Chrysanthemum Festival

Fall is a time of festivals in my part of Germany.  It’s possible to visit a different one every weekend with each having a unique theme.  On a dry sunny day recently, we visited the Chrysanthemum Festival set in Lahr, a historic village situated on the edge of the Black Forest.  This festival appears to draw people in droves, perhaps due to good advertising on the part of the planners.  Before noon on a Saturday morning, there were already half a dozen tour buses parked on the outskirts of Lahr.  While there was no shortage of ‘official’ guides providing tours of the festival itself as well as the historic city center, it was possible to simply wander at leisure enjoying the various displays.

In addition to figures covered in Chrysanthemum blossoms which appeared to have been adhered with glue, there were themed gardens with Chrysanthemums artfully placed throughout.

What I found most appealing however, were Fall displays using Chrysanthemums and other Fall-blooming flowers, bales of straw, and colorful gourds.

Most businesses and many homes also had baskets of Chrysanthemums sitting at the front door.  This is a village that truly embraces the beauty of Fall.

Aside from the Chrysanthemum Festival, Lahr is picturesque with parts of the old city wall still intact, historic buildings, and half-timbered houses.  What’s not to like?

Lacy looking hollowed-out eggs

Easter Egg Market

We visited an Easter Egg market at nearby Maulbronn Monastery on a recent sunny Saturday.

This is what I was expecting:

Stands marketing delightful springtime decorations.

What I experienced, however, was a market set up inside one of the monastery buildings with table after table displaying intricately decorated eggs.  And what a variety!  This takes Easter egg decorating to a whole new level!  There were a few eggs made of wood and porcelain but the vast majority were real eggs, of varying sizes, that had been hollowed out.  Most of the eggs were hand-painted with spring themes such as flowers, butterflies, bunnies, etc., although one stand was devoted to eggs with animal motifs: sleeping cat, dog, horse, etc.  These eggs could be mistaken for stones, perhaps due to the dark earthy colors of paint that completely covered the egg.

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Monkey on child's shoulder

Free-Roaming Monkeys

Apeldoorn is a city in the Netherlands about an hour drive east of Amsterdam; it is the home of Apenheul primate park.  This is a park where, in many cases, the primates roam freely, interacting with the park guests if they so choose.  Even the species which have new young are loose and free to roam among the park visitors; they are simply unafraid of humans.  The larger primates, orangutans and gorillas for example, are intentionally kept at a safe distance from visitors.

Monkeys are naturally curious and the residents of Apenheul have learned to look in pockets, purses, backpacks, strollers, etc. because there might be food or other items of interest which they will take.  They  don’t hesitate to climb on park visitors, usually in an attempt to find and steal treasures, anything from tissues to lip balm to snacks.  As you might imagine, none of this is healthy for the monkeys to ingest.  But they do so anyway.

Monkey on person's arm


On a recent visit, one small monkey cautiously climbed up the arm of a member of our party.  The monkey then quickly looked in the hoodie pocket and finding nothing leapt to the out-stretched arm of a nearby gentleman.  The monkey quickly peeked inside the man’s breast pocket, found a roll of Smarties candy, grabbed it, jumped to the ground and raced off!

There are signs throughout the park stating that we aren’t to feed the monkeys and additionally, we are not allowed to eat food while wandering through the park because the monkeys will snatch it right out of our hand.  There are specific food-safe zones where the monkeys do not visit.  It is here we are allowed to eat food purchased from a park café as well as snacks we brought into the park (a completely acceptable practice).

In an effort to prevent the monkeys from ingesting contraband, the park offers free use of monkey-proof bags and encourages visitors to store all of their belongings in these large, heavy-duty, canvas, zippered bags which may then be carried throughout park.  At the entrance to the park, there are also lockers in which belongings not needed during the visit may be stored free of charge.

While Apenheul didn’t even garner a mention in our tour book – a glaring omission in my opinion – it is a wonderful place to visit for people of all ages.  The monkeys are not only cute but downright entertaining!

Buildings along canal

Strasbourg, France

This beautiful city sits on the Rhein river, on the French-German border.  It is  yet another picturesque European city containing half-timbered houses, cobblestone streets, canals, and a cathedral – complete with an astronomical clock.

Although the name Strasbourg is decidedly German, it has a section called La Petit France; perhaps over the centuries Strasbourg found itself part of various empires and therefore needed to establish its identity as French.  Strasbourg is a short two-hour drive from my house; the perfect day trip and a favorite destination when we have house-guests.

