Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures

To celebrate our 40th anniversary, December 29, 2008, Fred and I decided to do some things we've been wanting to do for a long time, like train rides through mountains, and sleigh rides through the woods.

We found a tour, "Christmas in Austria," that allowed us to do all that and much more, including gourmet dinners, a Christmas to remember with inspiring music, an adventurous climb around the Sauerburg Castle, visiting the largest model railroad in the world, and spending our anniversary in a romantic hotel overlooking the most beautiful parts of the Rheine River. I wrote about it to our friends and family as we traveled -- below is our journey's journal. Enjoy!

(For a list of photos click here)

We arrived safely in Germany! -- Tuesday, 12/16/08
At night, a crowd of people stroll in the plaza among market stands, with neon sign Hi everyone! We had a lovelz day, today (I am using the hotel computer in the lobby and the keyboard is funky -- the Y and Z are reversed) and Iäm hastily writing to let you know we arrived safe and are reallz enjoying ourselves.

Our adventures started when we figured out how to get to our hotel on the subway -- that was a lot of fun, and it enlivened me enough to be able to stay awake all day so we can sleep tonight (we got about 2 hours of sleep on the plane last night, when we arrived it was about one in the morning our time but of course here in Germany it was already time for breakfast!)

Right near our hotel is a Christmas market ("Chriskindlmart" -- see photos) where the streets are closed and thez have picturesque little stands selling drinks like "glü wein" (hot mulled wine), hot cider, punch and grog, falafel, potato pancakes, scarves (Jomania, I got one for one of my dressy sweaters with colors that I LOVE!), lots of bratworst and FABULOUS crepes filled with whatever sweets you want (we got one filled with bananas, raisins, and nuts). Stephan, it reminded me very much of the street scene in Guangzhou, China, where families and everyone were walking around having a good time. I'll take some photos tomorrow and share them).

Then we went to the miniature train displaz and WOW! There was one place where there were miniature cars and trucks driving around, obeying traffic signals, merging into highways, and stopping for emergency vehicles. One building would "catch on fire," and fire trucks from all over the layout would turn on their sirens and come running, the smoke would be pouring out of the building until they finally put out the "fire," and then the fire trucks dispersed back into the general traffic until the next time the building caught on fire.

Anyway, I will go back upstairs and get some sleep, we are hoping this will put us back on regular sleeping schedule. Tomorrow is Fred's birthday, we will probably be back at the miniature railroad again, but this time I'll be awake enough to really appreciate it.

-- Dona

Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures Continue -- Friday, 12/19/08

Our private guide, Sonya, stands with Fred behind the layout and points out something to him. Hi everyone! A few days ago, I was starting to tell you what a WONDERFUL time Fred and I are having here in Germany, and the incredible "Miniature Wünderland." It is the largest model railroad in the world, and is the sole purpose of our going to Hamburg for 3 days before our "Christmas in Austria" guided tour (which started today).

After visiting Miniature Wünderland for 3 days, there were still some things we hadn't seen! (see some photos) There are about a half-dozen rooms in this warehouse, each displaying a different country, with detailed scenery, trains, minature people, etc. The Scandinavian Wünderland has a large bay with real water that goes up and down with the tide, and large boats that float around and dock.

The Amerika Wünderland and another section both have miniature vehicles running around the streets -- they somehow are programmed to obey the complex traffic signals (even with left-turning arrows!) and, in the Amerika section, they actually merge into highways without crashing! There are sensors that measure the speed of the vehicles, and if one goes too fast more than once, one of the police cars comes up and pulls it over, and if the sensor detects a vehicle going too slowly, it programs the vehicle to come into a special docking system and charge itself before going back out into the streets!

There are little fire engines roaming around or docked in their fire stations, and about every 10 minutes, a "fire" breaks out in one of the buildings (complete with smoke and flickering lights) or a truck catches fire or jack-knifes and blocks off the traffic, or a brush-fire starts in one of the fields. When that happens, the little fire engines one by one turn on their siren and run over to the fire! After they've all gathered, the fire is "extinguished," or the truck recovers, and the fire trucks return to their fire station or continue to roam.

It was fun to look at the miniature figures (they had about 200,000 human figures!) and the stories they displayed -- there was a shoot-out with the FBI in Amerika, and a stadium with thousands of cheering fans waving flags, and a rock concert, and picnics, and workers, and family festivals. When we looked into the windows, people were eating at restaurants, doing laundry and lots of stuff -- we found about a half-dozen couples having sex in the offices or the sunflower field, and in one penthouse they were making a porno movie.

Meanwhile, we kept seeing small groups of people (real people ) getting tours "behind the scenes" (we could see them on the far side of the layouts, looking back toward us) and Fred said in a few years, after he learns enough German, we'll come back and get one of those special tours too. Well, the last day we were there, when he was getting some coffee, he happened to run into a gorgeous blond, who happens to be the only "behind-the-scenes" guide who speaks English, so she gave us a special tour in English!

The special treat of that tour topped off an unbelievably fabulous visit to the Wünderland. The work that went into designing and building this marvel is amazing. She explained that there are figures in all the countries having sex and nudity except in Amerika, where the people are too prudish, so the only sex going on in Amerika is "behind the scenes," visible only to the people taking the tour . She also explained how the boats in Scandinavia were guided around the fjords -- after trying to design various automatic systems, like the systems that run the vehicles, they ended up with a "bio-computer" system. That is -- there is a person hidden behind one of the hills, using a remote control!

