2013 European Driving Adventure
We had always thought that a driving trip in Europe would be fun & very interesting, and that it would provide us with more time to see areas that we had never seen before.
So we began a series of discussions, on what we wanted to see in various European countries, how long we might need to explore there, and what could be seen along the way there.
We quickly realized that what we had mapped out, would require way more time than we had previously dedicated to travels in Europe, so we scaled back the scope of the trip, and decided that we would concentrate on France, Germany and Austria. We also decided that three weeks would be adequate to allow us to visit each of these places.
The "base game plan" was that we would stay in various cities and/or villages, and perform a series of "day trips" from those locations, to visit the areas we had decided on. Our secondary goal, was to be able to make quite a bit of history "come alive" for our 14 year old son, such that he would be able to not only "be there", but to be able to understand history that much better than just seeing it on TV, or reading about it in a book.
With a game plan in place, we listed things that we wanted to accomplish, or see, in no specific priority order, but to be able to have a "hit list" of things that we knew we wanted to achieve. The list of "base camps" then became Paris , Bordeaux, Rustiques (near Carcassonne, France), Annecy and finally Munich, Germany.
With our list of "day camp Cities" complete, we sat down and spent some quality time on VRBO (and other rental web sites) and selected what we thought were good rentals, but more importantly, good rentals in good locations.
To view the details of how we plan trips, click here.
Paris has been called many things, we like to think of it as one of our favorite cities in Europe. Click here to visit our Paris Page.
Our plans were to avoid renting a car until we were ready to depart Bordeaux, this simplifies all aspects of a visit, as we did not need a parking place nor did we have to worry about driving directions! We utilized Auto Europe which was located immediately adjacent to the Bordeaux train station.
In Bordeaux we stayed at the Adagio Bordeaux Gambetta in the very heart of Bordeaux. In this picture, taken across the plaza from the hotel, you can see that it is a modern and very comfortable hotel.
The hotel was air conditioned, which was great from our perspective, as the French heat wave was still going strong.
The hotel is located in the heart of Bordeaux, just 2 minutes' walk from Place Gambetta and Bordeaux's old town, close to the Mériadeck business district. Its 111 fully equipped apartments, ranging from 2-person studios to 2-room apartments for 4 people, make this 4-star holiday residence a comfortable place to stay for a vacation or business travel.
We spent the afternoon and evening exploring Bordeaux, walking about to get some idea of the city and it's inhabitants - as none of us had ever been there.
We covered quite a bit of the city, and ate dinner at Le Pizzaiolo, across the plaza from the hotel, and had a very good dinner (and a great bottle of wine) for which we created a TripAdvisor review for. This is a picture of the restaurant, taken from our hotel window.
Dune du Pilat, France
This map should give you some idea of the size of Dune du Pilat, the scale of this map is one inch equals 5,000 feet.
We rode the train from Bordeaux to Arcachon, and then got onto a local bus for the ride to Dune du Pilat. These pictures give you just a very slight idea of the height of the dune, you can see the Atlantic Ocean way below where we were sitting!
This is the largest sand dune in Europe, measuring around 500 meters wide from east to west and 2.7 kilometers in length from north to south. Its height is currently 110 meters above sea level.
Climbing the dune is quite steep, but they had steps to make it easier, built into the side facing away from the Atlantic Ocean. We took the steps up but enjoyed going down the dune with long sliding strides.
Off in the distance is the Atlantic Ocean, and you get a good idea of how large this pile of sand is when you see how high above the ocean we are.
We had read about this being the largest/tallest sand dune in Europe, and on any Google Map, you can see just how large it is. The dune has a volume of about 60,000,000 m³, measuring around 500 meters wide from east to west and 2.7 km in length from north to south. Its height is currently 110 metres above sea level.
Looking to the north of where we were standing on the top of the dune, somewhere off in the distance, is the village of Arcachon. To the left is the Bay of Biscay, with the Atlantic Ocean further off to the west.
The Arcachon bus costs only one Euro (per person) for each trip to & from Dune du Pilat, so we decided to head back to Arcachon, and explore the village before our train departed for Bordeaux.
Arcachon is a very nice vacation village, sitting on the shore of the Arcachon Bay, with a beautiful beach, docks for recreational boats, a very nice village center with quite a bit of shopping, and the train station just two blocks from the water - it was a nice interlude while waiting for our train.
