 19th century. The list of dignitaries who visited the town was a long one. From royalty such as King George IV of England to the some of the legends of the arts community, everyone who was anyone came to this lavish spa town for recuperation as well as recreation.

The Kur and Therapy Center

Today Bad Ems is still a place of relaxation and healing. In Germany, many citizens can go to their doctor and be prescribed a “kur.” This is basically an all-expense paid trip to a spa town where you can rest, partake in various therapies, soak in the mineral-rich waters, and restore yourself to health. Nice work (or rest) if you can get it! Kurs are becoming less of a regular part of German life nowadays. The younger generation tends to feel they are not needed or are more for the elderly.

A lovely town

But Bad Ems is a lovely place to wander. The architecture is lavishly Baroque and Rococo in style. The pastel shades of the buildings are cheerful, yet restful. The town has an abundance of parks and green spaces to walk in. Or you can just to sit on one of the many benches along the River Lahn and watch the people stroll past. There didn’t seem to be that many people on the day we were there. This was a little surprising since this was high season, but it was the middle of the week. Sadly, we have noticed a major drop in tourism of late, probably due to the unrest that has hit Europe. We detest crowds and love not having to search for an available table for lunch, so there is an upside for us. But it is a major blow for the local economy. I must admit that it felt rather odd to see so few people enjoying the beautiful day.

The town is not huge and makes a lovely day-trip. Besides all the natural and architectural eye-candy, Bad Ems has a few pleasant diversions for your day. There are some wonderful shops including a few of the antique variety that are really enjoyable to poke around in. There are plenty of places to sit outside and have a typical German lunch without breaking the bank. A hearty and delicious meal of a schnitzel with mushrooms, French fries, and a salad that tasted fresh from the garden was only 10.50 Euros. You can also take a 1-hour boat cruise down the Lahn that allows you to enjoy the scenery while an explanation of the sights and buildings is broadcast over a loud speaker as you

Taking the waters

pass. And you’ll want to stop at the Roman Spring for a taste of the mineral water out of the faucet. It is said to cure digestive problems but be sure and bring your own cup. Supposedly the Romans relied upon these waters to ease their tummy troubles after enjoying one feast too many!

St. Martin’s Church

There are two lovely churches that deserve special attention. One is the gleaming, golden onion-domed Russian Orthodox chapel dedicated to St. Alexandra. It is only open a few hours in the afternoons. For the entrance fee of 1 Euro you can go inside and see a profusion of Russian icons, paintings, and gold encrusted creations all set inside a surprisingly small space. Saint Martin’s Catholic Church is also worth a stop. With its William Morris-styled frescos painted on the walls, and its distinctive altar decorated with a pelican’s nest and forest animals, this church is truly unique.

A fresco in St. Martin’s

Finally, there is a cable railway called the Kurwaldbahn that climbs a very steep 220 meters to a breathtaking view of the Lahn valley every 10 minutes starting around 6:00 a.m. and running until 10:00 at night. At the top, you can grab a bite at a café with panoramic views from the terrace or take a hike on one of the numerous walking paths at your disposal.

There is more to see and do in this enchanting town, but that will have to wait for another day and another visit. Above everything else, the best thing to do in Bad Ems is just relax.

[Note: for those who are not familiar with Germany, “Bad” denotes a spa town, with mineral springs. It translates literally as “Bath.” It is often used as a prefix, as in Bad Homburg or Bad Kissingen, but is also often incorporated into place names, such as Wiesbaden or Karlsbad.]

Goodnight, Vienna…

Just another bakery—with amazing architecture!

We are at our last post about our trip to Vienna. So far we have covered staying in a Tyrolean cottage, musical restrooms, our search for the ultimate Sacher Torte, and the sad tale of the Empress Sisi. But now we want to share just a few more sights we enjoyed and we also want to show one way to save a small bundle on attractions if you decide to visit this historic city.

One of our most memorable visits in the city was to the Kunsthistorisch (Art History) Museum in the Neue Burg (New Palace). The inside of the

The Peasant Wedding, Pieter Bruegel the Elder

building was a marvel in itself before we ever saw any of the exhibits. Emperor Franz Joseph had this museum built to house the imperial collections and he spared no expense. If you spend much time in Europe, you inevitably see a lot of the great works of western art. These collections

A stairway in the Museum
A stairway in the Museum

were among the very best we’ve seen. We saw masterpieces by Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, and Vermeer, as well as the world’s largest collection of works by Bruegel. I saw a lot of works that I could remember seeing in textbooks when I was a child. It was quite an experience for us to wander gallery after gallery and gaze in person upon these incredible pieces that show up regularly as illustrations in books and magazines.