Anyway, that visit itself to Miniature Wünderland was worth the entire trip, we really enjoyed it. And every evening, right near our hotel, was one of the "Chriskindlmarkts" -- Christmas markets. Every year at this time, the streets were closed off and booths set up to sell hot wine and cider, snacks (Jomania, they had a GREAT falafel stand where I got my dinner every night and some breakfasts too!), and people walked around and stood at tables in the cold with their babies bundled and their children, drinking and eating and browsing. It was great fun to mingle and enjoy ourselves among the people.

So that brings us up to last night, when we got our final falafels, drank our last hot "glü wein" and watched street performers drumming and twirling fire, and got onto a sleeper train to come here to Salzburg. The scenery this morning was charming -- it had been snowing for the last day or two, and we saw lots of snowy woods and little villages with rustic Tudor/stucco houses and houses with colorful shutters and flowerboxes and steep overhanging roofs. When we arrived, we were greeted by Karin, our guide for the next 7-8 days for her "Christmas in Austria" tour. There are only 6 people on the tour, we'll meet the rest tomorrow, but today, while they recover from jet lag, we enjoyed another treat that we thought would be fun -- a sleigh ride in the snowy mountains!

It turned out even better than I'd imagined (click here for photos). Karin's friend Herte drove us up into the mountains, where it was snowing heavily, with the snow about a foot deep. The driver was bearded, with a shaggy vest and sloping-brimmed hat draped with fabric and a tiny bell. He got us all snuggled under the blankets (Herte in front facing us, and us in the back facing forward), then as we took off, he started yodeling, in a beautiful, clear voice. He kept that up for a little while, greeting some of the people with the yodeling before we got into the quiet woods, then sang some folk songs that Herte joined in, then he encouraged us to sing some American Christmas carols. After a while we settled down for about an hour of quietly gliding through beautiful snow-covered pine tree forest. We ended up at a quaint-looking tavern where we had some hot chocolate, took a little walk through the snow and made a snow-angel, then went back down again in the dusk. We couldn't believe how warm we stayed, even though the snow was piling up all over us, our coats and hoods ended up soaking wet, but we stayed dry and warm (we bundled up with lots of layers). Sooooo romantic!

Well, that brings us up to now. I'm hoping I'm not frying my laptop with the converter -- the charger crackles and the mouse jumps all over when I plug it in -- Paul and Mark, let me know if I should stop using the converter and wait till we get home to send / check email, I don't want to destroy my computer. If I can, I'll report again in a few days and tell you of our further adventures.

-- Dona

Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- Monday, 12/22/08

Hi everyone! This is the first chance I've had to write anything in a while -- my computer started acting REAL crazy and I decided not to chance using it again, so I am now using a computer in the lobby of our hotel in Graz. I've asked Stephan and Mom to forward this to everyone since I don't have the addresses without my computer.

But I'm afraid that the messages from here on will be BORING -- we're having fun but it's kinda standard touristy stuff.

We are now in the hands of our tour guide, Karin, who picked us up at the train station in Salzburg Friday morning and got us on our way to the sleigh ride, driven by her friend Herte. The next day we started her 7-day "Christmas in Austria" tour with a walk through the "Chriskindlmarket" in front of a former Archbishop's summer mansion (I forget which century it was built to serve as a place for the Archbishop to live and to entertain). Compared to the vibrant, lively Christkindlmarket we had enjoyed in the evenings in Hamburg, where we had hot wine punch and falafel and watched crowds of people and families enjoying themselves, this was at 10 oclock in the morning with dreary, cold rain (we forgot our umbrellas and got soaked and cold) with very few people there, just little stands with the standard Christmas stuff. We did get a chuckle learning about the antics of the archbishop, who enjoyed playing jokes -- we went to see the table and stools where his guests would sit outside in the summers. Each of their stools had a little hole in the middle of the seats, and when the Archbishop reached down and pushed a secret button, water would come spraying up through those holes! I can only imagine the reaction of the finely dressed guests!

Except for that cold, drizzly event, we've been having a good time. I won't bore you with details, but we've enjoyed ...

  • a wonderful concert in the fort that sits atop one of the cliffs and mountains that wrap around much of Salzburg (the only way to get to this fortress is up an incline tram);

  • a trip in a 100-year-old train or tram (Fred was in HEAVEN! Got to see inside the driver's cabin, we half expected him to start driving it!) to in Oberland (just outside Salzburg) where the song "Silent Night" was composed and first sung (the original church was flooded so they built a cozy little chapel on that spot as a monument, with live performances of Christmas music outside);

  • a visit to the apartments where Mozart was born and raised and the museum they made there (I've concluded that museums here in Austria are dismal, the one here in Mozart's birthplace and the one at the "Silent Night" church don't explain any of the history, I guess they assume that everyone knows it); and
  • a fabulous dinner-musical last night (a guy who looked JUST like a young Al Pachino singing in a deep, beautiful voice with a woman who was a delight to listen to, singing from Mozart operas accompanied by strings) in the oldest restaurant in Australia (I think it was built in the 9th century! BEAUTIFUL, large spatious rooms decorated exquisitely).