There was a beautiful and shaded walking path alongside the beach area, where one could sit and watch everyone enjoy this beautiful day.
Arcachon is a popular swimming destination on the Atlantic coast 55 kilometres (34 mi) southwest of Bordeaux, in the Landes forest. It has a sandy beach and a mild climate said to be favourable for invalids suffering from pulmonary complaints.
Bordeaux to Rustiques Drive
Our goal was to drive through "wine country" via Bergerac (Cyrano de Bergerac was born there) and Cahors, France. Please note that this goal was not due to our desire to avoid the French freeways ("auto routes"), but was because we knew that the country route would bring us through some beautiful wine region country and we wanted to enjoy the scenery.
We picked up our rental car (a Renault turbo diesel 5 speed sedan) at the Auto Europe rental center (AKA "EuropCar") immediately behind the Bordeaux train station. As opposed to American Auto Rental companies, the cars for rent were several blocks away in a two story parking structure. So the auto rental clerk provides you with a map, and somewhat vague description of where your car can be found in the parking structure, especially when you don't speak French very well. It was fortunate that there were three of us, because we had to split up and search the parking structure to locate the correct car!
We had acquired a Tom-Tom GPS navigation device prior to the trip, so we mounted it on the Renault, let it get synced up with the GPS satellites (needs at least 3 satellites to work properly), and then we headed off to wine country.
I won't bore you with this trip's details, but allow me to point out that this was not only a beautiful country drive, and was dotted with a number of very famous French vintners, it was much more scenic than attempting to drive on any of the available auto routes. This route also allowed us to transit Toulouse during the non-rush-hour time of day!
Carcassonne & Rustiques area
As we had gotten onto the A61 auto route in Toulouse, and as Rustiques is only a few miles east of Carcassonne, we knew that we were going to have to rely upon "Suzette" (our Tom-Tom voice) to get us to our house rental.
While pondering the map of Rustiques, we saw that we would not only cross the L'Aude River, but also the Canal du Midi, which is an interesting piece of history all by itself, ie; it was constructed starting in 1681, contains 65 locks and was meant to provide a navigable route from the Mediterranean to the Atlantic Ocean and thereby blocking the English from tearing up French ships.
With Suzette navigating, we were able to reach our Rustiques home rental, and unpacked the car. As can be seen in this picture, we had to park our car in a court yard perhaps a block away, and carry everything down this alley to our home rental. This building had to be 600 years old, however, the interior had been completely redone and was very comfortable. We had a bit of trouble getting in with an unusual locking system but we eventually worked it out. Between that and a frozen pizza that fell through the grates in the kitchen oven, we racked up two more failures for our "FAIL" list. I spent over an hour cleaning the pizza dough off the bottom of the oven before we departed.
Here is the other end of that alley, which opens out onto the "main street" of Rustiques. Not a lot of traffic in this little village, and it was surrounded by acres and acres of grapes.
Rustiques has a total population of approximately 500 people, mostly people who commute to Carcassonne, or who have a vacation house here.
Didn't I say that Rustiques is surrounded by beautiful vinyards? Celeste and I would walk about the village and marvel at the simple yet, beautiful site
For those of you who are not keen followers of French history, the Carcassonne area had been Cathar Country and there a number of Cathar fortresses that are partially in ruins, in this area. Our first day's goal of travel adventure, was to visit the two furthest south castles; Le Château de Quéribus (image above) and Chateau de Peyrepertuse.
A bit of map study, showed that both Queribus and Peyrepertuse, could be visited in a single day, as they are close to each other. However, both castles are on top of large hills (see the picture to the left) and require a bit of a hike to get to.
The Château de Quéribus (in Occitan Castèl de Queribús) is a ruined castle in the commune of Cucugnan in the Aude département of France. It has been listed as a monument historique by the French Ministry of Culture since 1907.
Queribus is one of the "Five Sons of Carcassonne", along with Aguilar, Peyrepertuse, Termes and Puilaurens: five castles strategically placed to defend the French border against the Spanish, until the border was moved in 1659.
It is sometimes regarded as the last Cathar stronghold. After the fall of Montségur in 1244 surviving Cathars gathered together in another mountain-top stronghold on the border of Aragon (the present border between the Aude and the Pyrénées-Orientales).
We drove up to the Queribus parking lot (on a very steep and narrow road), paid our admission fee, and hiked up to the top
As you can see in this picture, the valley below is quite a ways down, and the Cathars were able to block any French Army advance easily. I think it is quite probable that Celeste and I were relishing a "non climbing moment" here!