Christmas decorations on storefront

Festively Decorated Shop

We visited the week before Christmas and experienced the Christmas market as well as the shops festively decorated for the season.  What a treat!  Not only were the front window displays decorated, but also the front of the buildings and the rooftops!

Boat on canal

Canal Tour Boat

An hour-and-a-half canal boat tour is offered and since the boats are enclosed with glass walls and ceiling, it provides protection from the elements of Mother Nature.  There is no bad seat for viewing…unless there is some thoughtless soul taking a video with their iPad held above their head for the entirety of the tour!  But I digress… Each person wears headphones and tunes into the channel of their mother tongue to listen to a commentary of the history and architecture of the buildings as we pass them.  At times it can be difficult to know exactly which buildings are being referenced, but on the other hand, it is fun to view the city from the boat. The tour passes through two locks; it is interesting to watch the level of the water rise and fall while seated in the boat.

Canoes at lock

Canoeists at Canal Lock

On a recent visit, we happened upon three canoes carrying people and a dog.  Perhaps they were out on a fishing expedition.  They were at the lock apparently hoping to cross to the other side once the canal boat activated the lock.  However, they only served to block the lock and despite the captain of the canal boat blaring his horn numerous times, the canoeists weren’t going to leave their position at the gate of the lock.  Reinforcements (in the form of someone on a bicycle – not wearing a uniform but apparently with some level of authority) had to be called in.  It provided additional entertainment for the passengers on the tour. 😉

While Strasbourg can feel touristy, it also has a very authentic atmosphere.  Sure the cathedral and the square around it are full of tourists, but just beyond that perimeter are city citizens trying to go about their day.  Many are biking as a mode of transportation and become understandably frustrated when tourists are strolling along in the bike lane which is immediately adjacent to the sidewalk.  The bikers will ring their bells constantly warning of their approach and alerting tourists who are wrongfully in their lane.  Often the tourists are blissfully unaware that the ringing bell is intended for them, earning a glare from the passing biker.

Glass building on canal

European Parliament Building

Strasbourg is the official seat of the European Parliament which has new glass and steel buildings situated a short distance out of the city center, on the canal.  This architecture seems incongruous with the historical half-timbered and brick architecture.  According to Wikipedia, all votes of the European Parliament must take place in Strasbourg.  One early spring day while strolling along the canal, we were treated to people rowing in the long flat boats used for Crew.

Choosing to drive to/in a European city is an adventure in itself because these cities aren’t automobile-friendly and parking is not only expensive but can also be difficult to find.  We have discovered an excellent parking garage on the edge of Strasbourg called Rotonde.  Not only are the parking spaces diagonal but they are a bit larger than normal and more easily accommodate our large American vehicle!  (Most European parking spaces seem to be straight-in which allows for more cars to fit in the allotted space but this family finds it more difficult to park – and exit for that matter.)  Additionally, at Rotonde we pay a small fee to park (4 Euro in 2014) and that allows us to ride the tram into the city center for free!  A word of caution, however.  The tram ticket that comes with parking at Rotonde doesn’t cover public transportation throughout the entire city of Strasbourg.

Half-timbered architecture, cobblestone streets, canals, a cathedral, glass and steel buildings – overall a visit to Strasbourg is a lovely way to spend a day.


Pumpkin Festival

Red flowers, orange gourds, fountains

Ludwigsburg Palace grounds

In the fall, there is an annual pumpkin festival on the grounds of the Ludwigsburg palace.  Not sure what to expect, we visited it on a warm, sunny October day.  The castle grounds are picturesque with vast gardens in front of the palace itself.  There is a central garden leading the visitor from the palace grounds entrance at the street straight to the palace, and this garden has fountains every few feet. It draws one in, beckoning the visitor to venture further towards the palace.  Since it was the Pumpkin Fest, colorful gourds were placed in the gardens.

We wandered around the palace grounds and happened along an area specifically built to entertain children.  At various points along the path winding through the forest would be a life-sized structure as part of a traditional story German children would know: The Red Shoes, Rumpelstiltskin, Rapunzel, etc. If a button located somewhere on the structure was pressed, the story would be told, often with some part of the display moving. There were two over-sized frogs in a pond with stepping-stones so one could cross the pond rather than walk around it. However, once the first stone felt some weight, the frogs would begin spitting water at each other and the person crossing the stepping-stones would get wet in the crossfire!