    So this morning Fred and I parted with the group for 2 days to do something we've been wanting to do for years -- take a train through mountains. We took a 4-hour train ride from Salzburg to here in Graz, Austria. Oh, MY, we were not disappointed! we started out going up into the mountains, with snow everywhere and strips of fog accenting the trees in front of it, then down in the plains passing picturesque villages nestled where the valleys meet the mountains -- we'll send photos, and hope they do it justice. We'll take that train back again tomorrow afternoon, can't wait!

    Meanwhile, this afternoon we explored Graz, guided by Herte (the same woman who took us to the sleigh ride). After she left, as the sun was setting, we climbed 260 steps up a cliff (the steps were built by Russian prisoners early in the 20th century) to view the city from a .... well I don't remember what was up there, a church or fortress or what. I DO remember being frightened again by the height as we climbed. About half-way up, I started getting the willies, the goosy-creepy feeling I get when I am too close to the edge of something high, and this was HIGH! Poor Fred had to keep his distance as I walked along, keeping in touch with the wall, away from the railing at the edge. Well, at least I didn't have to get down on my hands and knees to move, like I did along the wall in Yang Nian, China.

    All right, that brings up to now, we are back in the hotel and checking email, very glad to hear that the snow and blizzard skipped Maryland (Gene, I hope you are enjoying it from your new home in NYC). Tomorrow night when we return to Salzburg we are having dinner with the rest of the group in a restaurant that Herte says is the best in the city, so yahoo! After the first night's restaurant, when my vegetarian dinner after a fabulous soup consisted only of bread, dumplings and desert (they did bring me some vegetables when I asked for It), my dinners have been delicious, so hopefully it will be good tomorrow too.

    It will probably be several days before we can check email again, so I hope meantime you all are well and enjoying yourselves.

    -- Dona

    Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- Wednesday, 12/24/08

    Hi everyone! well, after deciding not to risk my laptop with any more internet, I've been unable to access it any other way, so I decided to try again. It's behaving well for the moment (knock on wood!) so I am working from my laptop again.

    It's Christmas Eve / Christmas morning, Fred is asleep after a lovely day and I plan to join him as soon as I relate to you our continuing adventures. I'll start back when I last wrote you from the hotel in Graz Monday night.

    Tuesday morning we took the trolley back into the old city of Graz (after sleeping in till 8:30 and getting a nice leisurely breakfast at the hotel -- hurray, my kind of travel!) and got some nut rolls like Fred's (German) mother used to make for Christmas, and little glass candle-holders for gifts for our tour agent and her mother who would host us for a dinner Christmas Eve. Mark, the guy used to be a manager at a glass-blowing factory until about 7 years ago, when he started blowing glass himself and opened up his own business. He said that until students and artists started coming from America, all glass was blown by huge companies (like the one where he worked) but when they saw what the Americans were doing, they started doing their own business. Now there are fewer and fewer big glass-blowing companies and more and more individuals like him. We got some brochures from him, and Fred took some pictures.

    Anyway, after a lovely morning in the old part of Graz (we saw the sun and blue sky for the first time since we arrived in Austria, hurray!), we got back on the train to return to Salzburg. It was only a day after our train ride where we saw everything covered with snow, and but this time the snow was melted in all but a few parts, revealing picturesque grassy valleys and steep hills in front of snowy mountains, and the darling villages with the German/Austrian houses. Toward the end it was getting dusk, and we saw the houses start to light up, making them even more cozy-looking.

    After we arrived at our hotel in Salzburg, we had a nice dinner with the rest of the gang (this time I had a plate filled with vegetables, which was great -- my first vegetarian dinner on this tour had a delicious pumpkin soup but then nothing but bread, dumplings with a thin tomato sauce, and dessert). They told us about another Mozart museum they saw while we were in Graz, but they said that this one actually was informative, so we decided to go see it the next morning when we had some free time.

    So this morning we walked a short way through the narrow, twisting streets near our hotel and found the place where Mozart's family moved after they had toured Europe. It was GREAT! The museum was very informative, not only with a video of the lives of Mozart and his family (he and his sister endured years of grueling travel when they were children) but displays where you listen to some of his music while you read about and see pictures of the people who inspired or commissioned him to compose. They had receivers for us to carry through the museum so we could listen to the descriptions and history in English -- even the video was just pictures and music, and the narrative was in your own langauge through the receivers. COOL!

    Afterwards, we went to a little Chinese restaurant we had discovered the night before -- it is VEGETARIAN! It is run by a very nice Chinese man who said that he is about to close it because there are no customers in Salzburg who want vegetarian food. He opened it six months ago and said he has lost a lot of money. He said he hasn't figured out yet what he'll do when it closes -- he is single, so at least he doesn't have to worry about supporting a family -- although he did say he has a son. I was disappointed to know that this city won't support a vegetarian restaurant. Stephan, do you know how the vegetarian restaurants are doing in Japan? Do you want me to get his contact information? I don't know if he'll be open on Christmas day, we need to get lunch on our own tomorrow and Friday and we can go over there again.

