Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Koenigswinter: Touristy but Fun

Koenigswinter may be the most visited German town you've never heard of. Rhine cruisers - day trippers (it's 50 minutes from Bonn by boat) or lengthy excursionists - stop here at the foot of the Drachenfels (Dragon) Mountain.
Legends of dragons and knights were the draw for Lord Byron and other romantics. The Counts of Drachenfels sported a winged, fire breathing dragon in their coats of arms and Siegfried is supposed to have slain the dragon which lived in a cave on the hillside.

Today, the castle is in ruins and the only dragons you are likely to see will be in logos and on shop signs.

As you walk from the ferry dock up into the quaint medieval town (you leave "flat and level" with the river) look down at the entrances of houses and shops. The occupations of the original inhabitants are indicated by picturesque tiles.

The "castle" most Koenigswinter tourists visit was neither a stronghold nor even lived in. Schloss Drachenburg, halfway up the mountain, was the Gothic fantasy status symbol of Stephen Sarter, who had been born into a middle class Bonn family of hotel keepers and made his fortune in the Paris stock market.

Status and image in the land of his birth were all for Sarter, who glorified himself and the former glory of Germany at the same time. He started his castle in 1882 and was made a baron in 1881 by Duke George von Saxony-Meiningen after a payment of 40,000 gold marks.

Sarter, who became a French citizen and died in a tiny Paris apartment in 1902, never lived in his castle although he was buried in Koenigswinter below his folly. His nephew allowed guided tours of the castle, the Roman Catholic church ran a boarding school on the grounds and the Adolf Hitler School took over in 1940. Now owned by a North Rhine-Westphalia foundation for preservation of local monuments, it is again a tourist attraction.

The views of the Rhine from the terrace are stunning, the tour of the castle's interior is interesting and the grounds are lovely.

Warning: Getting there is a hike, with steep hills and lots of steps. The Drachenfels Rail, a rack railway and the oldest mountain railway in Germany, will take you most of the way. but you will have a steep hill and 17 steps to reach the station.

Tip: A little train will take you from the Rhine to the 17 steps up to the station; it runs every 30 minutes or so.

Warning: Once you arrive at the rail's terminus, you will have 37 steps up, another short hill and 22 more steps to reach the castle's main level.  Once there you have 11 steps to the first floor entrance and 34 steps to the second floor.

Tip: There is a lift and by spring of 2011, improvements should cut out the first 37 steps from the train.

You might prefer watching traffic along the Rhine from the terrace at the Maritim Hotel Koenigswinter. The adjacent bar is a great place to snug in with an adult beverage if the weather turns wet or chilly.

Leia Mais…
Monday, December 6, 2010

Flying the sometimes friendly skies and airports

Whew. Just returned from a whirlwind trip to Playa del Carmen and Cancun, Mexico and at the moment, the frustrations of flying are stronger than the memories of beautiful surroundings and fun friends.

Given my Jacksonville, FL, home base, Miami International Airport is a frequent gateway.

The good news is the American Airlines terminal is finally in operation.

The bad news is that whomever designed its connection to passport control and customs, also a bit rearranged, must never have flown internationally.

It's a mess in which you find yourself walking endless corridors and negotiating a number of escalators to reach passport control. Then, having gone through that you have to circle around and cross through those coming in, take an escalator down to baggage claim where you are immediately dumped into milling crowds trying to retrieve bags. Try finding your way to the exit through that!

It is particularly frustrating if you have no checked luggage; there is no direct way to avoid those who didn't pack light. Then it's following different colored dots on the floor and, if connecting with another flight, going through security again.

Tips: If you have any trouble walking, ask for assistance when flying internationally through Miami. You'll never make it otherwise. Unless you are a world-class sprinter, you'll never make the average one-hour-long gap between connection if you have to switch terminals or go through customs. Insist on at least two hours between flights.

If you are flying this holiday season, count on full flights, crowded airports and hunts for free tables in the food courts not unlike the hunt for parking.

Not all is bad, however. Some airports are festive and fun. Cancun's facility had spectacular trees covered in colorful Mexican hand-crafted ornaments and a "delegation" of angel (or Mary and Joseph, I couldn't be sure), two devils in horns and red devil suits and a Santa Claus wandering around. Combine that with the "Let's keep the party going" atmosphere in the large and open Margaritaville and you can have a jolly good time.

Warning: Mexican security is capriciously serious about the 3 1/2-ounce limit on liquids. My searcher took exception to the almost empty 4-ounce bottle of contact lens solution but let pass a larger bottle of perfume. Guess he didn't want to tempt an international incident.

Kudos to Jacksonville International Airport, too. Decorated trees are everywhere and each one is done by a different group: there's a contest to see which is most popular.

The raise-your-hands-and let-the scan-reader-see-your-altogether machines are installed in Jacksonville, which pretty much eliminate pat-downs, a boon for those of us with joint replacements. Not so Miami although TSA staff is professional and thoughtful. Still a frustrating hassle.

In short, forget that extra shirt. Pack your patience and sense of humor instead.

Let me know what you encounter. Which is your favorite airport when returning from abroad?

Leia Mais…