Sunday, October 28, 2007

3 August: Mountain Majesty

We woke up to a steady drizzle and a valley obscured by clouds, which put a bit of a damper (pun intended) on our plans to take a scenic drive around the Sella Gruppe, one of the most famous mountain groups in the Dolomites. In no hurry to get out into the rain, we had a relaxing breakfast in the Uhrerhof’s breakfast room, feasting on the typical buffet of cold cuts and cheese, croissants and rolls with homemade jams, hard-boiled eggs, and canned fruits.

We decided to wait out the rain by driving down into Ortisei and doing a little shopping. We parked in a garage in the middle of town and came out in the midst of a lively street market. We made our way to the main shopping area and visited the town’s main church, the interior of which is a wonder of apricot and mint-green tones accented with gold gilt. Ortisei is famous for its woodcarving, and the town is crammed full of shops where you can buy carved items of every religious and secular theme imaginable – from crucifixes and crèches to wildlife sculptures and toys. We stopped at a nice little gift shop and bought two cow bells on leather straps. I am in the market for authentic alpine cow bells and haven’t found the “real thing” yet, but these were far better than the tacky fakes you find in most tourist shops. I’m also looking for a dirndl, or traditional alpine peasant dress, and we found a shop selling very stylish ones, but they were pricey and not colorful enough for our tastes. It was getting on towards lunch time so we stopped at a café for pizza and ciabatta while we waited for the sun to come out. The clouds were definitely breaking up and we finally got our first glimpse of the snow-capped peaks of the Sella Gruppe rising dramatically in the distance (photo, above).

We headed back to the parking garage but ended up waiting over twenty minutes to get out because some guy had gotten his ticket stuck in the machine at the exit gate. Someone must have called a phone number on the ticket machine because a man eventually showed up with some tools, looking very annoyed. He started prying open the machine and then suddenly threw his pliers on the ground and yelled “Impossible!” (you have to imagine it with the Italian accent, of course) three or four times, accompanied by violent hand gestures. He finally got the gate to go up but he was still standing there, fuming at the now-mangled machine, as we drove out. We left Ortisei around 2 p.m. and set our sights on the Sella Gruppe. More and more of the mountains slowly emerged out of the clouds as we pressed onwards and upwards through lush green valleys. We had chosen a counterclockwise route to take around the mountain group, heading first over the Passo di Sella (pass #5), which afforded us spectacular vistas around every curve (photo, above). John was driving and he reported that the SLK was a little gutless but handled the curves pretty well; we certainly wouldn’t want to drive those crazy narrow roads in a larger car! We stopped several times for photos; the SLK’s shiny black paint job looked particularly nice set against the pale limestone peaks (photo, right).

It took us an hour to get from Ortisei to the top of Passo di Pordoi (pass #6) where we geared up with hiking boots and our warmest clothes and bought tickets for the cable car ride (24 Euro round-trip) up to Sass Pordoi at a lofty 2,900 meters. The top was shrouded in clouds and we just hoped that we would be able to see something up there. We got some amazing views of the surrounding mountain landscape before our cable car was engulfed in a cloud as thick as pea soup. We walked out of the cable car terminal into a lunar landscape – nothing but jagged shards of rock as far as the eye could see. The remains of a recent snow clung to the ground and a biting wind chilled us to the bone. We took lots of photos (right) and then decided to follow the only obvious hiking trail, which took us past a small rifugio (a sort of “warming hut” like the hüttes of Switzerland and Germany, where you can buy snacks and drinks). The trail climbed slowly upwards as we traversed the side of a barren valley punctuated by dramatic dropoffs and watched a long line of hikers disappearing into the clouds on a ridge high above us. We think they must have been hiking up Piz Boè, the highest peak of the Sella Gruppe at 3,151 meters. We can only assume that they were going to spend the night up there, since they could not possibly get back down the mountain before dark.

As for us, we had no such ambitions and decided to veer off the trail to hike up to a stone cairn (see photo, right - the red dot marks the cairn), from which we looked out into the dramatic abyss on either side of the Pordoi Pass. The misty, swiftly-moving clouds broke up just enough for us to catch enticing glimpses of endless mountain ridges disappearing into the distance; we could only imagine how spectacular the view would be on a clear day! After taking our fill of photos, we retraced our route, stopping to admire the tiny yellow and white wildflowers that somehow manage to eek out a living in this harsh environment. We returned to the cable car terminal at 4:15, which gave us another half-hour to roam around before the second-to-last departure of the day. We found a natural arch in the rock and looked down through the hole at the crazy twists and turns of the Passo di Pordoi road. A huge metal-framed cross was erected near the cliff's edge and people have been slowly filling it with rocks.

Thank goodness for long summer days, as once we had returned to the bottom we had plenty of daylight left to continue our circumnavigation of the Sella Gruppe. Now it was my turn to drive, down the other side of the Passo di Pordoi and onwards over the Passo di Campolongo (#7) and Passo di Gardena (#8). We were amazed by the number of ski lifts and trams that dotted the slopes above us – this area must be absolutely amazing in the winter, but I’m not sure how you would decide where to ski, as there seem to be unlimited options available. It is impossible to describe the majesty of the Dolomites so you’ll just have to look at the pictures – I’ve posted more than 50 from today’s drive on Flickr ( The driving was very challenging – lots of first-gear hairpin turns – but thrilling. We ran into some traffic towards the end as we headed back towards Ortisei, which slowed us down a bit. After stopping to admire the view over Ortisei - now brilliantly lit by the early evening sun - we returned to the hotel at 6:45, just in time for dinner, which is served promptly at 7:00.

Dinner was a repeat of the salad buffet followed by tomato & mozzarella salad, a simple chicken broth soup, a fabulous meat & cheese lasagne, classic Wienerschnitzel with creamy potatoes, and apple streudel with whipped cream, accompanied by another tasty Südtirol red wine. I think the Südtirol might just be my favorite place in Europe, as it seems to combine the best of Germany and Italy – dramatic landscapes, friendly people (who all speak German so I can actually communicate), and delicious food!

The only problem we had with the Hotel Uhrerhof is that we were seated in a dining room with two families whose kids could not keep still, so the atmosphere was somewhat less than romantic. I wonder why they didn’t seat us in other dining room, which was much quieter. We probably should have asked to move, but we always feel awkward complaining about such things. After our streudel we quickly retired to our room and enjoyed a nice brandy from the minibar as we planned out tomorrow’s route to Lake Como.