    After lunch we joined the group again and went up to the fortress that overlooks the city to listen to music in their chapel. It was a beautiful, small (seating about 50 people) chapel, and so full that we barely squeezed in to stand at the back of the group standing behind the pews, where I could see nothing. I thought it was going to be yet another service with another long sermon in German that I don't understand and little music (we had two of those Sunday morning, thinking they were going to be concerts) and so during the priest's sermon (it was a comforting message -- Karin whispered that it was about the recession and explaining that times were also bad when Jesus was born and so, just as things turned out fine then, we will be all right too), I slipped out to explore the fortress and DARN! I missed some great music, Fred says. After 6-7 songs, they ended with singing a very charming rendition of "I'm going to let it shine" in English. Darn, I'll stay and listen next time!

    While we explored the fort with Karin afterwards, we heard the story of why the citizens of Salzburg are sometimes called the Ox Washers. In the 1500's they were under seige by enemy who decided to wait them out until they starved. They had eaten everything but one ox. To deceive the enemy into thinking they had plenty of food, they painted each half of the ox and had him walk along the top of the wall where he could be seen, then turned it around and had him walk the other way, then washed off the paint and painted it differently to be seen again. The enemy got discouraged, thinking they had enough food to last forever, and went away.

    After we changed clothes at the hotel, we went to the home of our guide Karin's mother, Gerhilt, where Karin had prepared us a Christmas (Eve) dinner from food she had gotten at the farmer's market yesterday. Gerhilt lives in a little apartment, and they had placed a large table in the living room with a live Christmas tree decorated with the charming stars and figures made out of straw that are so popular here (Herte said they learned to make them in school) and some sparklers that she lit later in the evening.

    The dinner was about 7 courses, served slowly so we could enjoy ourselves throughout the evening, talking about Christmas traditions and families. The dinner included a dark bread with fresh goat cheese and sweet farm butter, shredded parsnips with liver pudding (she prepared a special vegetarian version of the dinner for me -- where the rest had sausage and smoked bacon and sauerkraut with meat in it I had a stew of vegetables and a vegetarian sauerkraut), a soup with a special hand-pressed disks of noodles mixed with cheese, delicious salad of greens with pumpkin seed oil (that oil is VERY flavorful, I plan to get some!) and a fabulous chocolate cake.

    Oops, gotta go, Fred would like the light off. Real quick, I'll tell you that we went to the midnight mass in a BEAUTIFUL church, so ornate, wow! And at the end of the service they sang Silent Night, we really enjoyed it.

    So, that's it -- I hope you're all enjoying a great Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

    -- Dona

    Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- Thursday, 12/25/08

    Hi everyone, and merry Christmas! I hope you had a very nice day -- we sure did, wow, it was a Christmas to remember!

    We got to sleep in a little, left the hotel around 10:00 and went back to the same BEAUTIFUL church we were at last night, for another mass. Again they had a choir with violins and orchestra, and filled the church with uplifting music. At one point Fred seemed to be almost in tears, saying they were singing one of the hymns or songs that his parents used to sing -- he hasn't heard it in many years -- "Danklied." And again at the very end, they sang Silent Night while Fred and I hugged and gently rocked to the music. SOOO nice!

    Then our guide, Karin, found out that the Archbishops' former residence was open (as is almost everything on Christmas Day! The Christkindlmarket stands were brimming with Christmas ornaments and pastries and candy and the warm cider / wine, people were strolling around in a cheerful mood) so we went in to tour it.

    This was another fascinating place -- it's where the Archbishops used to live and hold court or do business, receiving princes and ambassadors from other areas, it was GORGEOUS. The ceilings were covered with scrolls and designs formed with (fresco?) including little figures holding up large ceiling paintings of Alexander the Great (I didn't realize he was so important to the Austrians, I'll have to go study the history), and with beautiful parquet floors with designs of the different colored wood.

    Each room had a heater (they called it a "stove" but it is very different from anything we've seen outside of Austria -- we saw some at the taverns when we went for our sleigh ride, and thought it was unique to the mountains). The heaters are large, ornate floor-to-ceiling ceramic cylinders (one was a square metal box framing large tiles), and they are completely enclosed except for an attachment to the wall. The tiles or ceramic hold the heat, but you don't see any fire. Behind the wall is a little room that can be accessed from the hall to reach the fire inside the "stove" and add fuel without disturbing the people in the room. Clever, huh? They were great for warming our hands and drying our gloves when we were on the sleigh ride.

    Mark, Dad (Fred) took photos of all the clocks -- there was at least one in every room, a few hundred years old and very ornate (one indicated the season, the moon phase, and I forget what else). One of them sat on the table and its face was made of silk so you could see light through it, and they would place a candle behind it so the Archbishop could read the time even at night!

    After the tour, Fred and I went back to our vegetarian Chinese friend and had lunch at his restaurant. We weren't sure he'd be open on Christmas day and were pleased to find him there -- he said business has been good today and yesterday since many restaurants are closed. Stephan, he would love to communicate with you -- his name is Dam Minh. He said that last night he had looked at the photos of our trip to China on my website and will make me something that he saw me eating in Shanghai -- he tried to describe it but I couldn't figure it out. Tomorrow is our last day here, and we will go back to his restaurant in the afternoon and see what he makes. (PS -- I just looked, and we are making wontons -- perhaps that is what he will make).