The forest gave way to a wide meadow at the back of the palace where the Pumpkin Fest was located. There were gourds of all colors, shapes and sizes set up in a variety of displays. The theme of this year’s Pumpkin Fest was “Royalty” so among other things, there was a throne, a chess board with chess pieces, a lion, and even Elvis – all using pumpkins and gourds!  There were gourds that, along with their vines, were shaped like people with arms and legs!  Since it was a fest, there were various food stands offering the usual fare – bratwurst & fries – as well as all sorts of foodstuff made from pumpkin: soup, bread, various flavored seeds, and even beer! A delightful way to spend a warm, sunny, fall afternoon! 🙂

Selbst Schneiden


Selbst Schneiden Stand

A common sight in our area of Germany are ‘Selbst Schneiden’ stands.  These are plots of flowers next to the road and normally adjacent to a larger farm field growing a crop.  One cuts the desired flowers and pays at an unattended cash box.  At a single stand there may be a patch of sunflowers, a separate patch of gladioli, a separate patch of iris, etc.  There is a price list based on the type of flowers taken, but the stand is completely unattended and on the honor system to pay for what is cut.  Often the cash box is welded to an oil drum filled with concrete in order to deter thieves.  Some stands even provide scissors for when the visitor isn’t carrying a cutting utensil.  Now that fall has arrived, pumpkin and squash stands are set up in a similar fashion.  The gourds are sorted by type with a sign showing the cost of different varieties.

I marvel over the entire concept because the cynical American in me says this would never work in the United States.  Either the produce and flowers would be taken without making payment or the entire stand would be vandalized.  Perhaps it works in small American communities.  Do any of my American friends have any experience with this?


Iceland Fun Facts

Following are fun facts from our tour guides (Dooley out of Reykjavík and Matthias out of Húsavík) as well as personal observations while traveling in Iceland for a week:

MountainsThe population of Iceland is 320,000 people with over 100,000 living in the capital city of Reykjavík.  It isn’t unusual to be visiting with someone and discover that you have a common acquaintance.  Iceland is about the same size as the state of Kentucky.  It is called Iceland because when it was first discovered, it was mostly covered with ice.  Today, glaciers cover 11% of the island.  It snows somewhere on the island every day with the glaciers getting snow throughout the summer. Continue reading

Iceland in the North

We boarded a 19 seat propeller plane at the Reykjavík airport, a tiny airport where the desk clerk is also the baggage handler and grounds crew!  There was absolutely no security screening and no one even asked to see our ticket/boarding pass as we boarded.  Apparently seat assignments were merely suggestions.  Those seasoned travelers who routinely fly in this manner simply sat in an available seat.

Snow covered mountains

Near Húsavík, Iceland

We flew from Reykjavík, which is in the southwest part of the country to Húsavík, which is on the northeast coast, only 60 km from the Arctic Circle.  We were met by Matthias, a German who came to Iceland 30 years ago and never left; he has given up his German citizenship and now carries an Iceland passport.  It wasn’t until our first stop that I realized Matthias was our guide for the day and we were getting a private tour!  Continue reading

Beach, cliffs, ocean

Iceland – The South Coast

We began our journey by driving the same route as we did for the Golden Circle tour, passing Hveragerði.  Instead of turning north toward the interior of the island, we continued on the Ring Road staying along the coast.  The land along the south coast is extremely flat because it was carved by a glacier; the south coast is also the warmest part of Iceland.  We ate lunch in Vík (which means bay – Reykjavík means smoky bay). Continue reading

Grass-covered hill and waterfalls

Iceland – The Golden Circle

Tour books about Iceland state that most roads outside the cities are closed September through May; furthermore, one is taking their life into their own hands if attempting to drive these roads at any time of the year!  They are described as being rough gravel roads; therefore don’t consider renting anything other than a 4-wheel-drive vehicle with high clearance. Trucks It also isn’t uncommon to cross a river by driving through it; it is a river only in the summertime when the snow is melting so no bridge exists.  Moreover, if heading into less-traveled areas, the books suggest notifying those at your destination of the expected arrival time so that if you don’t show up, a search party can be sent out!  I even saw a sign posted at a gas station convenience store:  Register your travel plan at  Check it out!

Based on these dire warnings, we thought it prudent to take an organized tour rather than striking out on our own! 🙂  Therefore, we took a guided driving tour of the Golden Circle – sort of an “Iceland in a Nutshell” tour.   Continue reading