The baby was irresistible.
The baby was irresistible.
A harpsichord
Harpsichord, Joseph Salodiensis, 1559

The museum also housed a wonderful collection of Historic Musical Instruments. This was a real treat for us. Vienna is known for its legacy of magnificent composers. Gazing upon some of the actual instruments used in their day was quite inspiring. Many of these not only played melodies but were also beautiful works of art.

In addition to art and music we visited the huge exhibit of medieval arms and armor. We walked through room after room filled with some of the most spectacular and elaborately adorned full-sized suits of armor, as well as hunting and ceremonial weapons. There was even a collection of magnificent saddles for the well-dressed steed of the late Middle Ages and Renaissance. We ended up our day viewing the Egyptian and Near Eastern Collection, where we entered an Egyptian burial chamber and saw an incredible assortment of Greek and Roman Antiquities.

Armed to the teeth
Armed to the teeth

Vienna is filled with a multitude of things to see and of course we couldn’t manage them all. But if you ever do plan to visit this incredible city, be sure to take advantage of the Vienna Pass. This little card gave us free entry into over 60 of Vienna’s most popular attractions and museums for one price. It not only saved us a bundle but it also in many cases allowed us to skip the long lines of people waiting for tickets. We were able to show our cards at various attractions and get waved through, to the consternation and somewhat irritated looks from those stuck in the line. For a brief, shining moment we knew what it must feel like to be a celebrity. If you ever plan a trip to Vienna, this is a must. For more information you can check out their website at: https://www.viennapass.com/. Highly recommended.

Vienna is truly a magical place and we want to visit there again. But there are so many places we still want to see before it’s time to go home. Keep checking back here and see where we go next!

Death of an Empress–Birth of a Celebrity

When we started this blog, we thought it would be a fun way of sharing some of our European adventures along with some day-to-day observations of what it’s like to sometimes feel like a stranger in a strange land. I mean, really? The Dutch people swallow raw pickled herring whole! When we started our Vienna post, it was all about coffee, Strauss waltzes playing in public restrooms, and heavenly chocolate cake. Now we find ourselves caught up in the larger-than-life story of a woman who to this day is a rock star of royalty over here and we had never really heard of her. Her tale is almost finished and we will be returning shortly to our regularly-scheduled program of travel stories and photos. But for now, it’s time to finish up with the fate of the Empress and hope it makes us all realize that maybe some of our problems are not all that bad.

Finally more or less reconciled to the suicide of her son, Sisi decided it was time to resume her role as a “proper” wife to her husband. As a result, she bore her fourth and last child, Marie Valerie in 1864. Sisi was determined this time to play an active role in the raising and nurturing of the child. In the past, she had given up that task to her domineering mother-in-law. Poor Marie was nearly smothered by all the bottled-up mother love that Sisi had withheld from her older children. But before long the erratic and

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Katharina Schratt in 1880

compulsive empress felt hemmed in again. She was probably feeling guilty for the marital exile she had enforced on Franz-Joseph. She had actually encouraged a relationship to blossom between her husband and the Austrian actress Katharina Schratt.    That bond with the Emperor lasted for 34 years, but most reliable sources say the relationship was platonic. Sisi traveled constantly, never feeling contented and always searching for something she could never find. Once again, depression became her constant companion.


Even with all the scandals, suicides, and unhappiness, the public really knew very little about the empress except what they learned from the occasional article about her equestrian skills or her fashion sense. She was not much of an icon or legend. But this would all change in September 1898 in Geneva, Switzerland. At the age of sixty, Sisi, along with Countess Sztáray, her lady-in-waiting, was walking along the promenade to board the steamship Genève for Montreux when she was attacked. Her assailant was Luigi Lucheni, a 25-year old Italian anarchist who had originally planned to kill the Duke of Orléans. But the Duke had already left town.

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The Assassin

Unfortunately, a Geneva newspaper had printed an article the same day revealing that a woman traveling in Geneva under the assumed name and title of the Countess of Hohenembs was in reality, Empress Elizabeth of Austria. Lucheni quickly shifted his focus and went after this much more enticing target. He feigned a stumble as he approached the Empress, and seemed to reach out to steady himself. In reality, he stabbed her in the chest with a four-inch long sharpened needle file. Sisi collapsed but appeared to be uninjured. Countess Sztáray rushed her aboard the steamer, where she collapsed again. When she didn’t regain consciousness, the Countess told the Captain and Sisi was carried back to her hotel, where she died after a few final breaths.

Kärntner Straße, Vienna's most famous shopping street
Kärntner Straße, Vienna’s most famous shopping street

This is the point in our story where Sisi starts to become larger than life. Memorials, death masks, engraved prints of the assassination, portraits, and life-sized sculptures appeared everywhere. Suddenly, the unhappy empress who shied away from the public eye and just wished to be left alone, was front and center. With her name on everyone’s lips, a somewhat romanticized memoir was hastily created to satisfy public demand. Sisi was much better known after her death than throughout her 44-year reign as the Empress of Austria.