    Anyway, so far it had been a delightful Christmas Day and at that point it started snowing, which capped the mood (except it also got windy and cold, so we didn't hang around too much before going back to the hotel to change). At about 4:00, we got picked up to go to the "Festive Christmas Concert" (Festliches Weihnachtskonzert) at the -- how can I describe it except to say, again, "beautiful" -- Mozarteum concert hall.

    This was the Salzburg cathedral children's choir and the choir Salisburgensis and soloists, singing and performing with the Salzburg Cathedral Orchestra -- ahhhhh! It was most wonderful concert yet! The sound of children singing is my favorite kind of music, and these were delightful. Some of the singers were so small (about 8 years old, I'd guess) that they had trouble holding the music. Actually all the singers were young, even the adults looked like students in their 20's or teens. Two of the older ones sang "Silent Night" accompanied by nothing but a guitar (as it was originally sung) and then the entire choir did a wonderful rendition of the Messiah's Hallaluyah chorus. Each year I try to attend a concert of the Messiah but don't always make it, and here we were able to enjoy it in this beautiful setting on Christmas day.

    But wait, there's more! As we were still glowing from the incredible concert, we went for dinner at a charming restaurant overlooking a little skating rink (small children had little penguins about as tall as they are to push ahead of them for support -- so cute!) where I had delicious pumpkin soup with that tasty pumpkin seed oil, and spinach ravioli and of course a great dessert -- it was mocha mousse with baby oranges. The rest of the group had what Fred said was great food, and very appropriate for a Christmas dinner -- turkey stuffed with spinach and cheese, with dumplings and cabbage.

    So what can I say? It was a wonderful, fabulous day, topping off a wonderful, fabulous Christmas week in Austria. We were so very, very glad we came here, it's been like a second honeymoon. We have only one more day in Austria -- one more concert and one more dinner and another church service in another beautiful church, and enough free time to get the photos Fred has been wanting to get, then the next day (Saturday) we get on a train to the Frankfurt / Weisbaden area where we'll spend our 40th anniversary.

    It will probably be a few days before I check in again, meanwhile I hope everything is going great with all you dear people, and that you are each surrounded by love and enjoying yourselves.

    -- Dona

    Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- Saturday, 12/27/08

    Hi everyone! We are finally on the train leaving Salzburg, the scene of our incredible Christmas in Austria trip. We have said Auf Wiedersehen ("Tschus" -- which always makes me think they are saying "cheers!" or "Ciao!") to Saltzburg, our tour companions, and of course our tour agent / guide Karin.

    Karin has been FABULOUS! She had planned a wonderful week, and all week she scurried around like our mother hen to make sure we got to all the concerts, dinners, museums and church services planned, and was always looking for opportunities for us to see or experience something great that wasn't planned. She helped us plan and then she made all the arrangements for the things we wanted that were not included in her tour, like our trains, the trip to Graz, the sleigh ride (including getting us there), and the hotels where we are going now that we have left her tour. I told her I felt like I was floating, with her carrying us along and all we had to do was sit back and enjoy. It's the first time we've traveled this way, and I love it!

    Ah, Fred is enjoying the trip -- we are on an ICE train, and several other ICE trains passed ours going the other way, it sounded like "eeeuuuuurrrrr! - eeeuuuuurrrrr! - eeeuuuuurrrrr!" He took a photo of the engineer in his cab in this train, and the speedometer showed 260 km/hour -- these things go fast! He likes to take pictures of our train and surrounding trains in each station after we board -- I keep having a little nightmare that we will board a train, hauling all our luggage on and getting settled with great relief that we made the right train on the right platform, and I'll sit down to read a book, the train will start to pull out and I'll look out the window to enjoy the view and there will be Fred, taking pictures of the train and trying to run to catch up!

    Anyway, I'll take us back to the last message, written Christmas night. The day after Christmas we went to another service, this one at the huge (beautiful, of course!) cathedral where we were surrounded by the music of the choir (and small orchestra!) from their balcony above and behind the pews. I especially enjoyed hearing "For Unto Us a Child is Given" from the Messiah, this time it was in English as it was originally written (the Hallaluyah Chorus we heard Christmas day was sung in German). At the end, we heard "Silent Night" while holding hands and relishing the last time we'd hear it in Austria. Their melody for "Silent Night" is slightly different from ours in the last stanza, I guess we Americans changed it some time over the years.

    The cathedral and each church we've seen has a beautiful creche, apparently Salzburg is famous for these creches. There was a collection of them on display outside the Archbishops' residence where we went Christmas Day -- Fred especially enjoyed these creches because the reproductions of buildings and scenery were high-quality, realistic diaramas.

    When we went back to the cathedral for photos later yesterday afternon, I solved a mystery. The churches are not heated, and everyone wears coats to the service, but several times we noticed that there was hot air coming from behind our legs -- I took my gloves off and stuck my hands under the seat to warm them, and we noticed that our seats were warm. I thought maybe we were fortunate, and happened to sit in the first pew in front of a heater. But later, when I bent down to look for the heater, I saw none. I investigated further and wow! Under EACH PEW, running the entire length just a few inches below the seat, is a cylindrical heater!