More photos from the Dolomites:

Saturday, October 27, 2007

2 August: Into the Dolomites

We had a minimal but adequate breakfast at Gasthof Badl of sliced cheese and ham, hard rolls, watery orange juice, and strong coffee. On our way out we had to maneuver around a large, elderly Bernese mountain dog who had commandeered a position at the top of the stairs. We checked out at 10 a.m. and left our car at the hotel while we explored Hall. We crossed over the river Inn on a covered wooden footbridge and found the town to be quite charming – very homey and non-touristy, the kind of place where everyone knows everyone else, centered around an irregularly-shaped market square (photo, right) with winding cobblestone streets lined with leaning houses. It was such a low-key place that I couldn’t even find a tourist shop to buy a souvenir magnet! We went inside the Pfarrkirche St. Nikolaus, the town’s largest church (also in photo, right), which has a unique off-center nave – it almost looks like they ran into some rocks when they were building the church and had to work around them. The interior is a mixture of gothic and baroque styles, with a heavily frescoed ceiling and a large collection of what look to be bishops’ crowns and skulls.

We returned to the car about an hour later by way of the main bridge, which gave us nice views of the town’s church spires (photo, right) and the landmark Münzeturm, or “coin tower” of the 14th-century Burg Hasegg, which housed Hall’s silver mint from 1477 to 1806. By 11:00 we were on the road again, heading west through Innsbruck, which is set against a dramatic backdrop of steep mountains. We headed south on route 182, which parallels the A13, through the Brennerpass (pass #3 of the trip – not too thrilling as far as driving goes, but more scenic than slogging up the Autobahn with all of its truck traffic).

We crossed into the Südtirol region of Italy at the town of Brenner. The landscape was still very Tirolean in character but now all of the signs (including the town names) were in Italian, German, and sometimes a third local dialect. At Sterzing / Vipiteno we headed southeast on route 44 through the Jaufenpass (pass #4), our first really famous route on the trip, which traverses some 40 kilometers through thick forest and golden grassy slopes to a height of 2,094 meters. The driving was great (although the road was quite narrow!), the weather was beautiful (we had the top down on the SLK), and we enjoyed gorgeous views of Tirolean chalets and dramatic barren peaks on all sides. We stopped part-way up to admire the views and I made friends with a Swiss cow (I call all of the mousey-brown cows with the big fuzzy ears “Swiss” cows, even if we aren’t in Switzerland), who moseyed up the hill to check us out. We stopped again at the top of the pass and climbed a short way up a rocky hillside to a stone cairn for an awesome 360-degree view (photo, right). We had a snack of country bread topped with cheese and tomato slices at the Edelweisshütte, obviously a popular stopping point for the throngs of motorcyclists out for a summer ride.

We were getting baked by the summer sun so we put the SLK’s top up on the way down the other side of the pass. There was a lot of traffic coming down and we had to navigate some pretty hairy turns marked by signs that read “kehr tornante” which I think means “caution hairpin turn”. At the lovely resort town of St. Leonard we headed south through the Passeiertal to Merano. Just before Merano the landscape took on a spectactular transformation – imagine Tirolean chalets and conifer forests colliding with Renaissance villas, espaliered apple orchards, and neatly tended vineyards! We were stuck on the streets of Merano for a while due to a car accident, so we had some time to admire this very pretty Mediterranean-influenced city. The Palace Hotel, surrounded by lush gardens, looked particularly inviting.

We continued south on the Autostrade (A38) to Bolzano, a mid-sized city whose biggest claim to fame is Ötzi, the 5,000-year-old mummified “Iceman.” We didn’t stop to visit him, as we needed to press onwards to our destination for the next two nights: Sankt Ulrich / Ortisei in the Dolomites. We went a bit too far north on the A22 because we couldn’t find an exit for the A12, and had to turn around at Klausen / Chiusa, but we got to see an amazing sprawling castle perched on top of a hill in the middle of the valley (photo, right). (I still haven’t properly identified this place, but it definitely looks worth visiting!) We ended up on route 242d instead of 242, so we got a little confused on our way to Sankt Ulrich / Ortisei, but we eventually found our way into the famed Val Gardena, where we got our first hazy glimpses of the craggy peaks of the Dolomites off in the distance.

Ortisei (that’s the Italian version) is a good-sized resort town nestled in a broad green valley surrounded by dramatic peaks. We head up a side valley to the village of Kastelruth / Castelrotto, which I wanted to see because lots of people seem to prefer it to Ortisei. It looked pleasant enough, although the surrounding landscape was not quite as spectacular as Ortisei. We headed up a narrow, winding road just outside of Ortisei to the tiny hamlet of Pufels and the idyllic Hotel Uhrerhof. This place was pure magic – it was so quiet in the narrow valley that you could hear the wind whispering in the trees and the faint tinkling of sheep bells floating up from the green meadows below the hotel. We were greeted by the lady of the house, Frau Zemmer, who speaks fluent Italian, German and English. Our room (#101) was huge and by far the nicest room we’ve had on the continent. It was all done in traditional Tirolean light wood, complete with a tiny wood-burning stove, a gorgeous modern bathroom stuffed with luxurious amenities, fluffy robes, chocolates on the pillows, and a large flower-fringed balcony with an incredible view across the valley and down into Ortisei (photo, right). I was already in love with this region and we’d only just arrived!

I sat out on our balcony for a while, soaking it all in and writing in my journal, and listened to the church bells in Pufels chime 6:00. We had reserved half-board at the Uhrerhof to avoid driving down into town for dinner. We enjoyed a five-course meal in the quaint, cozy dining room, which reminded us of the Maiensee in Austria. We partook of the ample salad buffet, followed by smoked goose with cabbage salad, puff pastry “pizza” smothered in cheese, mushrooms, and tomato sauce, tender veal with green beans and steamed potatoes, and a simple fruit cocktail for dessert. To drink we had a Südtirol Blauburgunder, which is similar to Pinot Noir. The food was traditional home cooking, nothing too fancy, but quite tasty.

A storm moved in this evening and we had heavy rain overnight – we just hope it clears up by tomorrow!

More photos from today:

1 August: Our Grand Driving Tour of the Alps

Today we set off on our much-anticipated driving tour through the Dolomites to Lake Como and the Berner Oberland of Switzerland. We had originally planned this trip for September or October, but with all of the uncertainty surrounding our departure from Germany, we decided not to take any chances. How often does one get the opportunity to drive some of Europe’s most famous mountain passes in a spiffy convertible sportscar, after all?

We got the idea for this trip from a story in the September 2005 issue of Car magazine titled “As Good as it Gets,” in which writer Ben Oliver and photographer Stuart Collins thrash Europe’s best mountain roads in a BMW M6. While we couldn’t fit all of their favorite drives into our seven-day trip, we did map out a rough itinerary through some of the best automotive terrain to be found in Austria, Switzerland and Italy. Conveniently, we would spend six of the seven days in German-speaking territory, because the region of northern Italy known as the Südtirol was historically German, and many of its inhabitants still prefer to speak German over Italian.