Our next stop, was Peyrepertuse, just across the valley from Queribus. As you can see in this picture (taken from the parking lot), this chateau was even higher up on this ridge than the previous Chateau.
The hike up to the top was a bit challenging, but well worth the trip, as the view from the Chateau ramparts was staggering - the entire valley below !
Peyrepertuse is located on a limestone ridge at about an altitude of 800 meters, on top of a hill which separates Duilhac from the town of Rouffiac-des-Corbières, towering over scrubland and vineyards. A strategic position which enables one at the same time to see far into the valleys that circle it, to control the mountain passes, or to send communication signals to the Château de Quéribus a little further south.
We stopped to eat lunch at Auberge la Batteuse, difficult to miss, as it is the only restaurant on the Route du Chateau to the Peyrepertuse parking lot, on the right hand side (as you are going up the hill). Excellent food, very friendly staff, and not expensive.
In an attempt by our Tom-Tom mapping device "Suzette" to get us back to the E-15/A-9 Auto Route, we were navigated through Rivesaltes, a seriously small village. As the streets became narrower & narrower, we began to get worried that "Suzette" had made a mistake. In fact, at one point, we could reach out of our car windows and touch building walls. Eventually we got through the village and could see the E-15/A-9 which we entered and drove onwards.
We drove back to Rustiques via Narbonne, and to avoid the mountain roads, we drove over to the coast and took the A9 up to the A61. Perhaps a few more miles, but quite a bit faster, as it is all auto route with very few slow-downs or stops.
The next day's adventure, was the Carcassonne Fortress.
This is an amazing castle, as it is very well preserved, and the interior is so large (city walls are 1.9 miles long), that it contains shops, stores, restaurants, and other boutiques to help you spend your money.
We drove to Carcassonne early, as we knew that tourists would be out & about early, and they would grab all the parking spots. We found an excellent spot two blocks from the castle, and hiked over and up the hill to view the castle interior.
As you can see from these images of the Carcassonne Castle, it is huge! It takes quite a while to explore the various Castle buildings, shops, boutiques, and restaurants.
Canal du Midi near Rustique, France
Our next adventure (that same afternoon) was to drive to the Canal du Midi, and explore the area along the waterway. As you can see in this picture, the waterway had tall trees along both banks, and there were a number of people sailing up & down the waterway in various types of boats; house boats, recreational boats, as well as large cabin cruiser style boats. It's possible to rent boats and travel the Canal du Midi and a very popular thing for couples and families to do in the summer time.
Here is one of the many houseboats we saw on the Canal, French families enjoying a nice cruise along the shady sections. If I recall, this boat was tied up, and the family had gotten off to go fishing in the River L'Aude.
This is a picture of the Canal du Midi, as it crossed beneath a bridge in the little town of Trebes, France. This is the "other end" of the picture above.
As you can no doubt discern, Rustiques was not large enough to have grocery or other stores, so all of our provisioning came from trips to Trebes.
This is the "other direction" from the picture above, and it shows the docking and sidewalk restaurant area in Trebes. Lots of places for people who are traveling up & down the canal, to stop, buy groceries, or eat a meal.
It can easily be seen, that this was a very scenic spot, and even though it is early afternoon, there were a number of people already enjoying a glass of wine in one of the sidewalk restaurants.
Rustiques to Annecy Adventure
After some further adventures in and around Carcassonne & Rustiques, we repacked the Renault, and headed off to Annecy. This was easily the longest drive so far, at 560 kilometers, we knew we had to get out on the auto route early.
Our first stop along the way, was at Pont du Gard, an amazingly well preserved Roman Aqueduct, very near the city of Remoulin, France. The aqueduct is an amazing structure, still carries foot traffic, and has been standing there now for nearly 2,000 years.
We've been to Rome, and have explored a number of Roman ruins, but this aqueduct is such a great example of Roman engineering, it just had to be seen to be believed.
Obviously, we had to walk across the bridge just below the aqueduct, and as you walk along and look at how well the stones were cemented into place, you realize that the Romans were incredible engineers.
This was a beautiful day, and there were a large number of French visitors either swimming in the river below, or having a picnic on the beach.
Annecy France Visit
The Annecy area of France and the surrounding French countryside, is not only historically interesting, it is scenic beyond words. Click here to view our Annecy Visit Page.