    We went out into the Chriskinklmarket, which was having its last day and the people still crowded for the glü wein (a hot drink made with wine, water, spices, and occasionally fruit, available only at Christmas time -- Fred also liked the "feuer-zangen bowl" which was a dark version of glü wein made by soaking fruit in wine for a day and "jagatee" ["hunter's tea"] *hic!* ).

    We walked over to the vegetarian Chinese restaurant to see what Minh had made for us. I was right, it was wontons -- large pot-stickers, they were delicious! The dough was chewy, like rice dough, and filled with veggies. He also made us a skewer of deep-fried soy-chicken and red peppers, and they were absolutely out of this world delicious! He had made them at home the night before, and wouldn't take any money for them.

    That night we went to another fabulous dinner (my vegetarian appetizer was some exotic fried mushrooms with a stiff mousse made of sweet potatoes -- delicious!) and wonderful concert of 6 strings that sounded like a full orchestra. Karin always gets us fabulous seats, this time we were again right in front of the performers, in the second row.

    Well, that completes our last day of a fabulous week. We packed and managed to catch thi,s train and here we are, going through Bavaria with its rolling hills, farms and villages, looking not unlike our beautiful Pennsylvania country except the houses are so quaint and distinctive. One thing puzzles me -- near Salzburg, we passed lots of farms that had a large barn partly attached to a huge building that looked like a quaint German apartment building 2-3 stories high and large enough to house a half dozen families. I could only think that maybe they were small communities, with shared facilities and perhaps all working on the farm, or perhaps it is to house the farm workers and their families. I took a picture and will ask Karin what they are.

    The trip from here is just the two of us in a rented car with a GPS. We're spending tonight and tomorrow morning in Wiesbaden (which has lots of spas, and I brought the names and 50-year-old addresses of Fred's mother's cousins and relatives one of whom is in Wiesbaden, I want to see who lives there now and if they know Fred's people) and ending with a day and two nights at a castle that has "romantic" packages that include saunas and dinners in romantic nooks of their restaurant. Unfortunately, it's not the Sauerburg Castle, which was fully booked with a conference or seminar but we want to go see the Sauerthal village nearby and hopefully tour the Sauerburg castle.

    Other than that, we have no plans, so we'll see how it goes. I don't know when I'll be able to connect to the internet and send this. Meanwhile, I hope each of you are warm and happy and enjoying yourselves.

    -- Dona

    Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- 12/29/08

    Happy Anniversary to us! Today we have been married 40 years, and it feels wonderful! But I don't have much time before we go to dinner, so I'll get started to share our adventures since our last message.

    At that time, I think we were in the train, on our way to Frankfurt's airport where we rented a car with a GPS. It was a white-knuckle start when we pulled out into aggressive traffic and we didn't know what all the signs meant, but before long the road opened up and we were on our way to Wiesbaden to spend the night.

    Many years ago, Fred's mother had told me the names and addresses of her cousins and relatives, and one of them lived in Wiesbaden when she last corresponded with them (it could have been 60-70 years ago), so I wanted to go see if anyone lived there now who knew these people. We walked about 3/4 of a mile and found the address a block or two away from the old town, but all that is there now is large office buildings that look fairly new. As we walked through the old town, we saw several beautiful buildings that our brochure said had been partly destroyed by bombing in World War II just a block or two from the cousin's address, so I wonder whether their home was also destroyed, or if developers later decided to build office space there. One of the old buildings had the registry of births and deaths, and I plan to find out when and where the cousins died, see if they survived the bombing.

    Anyway, Wiesbaden is a lovely place, and we walked around that night and the next morning before leaving for the Reinfels Castle here on the Rheine River. Stefan, the hotel manager in Wiesbaden, told us not to go along the highway that had been suggested, but to follow the river all the way from Wiesbaden. We had some problems convincing our GPS to let us go that way but wow! I'm glad we persisted -- it was BEAUTIFUL!

    Mark, Paul and Stephan, you might remember taking a river cruise along the Rheine, seeing lots of castles and the Loreley rock, where myths say sailors were enticed to their death by the singing of a beautiful woman. Well, driving along the road beside the river was just as beautiful! I was so glad I wasn't driving, so I could watch it all. The river runs along a valley between hills, much of which were covered with vineyards. As we went further, the hills got higher and steeper, and the vineyards were terraced (in West Virginia, hills of that size standing by themselves are called mountains, so I will call these mountains, even though they are no larger than the tall foothills of mountain ranges). Part of the trip involved taking a ferry over the river.

    Anyway, we arrived here at one of the castles, sitting at the very top of one of the steep mountains. They built a hotel next to the castle that specializes in "Romantik rooms" which we thought would be a perfect place to spend our 40th anniversary. They offered dinners in cozy romantic nooks, access to the spas and saunas, etc. So last night we had a very nice dinner, though not in a "nook" (we found the nooks this morning at breakfast, but were unable to reserve one to have dinner tonight -- we'll be in a little alcove in the main dining room). There were candles on the stairs when we came up to bed last night. The room is not very nice -- we still can't get the smell of smoke out, there are stains on the carpets and the couch is saggy, but the view is SPECTACULAR! We got some sparklers in our dinner basket from Karin in Salzburg and we plan to light them tonight on the balcony overlooking the lights along the river, and drink the champaigne that was left in our room.