Over the last three weeks I scrambled to book hotels for the first week of August, which just happens to be the busiest travel month of the year in Europe because everyone here pretty much takes the whole month off. I was generally pleased with the hotels I managed to find (especially a night in a lakeview room in Bellagio on Lake Como), and, armed with a hefty spiral-bound atlas of the Alps that I picked up at Buchhaus Wittwer, we felt reasonably confident setting out into the mountains on our first major trip without our faithful navi Susie.

We set off after John got home from work on this Wednesday evening and had a bit of an adventure getting to our stopover for the night – Hall in Tirol, a small sleepy city just east of Innsbruck. We started off well enough, taking the A8 to Ulm and then the A7 south towards Austria. The Via Michelin directions I had downloaded sent us off the A7 onto the B310 for some reason, instead of continuing on the logical route to Füssen, and we blindly followed the printed directions without looking carefully at the map. We ended up taking a rather lengthy detour along the Deutsche Alpenstraße (one of the many sightseeing routes developed to encourage tourism after WWII), but it was a lovely drive through pretty alpine valleys under a clear evening sky. We crossed into Austria near Oberjoch, where we stopped for gas along with a whole ton of Germans who were filling up their spare gas cans – apparently gas is cheaper in Austria – then cut southeast on the 199 through the Tannheim Valley, past the Haldensee and some very impressive craggy mountains. We drove through the Gaichtpass, which was our first major pass of the trip, then hooked up with the 198 at Weißenbach, following the Lech River towards Reutte.

At Reutte I called the hotel to tell them we’d be arriving after 10, since it was already quarter to 9 and getting dark fast. John said I sounded really good speaking German on the phone. We hooked up with the 179 and continued through Heitewang and Bichlbach to Lermoos (don’t you just love these names?), than passed through the 3.2 km-long Lermoos Tunnel. (Just before Lermoos we had a glimpse of the Zugspitze, which at 9,718 feet is the highest point in Germany, right on the Austrian border.) Sadly we had no time to stop for pictures of any of the dramatic mountains, and it was really too dim for decent photography anyway.

We traversed the Fernpass (#2), spotting several castles along the way, to Nassereith and then finally hooked up with the A12 near Innsbruck, arriving in Hall at precisely 10 pm. Fortunately Gasthof Badl couldn’t be easier to find – it is situated just across the river from Hall, with ample parking out front. We were greeted warmly at the reception desk despite our late arrival (the lady had to scoot a fluffy cat off the counter to check us in). Our basic but cozy third-floor room with a balcony looking out towards the Inn River was a good deal at 78 Euro.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

30 July: Evelyne and Marlena

I don’t think I ever mentioned that back in early June, Evelyne’s friend Marlena started walking with us in the mornings. As you may recall, Marlena was hit by a car last year and seriously mangled her leg, so Evelyne lost her walking partner, which is how Evelyne and I started walking together back in April. Marlena has been through numerous surgeries and physical therapy over the past few months to put her knee back together. (She brought one of her X-rays one day to show us the five or six long screws through her knee!) She walked with a full-length brace and hiking poles for the first few weeks but now is getting around very well with just the poles.

Marlena is a real character – 60ish, from northern Germany, married with two grown children. Her husband often took business trips to America and she, like Evelyne, is fascinated by all things American. Of course once Marlena started walking with Evelyne and me, our system of alternating between English and German every other day pretty much went out the window. Marlena speaks amazingly good English for a 60-year-old who has no reason to practice it, but she really likes to talk, and it’s obviously a lot easier for her to talk a mile a minute in German. I’ve mostly taken to keeping my mouth shut and just listening to Evelyne and Marlena jabber in German for an hour every morning. It’s really tough to follow everything they are saying and sometimes I find myself tuning out (which is rather embarrassing when they suddenly turn to me and ask me a question). It’s hard for me to get a word in edgewise because my German comes out so slowly; by the time I formulate a sentence in my head, they’ve moved on to another topic. But I have to give them credit – Marlena is always eager to learn new words in English even though she prefers to speak in German, and Evelyne makes an effort to speak some English nearly every day. (And when Marlena isn’t around Evelyne sometimes apologizes for her friend’s incessant chatter!)

Most of the time Evelyne and Marlena share gossip about their families and friends. Evelyne is always complaining about how lazy her kids are and how she has to get after them to clean their rooms and do their homework. She’s also rather irritable about her in-laws. (Her sister-in-law gave Birk a measly 5 Euros for his 15th birthday!) Being a native Swabian, money is a sore subject and she’s been getting on her husband Gert to kick his cigarillo habit, which costs at least 30 Euro a month. Gert recently suffered from a slipped disk and stayed home for two weeks, which drove Evelyne absolutely crazy. She’s not sure what she will do when Gert retires and he’s home all the time. Suffice it to say that families the world over apparently suffer similar gripes!

27 July: Grand Café Planie

This afternoon I met my friend Judy (the one whose wedding I attended back in May) for coffee at Grand Café Planie on Karlsplatz in downtown Stuttgart. I’d wanted to go back to this café ever since Stefanie and I had lunch there after our trip to the Baden-Württemberg museum in the Altes Schloss last spring. It's the closest I've found to a traditional French-style café in Stuttgart.

It was a glorious sunny day so Judy and I sat outside and looked at her honeymoon pictures from Hawaii. They went to all of my favorite places, including Diamond Head, Hanauma Bay, and Chinaman’s Hat. She raved about the snorkeling at Hanauma Bay and I was pleased to hear that they now require everyone to watch an educational video about protecting the coral reefs before going in the water.

Café Planie is know for its awesome kuchen (cake) – they have a huge glass display case inside and you have to go in and figure out which cake you want, then order it from your server. We both had the Schokolade sahne (chocolate cream) torte, which was to die for!

26 July: More Harry Potter

It turns out Beth is a Harry Potter fan too (I just knew she would be!) so I managed to get my second Harry Potter movie fix by going to see Order of the Phoenix with her again on Thursday night. She introduced me to this great organic German soda called Bionade that they sell at Corso Kino. It comes in cool flavors like ginger-orange, elderberry, lychee, and herb and is quite the hip refreshment in Germany right now.

The movie was just as good the second time around, and this time I caught some of the dialogue I had missed previously and listened more carefully to the music, which is excellent and very different from the previous Harry Potter soundtracks. I'll definitely be buying it on my next trip to Media Markt!

24 July: Dinner With Friends

After work today we drove up to Pforzheim for a barbeque with our German friends Uli and Markus and the folks who brought us all together, Ginny and John, who are in the middle of their annual trip to Germany. I made chocolate chip cookies for the occasion, which were a big hit. Uli and Markus cooked up a great meal for us and a fabulous time was had by all!