From our prior Siemens Corporation employment, and numerous visits to Munich, adding it as one of this trip's destinations was an easy decision. Click here to view our Munich Visit Page, and see for yourself why it is a great place to visit.
The next day's adventure, was a drive to Nuremberg, to see the Nazi Museum and grounds where the Nazi Troops would march by Hitler's podium. In fact, in the picture to the left, that is me standing in the very spot that Hitler once stood at, as his troops would march by.
Talk about a strange feeling !! If you ever Google anything about Hitler and Nuremburg, you will find a number of YouTube videos, showing Hitler standing in this exact spot.
The above is a pic of the Nazi Congress Party Hall interior court yard - A self-supporting roof construction was to have spanned this area at a height of approximately 70 metres. The monumental building would have provided space for over 50,000 people and would thus have been almost twice as big as the Coliseum in Rome. The unfinished shell (1937–1939) was put up to a height of 39 metres. Construction work was abandoned late in World War II.
Prior to walking over to the area where Hitler used to review his troops, we had explored the Documentation Center Nazi Party Rallying Grounds museum. This is an incredible museum, and it utilizes video, still photography, artifacts, and documents, to display to visitors what took place during the Nazi era. This picture to the left, was taken of the area immediately behind the museum, which was originally intended to be the Nazi Congress Party Hall. Since World War Two got in the way of the construction budget, that area was never finished.
This picture was taken from across the Lake that separates the Documentation Center from the Nazi Rallying grounds area. It is beautiful site, and it is a pity that it is associated with such a horrifying past.
Hitler's plans were to construct a much larger complex, but once WW2 started, those plans were placed into a holding pattern, and never completed.
The name "Rothenburg ob der Tauber" means, in German, "Red fortress above the Tauber". This is so because the town is located on a plateau overlooking the Tauber River.
This is the village of Rothenburg, a "living museum" with cobble stone streets, shops, and a wall surrounding the entire village.
Rothenburg became a "city" in 1170, and it has been in existence since the 800 A.D. time frame.
Rothenburg is a beautiful example of a medieval village. One must park outside the village interior area (no cars inside the walls) and walk in, where you will find a number of shops and restaurants.
Jeremy had found a really nice chess set, with medieval looking pieces, that we had shipped back to Florida.
The next day trip was to Neuschwanstein Castle, south of Munich near the Forggensee lake. By taking the "Romantic Road" there, we went through some very pretty country side.
Our view of the Castle, as we marched back down the trail to the parking lot.
Here is a great view of the Castle from the hiking path beyond and above the castle grounds. Looks like a fairy tale kind of building doesn't it? King Ludwig, who designed it and had it built, was far more interested in being an architect, than he was to be the King of Bavaria.
Since we had been inside the Castle before, and because the crowds were such that all tickets for that day were sold out, we decided to hike up behind the Castle, to see it from above.
The view from there is fantastic, as you are perhaps 500 or more feet above the castle.
It was a bit difficult to get a picture while standing on this bridge, due to the large number of tourists walking to & fro, but eventually Jeremy was able to take this great picture of us - and oh yeah - with the Castle in the background!
This picture was included to give you a bit of an idea of how hot it was, because on our way back down the hiking trail from Neuschwanstein, we had to stop and get ourselves a cold drink!
If I remember correctly, something had just flown over this area, and I was trying to get a better view of it.
This was our final view of Neuschwanstein Castle, as we walked through the little village at the bottom of the hiking trail. As you can see, there were a lot of tourists there that day, which is typical of summer days in Bavaria. Gives you an idea of how steep that mountain is behind the castle, that is where we hiked up, to get that beautiful view of the castle.
Once we got out of the trees that lined the hiking trail, we were back in the direct sun light, and it was a scorcher that day. Damn good thing our rental car had A/C !
We asked some of our German friends to meet us at Andechs Monastery, to have dinner with us and enjoy some of the locally brewed beer. Since this on the way back to Munich from Neuschwanstein, we told them we would meet them there.
All of us enjoyed several beers, and a good dinner, in the court yard of the monastery.
This used to be a great place for their excellent beers, but turned out that it was not as good as my memory of it was !
Dachau Concentration Camp
We drove back to Munich, and decided that our next day's adventure, would be to drive to Dachau and visit the Concentration Camp Museum. These camp sites are maintained as "living museums" by German law, and in fact, students are required to visit a camp at least once during their school years.