    Today we woke up in our "Romantik suite" and had a relaxed morning, took photos of ourselves on the balcony overlooking the beautiful Rheine River, and went down for a fabulous brunch, eating at a table by the window again looking far down below to the river and across the river to see more castles.

    And then we started an adventure we've been looking forward to for a long time -- finding the Sauerburg castle overlooking the little village of Sauerthal. Fred's father's grandfather came from Bavaria but I think it's very likely that his family originated from this castle. Karin, our tour guide / travel agent, had found it on the internet advertised as a hotel, and tried to arrange for us to stay there tonight, but got a very strange reaction. First they said the hotel was primarily for groups for retreats or seminars and they didn't have facilities for just 2 people but said we could stay there for over $400 / night, and when Karin tried to book it they told her it was full! So she arranged for us to stay here -- this castle is about 45 minutes away from the Sauerburg castle, and we planned to go see it today.

    So we set out to find the castle, and hopefully slip inside to see it. We took the ferry back to the other side of the river and drove along a road that cuts through the mountains, zig-zagging up and away from the river. Soon we found ourselves at the top and realized it wasn't a mountain after all -- the land up there was relatively flat for miles around, apparently the river had cut a deep valley through the land. We were first driving along a large, flat mesa and then gently rolling hills, not unlike western Pennsylvania's hills. We drove relatively straight, going through several little villages, when the road started to get steep again, zig-zagging sharply down the side of a mountain. As we rounded one of the corners, AHHH! We could see the castle at the top of the next mountain!

    We finally got down to the valley between the mountains, and drove through the quaint town of Sauerthal. Sauerthal has only one very twisted, narrow road with darling houses. Just beyond the houses on both sides, the mountains rise very steeply.

    Ooops! It's time for dinner, and we plan to first stop at the spa and see what they have, so I'll finish this later.

    -- Dona

    Fred and Dona's Excellent Adventures -- 12/30/08

    Hello, everyone, for one last time from our idylic journeys here in Germany and Austria. The sun isn't even up yet, and I woke up feeling refreshed and ready for one more delightful day before we board the plane this evening. We wanted to finish this diary and send it off while we are still here, so Fred is packing and I'm working on this. What a glorious, wonderful time we had on our 40th anniversary last night! But before I tell you about that, I'll take us back to our adventures yesterday in the little village of Sauerthal and the Sauerburg Castle.

    In my last message, we were driving through Sauerthal, which is squeezed between two extremely steep mountains / hills. There is just barely enough room in the valley for a narrow road with houses on each side -- everyone's front yard is on the main street and back yard rises high and steep into the woods.

    We went through Sauerthal (we always know when we are leaving a town here in Germany because there is a sign with the name of the town crossed out in red!) and started zig-zagging steeply up the mountain opposite of the one where we descended into Sauerthal. Near the top, we turned into a driveway with an arrow pointing to "Sauerburg," drove up to the castle and got out of the car to walk up to the iron gate. There was a couple from Switzerland looking around there, too, and soon about a half dozen people that we had passed walking on the road arrived and looked around also. We thought maybe they were there from the group that was staying at the castle, perhaps coming back from a walk down to the town for lunch, but no, they were just sightseeing, I guess they were from Sauerthal or had parked their cars there and walked the 4 kilometers to the castle (EVERYONE walks here! More about that later).

    So we pressed the buzzer and waited while the little camera eye lighted up and a young woman or girl answered. Fred explained we were the Sauerburgers and asked if we could see the castle. She said it is a private home now, not open for visitors. I spoke up to say that Fred's name is Sauerburger and we think that his "grandfather's grandfather's grandfather" had come from here. She asked if we wanted her to go to her father's bedroom and ask him if we can come in and I said, "Yes, please!" She said "Oh, he is here, I will ask" and we heard her talking about our "namen" in German. Then she said what sounded like, "He said you can come in." I said, "Did you say we CAN come in, or CAN NOT come in?" She said we can NOT come in. So Fred asked if we can walk around and take photos, and she was quiet, so I added "outside." She said yes, we can walk outside and take photos.

    Well, that started a HUGE adventure! (see photos) The castle is almost at the very top of the mountain, with the front facing the top. So we walked along a little path that overlooked the front of the castle (actually, it brought us up to the level of the top of the castle wall, we couldn't see into the castle). It was STEEP there! I'd guess the mountain dropped away from the other side of the path at a 30-35-degree angle. I went down a little to take pictures of Fred in front of the castle, and almost couldn't keep my balance, it was all I could do to avoid slipping down the mountainside.

    Then we started walking along the path around to the side of the castle, but before long we realized we were no longer walking along the path, we were walking on top of a little stone wall (about 3 feet wide, covered with moss) that surrounds the castle. This little wall is just a few feet tall on the outside, but between the wall and the castle is a dug-out area about 5-6 feet deep and 15 feet wide, filled with brambles and weeds.