23 June: Double Rainbow

We had a big rainstorm today and this evening there was a complete double rainbow over Botnang. It stretched in a huge arc all the way from the Birkenkopf to the middle of Botnang (we could see both ends of it from opposite sides of our house). The colors came out a bit funny in my pictures but the sky really was a sort of odd shade of yellow.

22 July: A Very Harry Potter Weekend (SPOILER WARNING!)

I am not embarrassed to admit that I am a die-hard Harry Potter fan. No, I don’t have a Gryffindor scarf hanging in my closet or anything like that, and I didn’t even get around to reading the books until we moved to Germany in 2005 (you may recall that I bought all six of them right before we left, and devoured them one after another in the first couple of months), but I got hooked on the films much earlier and, yes, I even own all four of them on DVD. So you can imagine my excitement when I heard that the final book in the series and the fifth movie would be coming out in the space of just over one week this July.

We knew from experience that we should not see the movie on opening night (July 12th) at Corso Kino, the English language theater in Vaihingen, because it would be thronged with kids from the U.S. military base (a lesson learned when we attended opening night of Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire in 2005). So I settled for having a very Harry Potter weekend instead: John agreed to see the fifth movie, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, with me on Friday night, the 20th, and sometime on Saturday the 21st my copy of the final book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which I had pre-ordered from several months ago) would be delivered to my eager hands by DHL.

The movie exceeded my expectations. It was certainly the most sophisticated of the series so far (not surprising given the increasingly dark story line), and I thought they did a fantastic job of retaining the critical elements of the plot while condensing an 870-page book into a manageable 150-minute movie. I actually felt that the climactic scene between Harry and Voldemort in the Ministry of Magic was even better scripted than in the book. I left wanting to see it again.

A few days ago I received an email from assuring me that my copy of Deathly Hallows would arrive no later than 6 pm on Saturday. Well, it seems that DHL had quite a lot of Harry Potter books to deliver, because even though I waited around anxiously all day, they didn’t ring our bell until close to 7. I was in the shower so John was delegated the embarrassing task of going downstairs and signing for the package, which of course had “Harry Potter” emblazoned all over it. He opened it before I came downstairs, and there it was, the hardcover British edition, lying on the dining room table in all its glory! (I hate the British cover art, by the way, and I could have paid to have the American edition shipped from the U.S., but I thought it would be fun to have the British version in my collection to remind me that I got it while I was in Germany.) I had, in the interim, decided to skim through the sixth book in the series, Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, to refresh my memory of recent events. It took me until midday on Sunday to finish the previous book, and then, at about 2:00 on Sunday afternoon, I started on Deathly Hallows. John insisted that I take a break to walk Cody with him, then I took a shower and we had dinner, but otherwise I pretty much read the book in one sitting. John went to bed around 11 and I settled in on the couch with candles blazing for a suitably magical atmosphere.

I admit, I was living in dread that Harry was going to die – based in part on the opening quotes of the book, which are about true friendships surviving beyond the boundaries of time. You can imagine my angst when I got to the final chapters and it really looked like Harry might die, or at least disappear into that foggy white in-between world resembling King’s Cross Station! I was thrilled that J.K. Rowling decided to pull him back into the land of the living to save the day, and the epilogue pretty much wrapped it all up in a tidy (enough) package that made me feel all warm and fuzzy inside. It was certainly hard to go to bed afterwards, knowing that the Harry Potter saga has finally come to an end. On the bright side, at least there’s two more movies to get excited about!

19 July: Book Club at Ulla's

I was a little late getting to the book club this morning because I got a bit lost trying to figure out where to park in Ulla’s apartment complex and had to ask someone for directions.

I had selected this month’s book, North to the Night: A Spiritual Odyssey in the Arctic by Alvah Simon, but one of our regular members, Ulla, volunteered to host the meeting at her house in Gerlingen and she also went to the trouble of putting together a list of discussion questions for us. Ulla is a very sweet older lady and the only native German speaker in our book club. She puts up with the rest of us fast-talking native English speakers amazingly well, and today was no different – she put together a stellar set of questions; my meager list was pathetic by comparison. Everyone really seemed to enjoy the book (I was a little worried because I had read some rather harsh reviews online that criticized Simon for being too self-centered – but what do you expect? The guy spent an entire winter alone on a sailboat stuck in the ice in the dark!). Ulla asked us if any of us had experienced a similar “spiritual odyssey” and Debbie (originally from England) asked if marrying a German and moving to Germany counted. We all answered with a resounding “Yes!”

Debbie picked our next book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, which is a sort of murder mystery told from the perspective of a 15-year-old autistic boy. Sounds fascinating!

Friday, October 12, 2007

15 July: Der Nürburgring, Take Three

In preparation for our third round at the Nürburgring – and our first in the SLK – we stayed up until nearly midnight last night watching videos from YouTube of people doing laps of the course and writing ourselves a set of detailed track notes. This was to be our first time venturing out on the track without Jürgen, our personal guide, so we were a bit freaked out. The co-driver (a.k.a. front passenger) is responsible for calling out information about upcoming turns and where to be on the track, rally style. Our carefully developed track notes thus consist of five pages of instructions that go something like this (the words in parentheses are names of turns):
  • Approaching BRIDGE – stay middle right
  • FAST LEFT; mid-apex; drift right to DIP, then left to curb
  • FAST RIGHT; mid-apex, drift left (TIERGARTEN)
  • Aim for crash barrier on left, then SLOW RIGHT, stay right (HOHENRAIN)
  • SLOW LEFT, mid-apex, to GP CIRCUIT, stay left
  • SLOW RIGHT, mid-apex, exit left, then drift right

And that’s just the first thirty seconds or so. We practiced it over and over again, fine-tuning the details and arguing over whether a slight bend in the road constituted a real turn or not. It’s hard to get it just right, because you want to call out the instructions well before you get to the turn so you can position the car properly on the track, but not so far in advance that you forget what’s coming up next. Some turns come up so quickly, you barely have time to call anything out before you are on to the next turn and the next instructions. We knew it was going to be a serious challenge.