Bavaria started this law, in an attempt to deal with not only the right-wing extremists, but to improve children's knowledge of the Nazi horror years.
The number of people who died in the Dachau concentration camp is officially given as 31,951. Dachau was opened in 1933 and was originally intended to house political prisoners and opponents of the Nazi government for the purpose of forced labor. After the advent of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany's "final solution" to exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, Dachau was used to house Jews and other groups who were targeted in the Holocaust, such as homosexuals, religious minorities, communists, and prisoners from German-occupied countries. The camp was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945.
The original Nazi SS barracks were converted into a museum, filled with pictures and memorabilia from when the camp was a horrifying prison. The original prisoner barracks had been torn down after the war, but some have been re-created in order to enable camp visitors to see what living conditions were like there.
As you can see in this picture, the prisoners were required to double up in these "beds", or to sleep on the floor.
Our goal in visiting Dachau, was to reinforce Jeremy's understanding of what horrible things the Nazi's had done, and to insure that Jeremy could see for himself, a concentration camp as it had been during the Nazi time frame.
Salzburg, Austria & Area
For our next (and last) adventure, we decided to drive to Salzburg, Austria to visit the famous salt mine, as well as the equally famous Festung Hohensalzburg. Salzburg is only 144Km from Munich, but because our apartment was in the south central area of Munich, it takes a while to navigate through the city to the autobahn.
And yes, the German Autobahn speed limits are indeed "unlimited", but only after you are 30Km outside of any city or village area.
The Salt Mine Dürrnberg is located only a few miles south of Salzburg, and on the western side of the River Salzach, high on a hill overlooking the river and just beyond the village of Hallein.
You are required to purchase tickets, and wear coveralls, in order to protect you from all the salt and salt water, found inside the salt mine.
Once everyone was suited up, we all walked to the mine entrance, and got onto a very small train, which then takes us into the mine.
After the mini train reaches as far as it can go, everyone dismounts and the walking tour of the mine commences. At one point, we actually crossed back into Germany, giving you an idea of how large this mine is.
As the mine is comprised of multiple levels, the access from level to level is via long wooden slides, which are polished to a high shine due to the incredible number of coverall wearing visitors who have slid down them!
Here we are, rolling along on the mini-train, headed to where the salt mine walking tour started.
Mining is no longer performed there, as they have discovered that using water to percolate through the salt, produces a very briny fluid which is then left to dry, to produce high quality salt.
After our tour concluded, we drove back to Salzburg to visit the Hohensalzburg Festung, which sits high on a hill above the city. Salzburg is split down the middle by the River Salzach, with the "old city" on the side of the river nearest the Festung, and the "new city" on the other side. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was born in Salzburg in the 18th century, and the movie "Sound of Music" was filmed in and around this city.
This is the Festung Hohensalzburg, a magnificent example of a fortress originally built by a Catholic Archbishop starting in 1077. This view of the Fortress is from the eastern side, and you can see "old Salzburg" at the foot of the Festung's mountain. It might not be easy to discern, but this Festung is one of the largest medieval castles in Europe.
This is the view from the highest point in the Festung looking east, with the old city below. Gives you some idea of the height of the Festung doesn't it?
The River Salzach looks like it is quite far away, but in reality it is only perhaps 1/2 mile away. We parked on the other side of the river (near the Mirabell Palace), as parking in old Salzburg is impossible to find.
After walking around the Festung, as well as old Salzburg, and since the European heat wave was still in effect, we found an outdoor cafe and had some cold drinks before going back to pick up our Renault, to head back to Munich.
Is there is anything as refreshing as an iced coffee on a hot day?
So, at the end of our 2,500 kilometer three country trek, we drove our rental car to the Munich International Airport and then flew back to Dulles International Airport in Washington DC.
We picked up our new puppy ("Maggie") a beautiful Australian Shepherd - and then we returned to Sarasota, FL.
We had a good game plan completely researched and documented before we departed the US and we stuck close to it. Obviously when you have hotel arrangements, or flights, you have to stay on track to make those kinds of connections. But everything else, was just a matter of what we wanted to do each day. For example, we would keep a "hit list" of things that we would like to do, but we did not treat that list as a "must be done on this day". Sometimes we did things out of order, sometimes we skipped things and did something else. Or we would drive by some place and decide to stop and see it.
The key is to always be flexible!
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