    Well, we started out to see how far we could go, and ended up walking entirely around the castle, but it was NOT easy! We often got our feet caught in vines that tripped us and we had to disentagle ourselves from, there were places where the only way to get through was to walk along the very, very steep mountainside and try to avoid sliding down between the trees, and at the end there was a large area of bramble bushes with sharp thorns -- the only reason we persevered to walk through the brambles is that we were determined NOT to have to walk all the way back along the treacherous, difficult path / wall. We both have scratchs to prove we were there -- my coat was open so I got a scratch across my chest, which I was proud could be seen as my badge of courage when I dressed up for our anniversary dinner last night, and Fred had scratches on his legs where the thorns had cut through his pants.

    When we emerged again at the front of the castle, we were very pleased -- we had lots of pictures of the castle from all angles, and figure we had walked where Fred's ancestors had walked, perhaps gathering wood or having adventures as we had done.

    So then we went down to Sauerthal ("Sauer Town") to see if anyone knew about the history of the place. we were told about a woman who knows all about the history, and her son (a young adult) responded when we rang the bell at her home. She wasn't there, but he told us that the Sauerburg Castle had just been bought by a family a few weeks ago! THAT explains why they were so reluctant to let us spend the night there! It is no longer a hotel, it is a private home. Apparently the hotel company was not making money, the son said that the only thing they did was open a restaurant on weekends, and we can imagine what a small number of people would go to such an isolated, difficult-to-reach castle in the middle of the mountains.

    Anyway, we gave him our cards with email addresses and we are hoping to hear from his mother and learn more about the history. We stopped at the cemetery to see if there were any Sauerburgers there, but the oldest burial took place in the 1990's, and there were no names we recognized. I think Fred's people had left this area long ago and settled in Bavaria, which is where his grandfather came from. The cemetery was as beautiful as the one we saw in Salzburg -- the graves each had a full bed of live, colorful plants surrounded by a marble border, and several graves had candles that were lit inside little red lanterns. I was surprised there were so many people from such a small town who had died in the last 20 years -- there were about 30-40 people buried there.

    Okay, enough about Sauerburg and Sauerthal, except to say that on our way back to our hotel, we figured out how these Germans and Austrians can eat so much bread and dumplings and pastries and not be as large as barns. We had been noticing that people walk everywhere, and on the flat, open country with nothing around but farms and a few small villages, people were walking along a little bike path beside the narrow road we traveled on. The closest villages were 3 kilometers apart and we saw a woman with two walking sticks and several elderly folks walking between them.

    When we got back to the hotel, we took a tour of the castle. I didn't realize it is basically a ruin, no one lives or works there. They gave us candle lanterns to carry, as it got dark before we were done. We saw a huge underground room that I think was a wine cellar (the tour was in German so we didn't get much out of it), the 3 sets of walls that had been built around the castle over the centuries, and the walls of the remaining 3 floors of what had been a 6-story dwelling for the nobles and military officers and their families (the soldiers lived along the hills outside the castle). The castle was built to collect taxes from passing boats, and apparently the castle extended steeply down the mountain to the river, but those walls are no longer there.

    Ah, the sun is up now, I saw some pink along the top of the mountains and now the river is faded with a morning haze that sillouettes the mountains on each side of the river. I've asked Fred to photograph it to show you later. So this is a good time to tell you about last night.

    Wow! What a fabulous way to celebrate 40 years of marriage! We started with a looooong, leisurely dinner in a little alcove overlooking the river -- we could see the lights of the houses along the banks. They served everything very slowly, to give us plenty of time to savor the experience -- we were there 2 and a half hours. They had published a menu for each of us -- mine was vegetarian, and everything was delicious!

    We felt very cozy and relaxed, and enjoyed talking and reminescing. I started to tear up, thinking about where we came from and where we are now, and how strong and deep is our love for each other and the happiness we are enjoying and can look forward to. Just in the last few weeks, we have grown wiser and better able to communicate, I feel so empowered knowing that when we have our little tiffs (and the topic of those tiffs is always little, even though it doesn't seem like it when we are in the middle of it!), we can get to the bottom of our hearts and understand each other. And when we understand each other, the love shines through and we grow even closer. We have been helped with what we've learned from the NVC ("non-violent communication") system, and I look forward to deepening and improving our relationship even more.

    After dinner, we went up to the room and opened the champaign they had put on the table, and went out on the balcony to light the sparklers. Then we danced to some lovely, slow music, and ended up soaking in the heart-shaped tub. All in all, it was a wonderful way to celebrate the beautiful life and marriage we have, an experience we'll never forget.

    Well, guys, that brings us to now. Fred is going down to the restaurant to see if they have the menus and cards that we left there, and I'm going to exercise and get dressed and then we can go get some of that fabulous breakfast (I've never had yoghurt on meusili, it is delicious! and they have omelets, fruit, a nice variety of rolls and jellies, yoghurts and I don't remember what else). Then we will take another liesurely ride along the Rheine and end up at the airport in Frankfurt.

    I'm eager to get home and see the kitty cats and Stephan (he's picking us up at the airport) and everyone. Fred and I talked about the plane crashing, of course, and we feel like that's okay -- we are happy and at peace with ourselves, and what will be, will be. Some say we are here on earth to learn what we need to learn, and I think Fred and I have learned a lot. If we are allowed to stay on earth for much longer, we will enjoy that, otherwise, we are fine.

    -- Dona

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