We had planned to meet Jürgen and Gert (who came along for the ride in the E-Class last time and would be driving his new Mini Cooper for the first time today) at the track around 9:00 this morning. We got off to a late start, however, because I insisted that we get a reasonable night’s sleep, seeing as how we had a three-hour drive before we even got to the track, and then we would need all of our wits about us for the Ring itself. When we finally arrived around 10:30, we knew it was going to be a crazy day because traffic was backed up along the access road leading to the entrance. The main lots were already full, so we had to park in the big dirt overflow lot nearby. By the time we got there, Jürgen and Gert had gone ahead and done a couple of laps in the Mini. Gert had a big grin on his face. Unfortunately, as soon as we arrived, they announced over the broadcast system that the track was closed due to an accident. John bought us an 8-lap ticket and we all went into the Grüne Hölle café for a round of coffees (there’s nothing like a strong shot of caffeine to get you ready for the Ring) to wait for the track to reopen. Then we had to wait in yet another line to get from the parking lot to the entrance gate (photo, right; note Dutch BMW M3 in front of us and all the motorcycles cutting the line on the left).

We finally got out on the track and John did his first two laps. The SLK is a handful to say the least – woefully underpowered on the straightaways and climbs, but decent in tight corners and sweeping curves. Our track notes worked out pretty well, but it makes the experience rather miserable for the person serving as navigator. You have to focus all of your attention on the notes and you basically don’t get to experience the track at all. We noticed that there were very few “normal” cars on the course today, by which I mean your run-of-the-mill passenger cars and sport sedans. Nope, today it was all Porsche GT3s, BMW M3s, and Mitsubishi Evos (see photo of parking lot, above). In other words, today we were driving one of the lower-powered vehicles out there and we were getting passed right and left. We also saw an ancient beat-up VW bus that some guy had outfitted with a Porsche engine and brakes. He passed lots of people, including us.

When I took my turn at the wheel, it was all I could do to keep a halfway decent line while constantly watching in my rear-view mirror for overtaking traffic. It seemed like every last hot-headed Brit and Dutch guy possessing a reasonably fast car (with our without the experience necessary to drive it on a racetrack) had descended on the Ring today. It is extremely difficult to concentrate on technique when you are constantly having to pull over to let yet another Porsche or Evo pass. The fact that we have an Evo sitting at home in our garage in Michigan was never far from our minds. And as for my shifting…well, we just won’t talk about that. It was also miserably hot, and when I got out of the car after two laps, my back was completely soaked with sweat! I wouldn’t have cared except that all the other women were dressed in skimpy summer outfits and sandals and they gave me and my sweat-soaked shirt some odd looks. You can tell whether a woman is driving by the shoes she is wearing. Needless to say, I didn’t see any other women driving today.

We took a break for lunch around midday during yet another track closure. We went back to our usual lunch spot at Bike World for salads and pizzas on the terrace. It was Sunday, so sadly they didn’t have the shop open for the guys to salivate over the bikes. There was a bright orange Porsche GT3 with German plates in the parking lot, on which someone had scrawled in black (presumably washable) marker, among other things, this poignant thought: "To own a GT3 and never drive it on a track is like never f**k a supermodel."

Just as we arrived back at the track, we heard the telltale sound of the loudspeakers crackling – yes, it was closed again. John and I each managed to squeeze in one more lap, at which point I was starting to get more than a bit freaked out by the total insanity going on around us. I can manage my own driving just fine, it’s the lunatics passing me that I'm worried about. We drove over to one of the spectator areas to watch the madness for a while and got a couple of good video clips that might give a better picture than mere words can of the overall atmosphere on the track. It was getting on in the afternoon and the traffic was just getting crazier and crazier. The BMW M5 Ring Taxis were out in force and some of them were drifting around the turn in front of us, making for some pretty spectacular audiovisual effects.

Here's a video of a yellow Mitsubishi Evo and some other cars going by:

Here's a pretty crazy clip of a whole clump of cars coming around the turn together:

If you'd like to ride along for a lap of the Ring in a Mazda 3MPS, click here:

Lap of the Nürburgring

(You can also get this video off the Auto Express website and hear a bit of audio commentary from one of their reporters while watching the same lap. I can't get a direct link to the video to work, so you have to go to, type "Nurburgring" in the search box (without the umlaut or "ue") and it should come up with two videos, one of which is "Lap of the Nurburgring" from May 2007.)

Jürgen had squeezed in a few laps on his bike while Gert did a couple laps alone and even Jürgen admitted that it was pretty crazy out there today. I finally gave John a look and said, maybe we should save our last two laps for another day and just call it quits while we are ahead. Jürgen said, “That sounds like a very good idea,” so I knew it was a good idea, because if anyone knows a thing or two about taking risks, it’s Jürgen. John reluctantly agreed. We stayed to watch from the sidelines for a while longer and then packed up and headed out.

We had time on the way home to take the scenic route down the Rhine River. I have of course heard great things about the castles along the Rhine, but I had no idea there were so many of them! We got off the Autobahn near Boppard and headed down the west side of the river, through the picture-perfect villages of Sankt Goar, Oberwesel, and Bacharach. I know many people prefer the quiet serenity of the Mosel to the Rhine, but what the Rhine Valley lacks in scenic vineyards it makes up for in impressive fortresses and crumbling ruins. We must have passed close to a dozen castles in that stretch of no more than 50 km – Burg Sterrenberg, Burg Liebenstein, Burg Maus, Burg Katz, Burg Rheinfels, Burg Marksburg (photo, right), Alte Burg, Burg Schönburg (which I recognized as a highly-recommended castle hotel), Burg Gutenfels, Burg Pfalz (the famous castle on an island in the middle of the Rhine, from which river tolls were collected)it was unbelievable! We didn’t have time to stop, so I had to make do with snapping quick photos out the window and making John promise to come back sometime before we leave Germany. We took a pretty road over the hills back to Rheinböllen, where we hooked up with the Autobahn again and headed home.

We came away today with our Ring Fever somewhat satiated and, as always, in awe of the challenges of the Nürburgring, although with less respect for some of the idiots who choose to drive it!

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

12 July: Hamburger Fischmarkt

I went downtown today for the IWC "Ladies Who Lunch" at the Hamburger Fischmarkt on Karlsplatz. The Fischmarkt is a traveling festival that moves from city to city around Germany throughout the year. I don’t know the history exactly but I assume it is some sort of offshoot of the famous fish market in Hamburg of the same name. (Hamburg is Germany’s second-largest city and the second-largest port in Europe, located way up north on the River Elbe between the North Sea and the Baltic.) We met in front of the modern art museum on the Schlossplatz. It was just three of us today – me, Ann M. and Katrina, but we had a nice time strolling around the very busy market, checking out the many stalls where you can buy raw or smoked fish to take home along with a wide variety of ready-to-eat dishes ranging from the classic fried fish ‘n chips (cooked up in enormous round pans) to fish sandwiches, shrimp salads and the like. We found an open table next to a bar shaped like a full-sized sailing ship (right), ordered beers and took turns wandering around in search of our food. I had a delicious crayfish salad and a pint of a name-brand Hamburg Pilsner. We sat across from a stall where a man was selling a vareity of fruit. You could buy a shopping bag or woven basket from him for 10 or 20 Euro and he would fill it up with as much fruit as he could stuff into it. One stall down another guy was doing the same thing, only with bags of dried pasta. It was pretty funny to watch and listen to the guys haranguing passers-by into stopping. It wasn't quite as much fun as the Weindorf, but we had a nice time chatting and people-watching.