Evening in Vienna 4
Evening in Vienna


The legend of Sisi still shimmers today. Back in the 1950s, a trilogy of films starring cheek-pinchingly cute Romy Schneider as our ill-fated heroine was released to an adoring public. The films are pretty standard fare for their time. They pulled out all the stops with saturated color, gorgeous costumes, beautiful locations, soaring music, and scripts that were so far from the truth as to be almost comical. They have become classics in Europe along the lines of Gone With The Wind or The Wizard of Oz in America. The films get pulled out of the archives for an annual airing on German and Austrian television at Christmastime. They have actually generated a great deal of tourism for Austria. And Austria and Vienna are well worth visiting. During our stay, we spent a lot of quality time touring the royal apartments at the Schönbrunn and Hofburg Palaces. Also at the Hofburg palace complex, we took in the Sisi Museum, the imperial silver collection, and several world-class art and history museums. Even though all that money didn’t buy happiness for the Empress of Austria, it certainly bought at least some for us. For me, Vienna is in the same class as London or Paris as a destination, and that’s pretty rarified company.

Travels and Tragedy with the Empress

Well I promised you more on the sad fate of Sisi and her beloved son Rudolf. So without further ado, let’s pull back those tapestry drapes and find out what happened!

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Sisi in mourning

After the death of her daughter, Sisi was overcome with depression and felt her life spiraling out of control. She vowed to remedy this the only way she knew how. She had always paid attention to her appearance in the past but she soon became so obsessed with diet and exercise that it became the main driving force in her life. She was so consumed with her appearance that she would fast for days or she would eat only miniscule meals of milk and eggs. She had a gymnasium installed in the palace as well as mats and balance beams in her bedroom so she could exercise when she woke up each morning. She rode her horse for hours every day and took up fencing. But none of this could ease her sadness. Her sorrow was not only due to the loss of her child, but also the rigors of living within the confines of the royal family. In particular, her dictatorial mother-in-law looked at Sisi as more of a brood mare than an empress worthy of her exalted son.

On 21 August 1858, Sisi finally gave birth to a son. After the birth, her mother-in-law took over the job of raising the boy, much to Sisi’s dismay. Rudolf was very much like his mother in sensitivity and temperament. When his father Franz Joseph wished the boy to enter military training, Sisi forbade it, knowing it to be unsuitable to her vulnerable son’s personality. But even with all of Sisi’s arguments on Rudolf’s behalf, she spent very little time with the boy or his older sister Gisela. She was prone to chronic illnesses. There is speculation today that her symptoms could have been psychosomatic or a result of venereal disease, since she had been withholding affection from her husband for quite some time. However, this seems unlikely. It was rumored that Franz Joseph was having an affair with an actress named Frau Roll. Sisi began using her illnesses as an excuse to escape from her husband and children. Her doctors would advise her to go away on a rest cure, sometimes for months or years at a time. Her health would improve but the symptoms would come back with a vengeance once she returned home.

Crown Prince Rudolf in 1889

As for Rudolf, in May of 1881, at the age of 23 he married Princess Stephanie of Belgium. They had one child, a daughter named Elisabeth, born two years after the marriage. The husband and wife soon grew apart and Rudolf began drowning his sorrows with alcohol and multiple affairs. He even wrote to the Pope in hopes of annulling his marriage, but his father put a stop to that.

In 1887, Rudolf bought Mayerling, a hunting lodge in the woods of Vienna. In late 1888, the 30-year-old Crown Prince met the 17-year-old Baroness Marie Vetsera and the two began an affair. The union was destined to end tragically. Emperor Franz Joseph demanded that his son end the affair once and for all. The relationship was indeed ended, but in a suicide pact. The Crown Prince shot his mistress in the head and then turned the gun on himself and ended his misery. Cover-ups ensued and the press was told that Rudolf had succumbed to a heart attack. But inquisitive members of the press soon found out about the involvement of the Baroness. Deeper investigations revealed that it was actually a lovers’ suicide.

Die Baronesse im Abendkleid mit Cul de Paris.
The Baroness

Sisi once again retreated into severe depression and never fully recovered from the loss of her only son. To make matters worse, over the course of just a few years she lost her father, mother, and sister. The Empress dressed only in black for the rest of her life. Due to the scandal that seemed to follow her, the press and the public began to hound her and turn her into a public celebrity and icon. She took to carrying a parasol and a fan to hide her face from prying eyes when out in public.

Okay, I think that’s enough misery for one post. We still have one more installment to go before Sisi has her final rendezvous with fate. And I’ll delve into the creation of a legend based on myths and half-truths that has lasted for more than a century. But to lighten the mood a bit for now, I’ve included a couple of Vienna street scenes from our vist.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral
A surprise view in a side street