Thursday, October 4, 2007

8 July: Home Again & U.K. Reflections

We told our hosts at the Castle Guest House that we didn’t need a hot breakfast this morning – just a little toast and coffee would be fine. (John wanted to get out of there without any breakfast at all but I told him we were paying for it, after all!) We chowed down as quickly as we could in the slightly creepy basement breakfast room and high-tailed it out of Dover as fast as the E-Class could carry us. We easily made it to the Euro Tunnel terminal, about twenty minutes away, for our 8:30 train to Calais. The return train ride was noneventful. We were very happy to return to normal driving (although I have to admit that for weeks afterwards I kept having “English moments” when I had to ask myself if I was driving on the correct side of the road!) We stopped for gas somewhere in France and went into the shop to buy some snacks. The lady at the register asked me if we were buying gas and without even thinking I said, “Wir haben schon bezahlen.” (“We already paid.”) The lady just laughed – I guess she knew what I meant. It took me another ten seconds or so to come up with “Nous avons payé.” I thought it was interesting how quickly my brain slipped back into German! The drive home to Stuttgart took the expected eight hours, and fortunately was more or less traffic-free.

So our grand British adventure has finally come to an end. We drove upwards of 3,000 kilometers in 17 days, traversing nearly the entire length and breadth of England and Scotland twice and exploring some of the best scenery that the island has to offer. Our favorite locations were Cornwall and Glen Coe, which is rather ironic because I was told by some people that they were too far apart to visit in one trip. But I had my heart set on visiting Tintagel and hiking in the Highlands and I’m so glad we managed to fit them both in. Scotland as a whole will be high on our list of future vacation destinations. The British people were generally friendly and warm, and I was thrilled to finally be able to place the myriad British accents I have heard over the course of my life with their proper geographic region.

With the exception of one or two meals, our dining experiences were quite positive (who hasn’t heard nightmare stories about horrible English food?), albeit dreadfully expensive. I can't sum up our experience without putting in a word of caution to anyone researching B&Bs in Great Britain: they can be fabulous and cheaper than traditional hotels, but we were very surprised by the wildly inconsistent ratings. The differences between the 5-star Elmview and 4-star Castle Guest House were positively shocking. Overall, food and lodging in the U.K. are considerably more expensive than in continental Europe when compared in U.S. dollars. While this wouldn't prevent us from making future trips to the U.K., it's certainly a factor to consider in trip planning.

As for cities and towns, Edinburgh was fabulous, Stirling looked interesting, and we enjoyed York, but we came away with the overall impression of many of the towns we passed through as being rather dreary and run-down. We suppose that this is partly a reflection of the U.K.’s rather turbulent economic past. For this reason I was pleased that I had planned this trip with a focus on scenic drives and countryside – in that respect, we got exactly what we’d hoped for.

I’ll make no bones about it; the driving was definitely tough. We were warned ahead of time that it would be slow going, and I never planned for us to drive more than about 250 miles in a day, which was a wise decision. Between the impossibly narrow roads, ridiculous number of roundabouts, and low speed limits, it really takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B than you might think when looking at a map. And did I mention the speed cameras? Yes, "Big Brother" Britain has a lot of speed cameras. Or rather, they have a lot of signs indicating that there are speed cameras hiding thereabouts. We didn't actually see the cameras very often. The best roads in terms of driving enjoyment were in northern Wales and around Glen Coe (but Scottish drivers really are nuts!). We felt very lucky to have our big, comfortable car with automatic transmission and a navi, which certainly saved us a lot of angst. Driving on the “wrong” side of the car was not a problem (especially when you have a co-driver to watch for oncoming traffic from the right at difficult turns and roundabouts), and we felt it was far better than the alternative of renting an unfamiliar manual transmission car without a navi and driving on the right side of the car for the first time (which means shifting with your left hand). But I have to admit that our giant E-Class with German plates got more than a few funny looks. We couldn't help feeling like we should have a sign in our window that said, "We're Americans!"

In sum, I have finally fulfilled a lifelong dream to visit some of the most famous ancient and medieval sites in Great Britain. The waves crashing on the rocks of Tintagel, the windswept landscape of Stonehenge, the echoing halls of Caernarfon Castle, the mist-shrouded peaks of the Highlands...these are memories I will keep with me forever.

Be sure to check out all of my photos at:

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

7 July: York to Dover on a Sunny Day

We were served up a traditional English breakfast in the Acer Hotel's quaint dining room; the coffee was particularly good. We checked out at 9:30 and I took the wheel again, driving out of town and hooking up with the M1 motorway. We had figured on a 4-hour drive to Dover, which would give us most of the afternoon to explore the castle and WWII tunnels. We were so wrong.

First of all, as luck would have it, our last day in England was the only day of the entire trip that it didn’t rain a drop. Unfortunately we spent most of it in the car. Somewhere near London we got caught up in a traffic jam caused by a major accident (although it was mostly cleared up by the time we passed it). Then it was just one long traffic jam all the way around London on the M25 (and we’re talking miles outside of London, on a Saturday afternoon). At one point Susie shunted us off the motorway only to deposit us in another traffic jam on city streets, then routed us right back onto the motorway. The final long delay was caused by the toll gates on the Queen Elizabeth Bridge over the Thames. When we finally got past the bridge and turned onto the A20 to Dover, the traffic disappeared and I was able to pick up the pace to 75-80 mph (along with the rest of the equally pissed-off Brits, some of whom were going upwards of 100 mph). But the damage had been done and we didn’t get to Dover until nearly 4 pm, the drive having taken 2.5 hours longer than we anticipated.

The town of Dover is not much to look at – it was largely destroyed in World War II – but the sprawling castle on a cliff above the town was an amazing sight to behold as we approached from the south. We drove right past our B&B, deciding to head straight up to the castle so as not to waste any time. We parked in one of three huge surface lots near the top of the hill and stopped at the visitor center (our English Heritage passes got us in for free), where they told us to visit the keep and casements first, as they were both closing at 5 pm (the keep was closing for a wedding – how cool would that be?)

Dover Castle is a quintessential medieval fortress, the square towers and massive walls of the inner bailey (right) conjuring fairytale images of knights in shining armor. Construction began on the castle under the Norman King Henry II in 1181 and much of the main structure, including the keep, dates to this time, although many additions were made over the ensuing centuries. We rushed through the myriad stone corridors, spiraling staircases, and high-ceilinged chambers of the keep, making our way to the very top of the battlements for a spectacular panoramic view over the castle’s outer defenses, Dover’s harbor and cruise ship port, and the sparkling blue English Channel.

We were a bit confused by what they had told us in the visitor center about the casements; I thought they were referring to the medieval tunnels on the south side of the fortress, so we went there next. We explored the maze of subterranean passageways and cannon emplacements, trying to imagine what it must have been like to hide out in the tunnels during a siege. Then we went down to see what we could see of the World War II tunnels, figuring that they were closed for the evening as it was now well past 5 pm. As luck would have it, we arrived just as they were allowing one final group through on a shortened tour, which we were able to join. And we were so glad we did! The tunnel complex was constructed at the end of the eighteenth century during the Napoleonic Wars. Dover had become a garrison town and the army needed additional barracks and equipment storage. The solution was to carve a maze of tunnels into the cliffs below the castle, which housed more than 2,000 men at the height of the wars and are the only underground barracks ever built in Britain. The tunnels were abandoned for more than a century after the wars, but found new life at the outbreak of World War II, when they were converted first into an air-raid shelter and later a military command center and underground hospital. In May 1940, Admiral Sir Bertram Ramsey used the tunnels as his headquarters for the legendary evacuation of some 383,000 British troops from Dunkirk, France, known as Operation Dynamo, an effort which effectively saved the British army to “fight another day.” Ramsey joined the British army at the age of 15 (by lying about how old he was) and retired after fighting World War I, but was brought out of retirement for WWII. After Operation Dynamo he went on to help plan the naval attack on D-Day and was killed in a plane crash in France in 1945, just before the end of the war. The secret tunnels and rooms spanning five levels are outfitted to look just as they did during World War II, including the telephone exchange with its enormous switchboards and the Coastal Artillery Operations Room full of charts and schedules (one of the ops rooms is pictured above). The whole place gives an absolutely fascinating snapshot of the war effort.

After our tour of the tunnels we went out onto the battlements, where a statue of Admiral Ramsay looks out over the Straits of Dover. Buffeted by a fierce wind, we took in the view of the white cliffs of Dover (Yes, we finally saw them!) and watched a cruise ship come into port (photo, right). We walked around the gun emplacements on the outer curtain wall and returned to the center of the castle complex, where the imposing hulk of a 1st-century Roman lighthouse stands next to an 11th-century Saxon church, surrounded by the massive grass-covered earthworks of a Norman hill fort (photo, below). We were finally politely shooed out just after 6 pm and made our way back to the car. We were literally among the last visitors to leave, so at least we milked our meager two hours at Dover Castle for all we could.

We drove down the hill to the Castle Guest House, parked on the street, and checked in. As we walked in we caught a glimpse through a doorway of an extremely messy living room, where some of the guests appeared to be enjoying afternoon tea. The proprietor was polite, if a bit gruff, telling us that our car was fine parked where it was on the street, and leading us up a rickety staircase to our room near the top of the house. In a nutshell, the only redeeming quality about this place is its location at the foot of the castle hill (you can see the roof of the place on the left side of the photo below). I had trouble finding a decent place to stay in Dover (the only place listed in Fodor’s, a 4-room B&B, was booked by the time I made my reservations) and in the end I think we would have been better off staying at one of the chain hotels along the waterfront. The Castle Guest House has actually been given a 4-star ranking by some outfit called Enjoy England, and all I can say is: do not trust their rating system! Compared with the many types of accomodations we have experienced throughout Europe, we would give this place 1½ stars, 2 at best. The room was cramped and musty, with a double bed covered with a rather dingy red satin comforter. The tiny bathroom had seen better days, with a bare bulb hanging from the ceiling for a light fixture. John said he's been in gas station restrooms that were nicer. Perhaps most bizarrely, the room had the strangest wallpaper I have ever seen – a repeating pattern of peach-hued roses, and next to each rose was scrawled the name of an exotic plant that had absolutely nothing to do with a rose, like “Rhododendron Himalayas” or some South East Asian shrub. The whole place had a bit of a Twilight Zone feel to it.

On the bright side, the information booklet in our room recommended a great Indian restaurant called Light of India only a 5-minute walk away. It was supposedly voted one of the ten best Indian restaurants in England. We ordered vegetable samosas and two combination platters featuring sampler-sized portions of several curries, tandoori chicken, tikka masala, lentils, and raita. We were totally stuffed afterwards (with wine, £45 pounds) so we took a walk along the pebbly beach afterwards to work it off. The castle stood out in sharp profile against the evening sky above us, and we could see the arched entrance to the secret wartime tunnels set into the chalky white cliffs.

Aside from having one of the busiest cruise ports in the world, the town of Dover itself is, sadly, positively dead. Some shortsighted post-war planners destroyed the waterfront with a huge, hideous apartment complex that ruins the panorama of the castle above the town and there is practically no downtown to speak of. A sign posted in front of the ugly apartments pretty much says it all: it is titled "Historic Dover," but the plaque has been ripped off and the empty box that is left is disfigured with graffiti. All that remains of the waterfront is a grand old hotel, now a Best Western (which likely would have been a far better choice for our lodging!) (photo, right). We couldn’t believe that a place boasting such a spectacular castle and housing so much fascinating history could be so run-down and dismal. Dover Castle is definitely worth a visit, but we suggest spending the night elsewhere. Honestly, if we hadn’t pre-paid for our room (and had already reserved Euro Tunnel tickets for the next day), we would have been tempted to just drive on home!

6 July: Edinburgh to York via Hadrian's Wall

Today marks the beginning of the end of our UK tour. For the next three days and two nights we are officially on the “way home”. We will drive from Edinburgh to York today and from York to Dover on Saturday, and then we’ll have a marathon drive home to Stuttgart via the Euro Tunnel on Sunday. Before setting out this morning, we were fortified with another delicious breakfast courtesy of the Elmview – slices of fresh mango and strawberries with Greek yogurt, followed by pancakes filled with sautéed apples and pears, topped with maple syrup and cream. We ate with the two sisters, a British/Dutch couple, and a young Indian couple from New Jersey. We shared a few laughs about Independence Day with Robin, and the Indian man commented that it took India four hundred years to accomplish what the Americans did in less than a century.

Before checking out we walked down the street to a grocery store with an ATM so we could withdraw cash to pay our bill, thereby getting a 5% discount. After settling up and bidding farewell to Robin (I told him they had the best B&B ever), we went to extricate the E-Class from the tiny carpark. Unfortunately there were two other cars parked next to us now and it was physically impossible to get the car out, so we called Robin and had to wait for some other guests to come and get their car.

We finally set off at about 10 am for our drive south to York. Once safely out of Edinburgh, John stopped at a gas station and I took the wheel to try my hand at English driving for the first time on the whole trip. I’m not sure how I managed to go all this time without driving, but John seemed to have it down pat and he liked me serving as navigator and co-pilot, so we never wanted to mess with our system. Quite frankly I was perfectly happy to watch the scenery on this trip (and was constantly on the lookout for good photo ops, of course). After sitting in the passenger seat for the past two weeks, I was pretty used to the sensation of driving on the wrong side of the road in our left-hand drive car, so it didn’t take much time to familiarize myself with it (although going clockwise into roundabouts felt awfully weird). I didn’t have to drive on any motorways, as we took two-lane A roads the whole way, including the A86, which was quite fun – lots of long straight stretches with blind crests and sweeping curves. We headed through the region known as the Scottish Borders – a pastoral landscape of rolling hills, pasture, and forest – and stopped at the border between England and Scotland for the necessary photos. (For some reason there was a big multilingual sign at the border reminding people to drive on the left, even though you couldn’t have gotten yourself to this point without driving on the left for hundreds of miles. We found it especially funny because the German translation was misspelled – “links fahran” instead of “links fahren.”) We didn’t want to drive south back through England without visiting at least one site along Hadrian’s Wall – the massive line of fortifications that once marked the northernmost frontier of the Roman Empire. Stretching 73 miles across the breadth of England from Wallsend in the east to Bowness-on-Solway in the west, the wall was used for more than 250 years to protect Roman-occupied Britain from invasion by the Scottish barbarians. Emperor Hadrian ordered the construction of the wall in 122 AD (it was completed in only four years) and Emperor Severus had it repaired 80 years later. The wall was originally 15 feet wide and 9 feet thick, with a 20-foot wide, 10-foot deep ditch behind it called a vallum. Large forts housing 500 to 1,000 legionnaires were constructed every five miles or so. Smaller forts called milecastles, manned by about 30 soldiers, stood at every mile point, and between each milecastle were two smaller turrets housing four men each. Much of the wall was dismantled during the Jacobite uprising of 1745; the stone was used to pave the Military Road that is now the B6318. A few substantial stretches of the wall survive, particularly between Housesteads and Birdowald, along with the remains of several forts, and the route is popular with hikers. We knew we would probably only have time to visit one site, and our Fodor’s guidebook made the choice easy: “If you have time to visit only one Hadrian’s Wall site, Housesteads Roman Fort, Britain’s most complete example of a Roman fort, is your best bet.”

After parking at the main visitor center just off the B6318, we hiked about ten minutes through open sheep pasture to the museum and the fort, which is spread over several acres, its crumbling walls and towers exposed to the ravages of time and weather. It had rained off and on all morning, but it stopped raining long enough for us to spend an hour or so exploring the fort and admiring the views of the surrounding countryside, including an impressive span of Hadrian’s Wall itself, which extended down the hill from the fort and disappeared over a crest in the distance (photo, above). Excavations have revealed many artifacts which are housed in the small museum, and well-designed interpretive signs scattered across the site help recreate the scene of a bustling Roman fort, describing the construction and purpose of the granaries (which had elevated floors to keep the grain dry and protected from vermin), the barracks, the hospital, the colonnaded headquarters building adorned with the stumps of stone columns, and the commandant’s house, which featured a heated floor (the floor slabs were elevated on stone pillars so heated air could circulate underneath). At the two gates on either side of the fort you can see the deep depressions carved into the stone by the passing of countless cart wheels. The best-preserved structure is the public latrine, located at the lowest point of the fort (the southeast corner) to allow for the best water flow. You can clearly make out the well-engineered system of stone troughs that funneled water into the stone channel circling the rectangular seating platform (photo, right).

At the gift shop I decided to buy a translation of Seutonius’ biography of the first twelve Caesars, since I really enjoyed reading the biography of Augustus. When I went to pay for the book I saw a photograph for sale by the cash register of a tall sycamore tree in a very distinctive gap between two hills, which I immediately recognized from a scene in the 1991 movie “Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves” starring Kevin Costner. I turned the photo over and sure enough, it was “Kevin Costner’s Sycamore Tree” (the spot is also known as Sycamore Gap). I had never realized that the wall they climb around on in the scene was Hadrian’s Wall. I asked the lady at the cashier where the tree was and she said it was just a mile down the road, so we drove past it on our way out (photo, below). John and I shared a tuna and cucumber sandwich and a Coke from the visitor center snack bar before we left. We turned south at a place called Twice Brewed and took a narrow B road to hook up with the A86 again.

We made good time to York, despite continued rain, arriving around 6 pm. We found the Acer Hotel (actually a B&B) in a quiet neighborhood of brick rowhouses a few blocks from the old town (photo, right), parked on the street, and were greeted by Karen, who showed us to our tiny, floral-decorated room on the top floor. We hauled our suitcases upstairs and then set out to explore the old town and find dinner. Karen had warned us to bypass the bars and pubs on the way into town because they are notorious for “stag and hen” (bachelor and bachelorette) parties, especially on the weekends. She was right – the place was a madhouse even at 7 pm and we counted at least a half-dozen stretch limos (including a stretch Hummer) on our way into town. En route we passed through the impressive Micklegate in the well-preserved medieval wall and crossed the Ousse River, which is lined with old warehouses turned into posh nightclubs and restaurants. The sun had come out and it was a lovely, balmy evening. It took us about fifteen minutes to get to the maze of narrow cobbled streets and alleys that make up the old town. We quickly found the Shambles, York’s famous shopping street of leaning 14th-century houses (photo below), and then the York Minster, the largest Gothic church in England. It was closed for the evening but quite impressive from the outside. Karen had recommended the evening ghost tour and we saw one getting started in front of the Minster, but we were hungry and didn’t want to stay out late, so we set off to find a restaurant. We walked down Stonegate, another pretty shopping street, and made a big loop around the old town, but most of the restaurants we looked at were too fancy or too expensive.

We finally settled on a casual Italian restaurant called Bella Italia and were seated by the front window. We were waited on by a very nice woman who was actually Italian and the food was surprisingly good. We both had Caesar salads; John had a pizza with pancetta, arugula, mozzarella and olives and I had baked penne pasta with chicken, bacon, cheese, tomatoes, and red onion. We shared “The Godfather” for dessert – a chocolate brownie topped with vanilla and chocolate ice cream, chocolate crunch topping, chocolate sauce, and whipped cream. With a bottle of wine it came to about £50; not too bad considering the value of the dollar! The streets were filled with young partygoers on the way back and the police were out in force. Apparently York is the Key West of England!