March 01, 2020
As posted by Traveloscopy Travelblog
Phensri and Len Rutledge find that temples, parks, museums, waterfalls, northern food and even a beach attract visitors to Chaing Rai, Thailand’s northern-most city.
Many come on a day trip from larger, more well-known Chiang Mai, but that doesn’t allow sufficient time to experience all that this city offers. It really deserves much longer than this.
Day visitors see the extraordinary big three attractions – the White Temple, the Black House, and the Blue Temple – but miss out on the history, the serenity and the character of the city.
Chiang Rai was founded in 1262 by King Mengrai as the first capital of the Lanna Thai Kingdom before he later moved his capital to Chiang Mai. Chiang Rai was subsequently conquered and occupied by the Burmese and it was not until 1786 that Chiang Rai became a Thai territory.
The spiritual heart of Chiang Rai is a life-size monument dedicated to King Mengrai the Great. Backed by three giant golden tungs (Lanna flags), the King’s monument is a good place to understand the early history of the city.
Next visit Wat Phra Kaew which is the original site where the famous Emerald Buddha statue was enshrined. Subsequently, the Buddha was relocated to Lampang, Chiang Mai, Luang Phra Bang, Vientiane and eventually to Wat Phra Kaew (Temple of the Emerald Buddha) in Bangkok. Today, a jade replica of the Emerald Buddha dressed in full regal attire is housed inside the crimson, Lanna-style pavilion behind the chedi.
Wat Klang Wieng, built in 1432, houses the original city pillar shrine as well as a spectacular temple complex built in a contemporary Lanna style. The temple has ornate grillwork, roof finials and gilded decorations on its vivid red façades and is a popular photographic spot.
If you are visiting the hill-tribe villages around Chiang Rai, it’s a good idea to first drop by the Hill-Tribe’s Museum and get familiarised with their culture. The museum aims to build awareness of responsible tourism by educating visitors about Thailand’s ethnic hill-tribe communities and local etiquettes that they should observe.
|Hill Tribe Women © flickr user The Pope|
The museum showcases the history, customs and traditions of the seven major tribes inhabiting the northern highlands of Thailand, and displays the colourful tribal costumes of the ethnic hill-tribes.
If you want to know more, head over to the Mae Fah Luang Art & Cultural Park. Set in a lovely landscaped lake garden is a cluster of teak structures, constructed in traditional Lanna and hill-tribe styles.
At the Oub Kham Museum, you can see royal regalia and costumes and an assortment of rare antiques, pottery, ancient Buddha images, artefacts and tribal costumes. The collections are housed inside five exhibition rooms and a man-made cave.
Chiang Rai’s modern culture is displayed at the city’s clock tower. This is another offering from Chaloemchai Khositphiphat, the creator of the White Temple. It is best viewed in the early evening when the tower comes to life in an eight-minute light and sound show. Traditional Thai music plays and the monument turns from gold to all the colours of the rainbow.
Other modern cultural elements are seen in the Night Bazaar, Saturday Walking Street and annual Jazz Festival.
Chiang Rai City should be all about chilling out and taking it in slowly. The city is built beside the Mae Kok and while there are a few hotels and restaurants along its banks it is largely undeveloped from a tourism point of view. To fully appreciate the beauty of the river, it is best to hire a long-tail boat and go for a ride.
An alternative is to rent a bicycle and take a leisurely ride around the city using the Tourism Authority of Thailand’s cycle map highlighting six routes following the river, or in surrounding districts, that visit most of the city’s popular sightseeing spots on quiet lanes.
Cycling is also popular around Singha Park on the outskirts of town. This agricultural tourist attraction has its own cycle lane around part of the extensive parkland, tea plantation and orchards. The park is a very low-key attraction spread out over a wide area but there are a few specific attractions such as a mini-zoo, a zip line, a restaurant, and a pizzeria.
Beyond the cycle paths, the travel experience could touch on meditation, yoga classes or a serious introduction to Buddhist teachings. There are wellness retreats which offer vegetarian meals, meditation, yoga and Tai Chi.
Thai food is a major attraction to most visitors and Chiang Rai offers plenty of variety. Khao Soi Gai Nong, a coconut curry noodle soup with chicken leg, is a local favourite. It comes with a side serving of red onions, lime, and pickled cabbage.
|Khao Soi Gai Nong (source)|
Sai Ua or Northern Thai sausage is a combination of minced pork meat, curry paste, herbs and spices which creates an explosion of flavours. Then try some Joi Yor Sod spring rolls. The pork, fresh vegetables, and rice noodles go just right with some good chili sauce.
For a special treat try the ambiance of a riverside restaurant or enjoy the action and street food at the Night Bazaar.
Getting to Chiang Rai
There are many daily flights from Bangkok on several airlines which take about an hour and 15 minutes. If coming from Chiang Mai, the road trip takes about three and a half hours. The city has a wide variety of accommodation suitable for all tastes and budgets.
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
As published on piquenewsmagazine.com February 02, 2020
By Len Rutledge
A CLASSIC OLD TRAM trundles past as we head down a treeless street towards the centre of Old Town. The buildings we pass are covered with graffiti and many shops seem vacant. Kraków is not as exciting or picturesque as my wife and I had expected.
That changes in an instant when we reach the Main Square (Rynek Gówny). We stand transfixed as we stare out at Europe’s largest medieval market square lined with pastel-coloured townhouses and clusters of cafes and restaurants that spread onto the cobblestones. This is postcard-picture perfect and a world away from Whistler.
Kraków is a wonderful introduction to Poland as it is one of the few major European cities to escape major damage during the Second World War. It was the capital of Poland until 1596, when Warsaw took over, and now it is the second-largest (and most touristy) city in the country.
Main Square is the social hub of Kraków, and the logical place to start exploring this Renaissance-style Cloth Hall, its archways leading to stalls selling jewelry and all types of souvenirs.
In one corner of the square stands red-brick St. Mary Church with two towers of unequal height and form. It is not conventionally attractive, but go inside and you find a sky-blue ceiling scattered with gold stars, 14th-century stained-glass windows, patterned marble flooring and an extraordinary altar piece.
Main Square is also a good place to sit and watch the world go by. There are buskers, horse-drawn carriages, flower-sellers, mime-artists, and happy crowds to grab your attention. We listened to the trumpet played from the top of St. Mary’s on the hour as we sipped our coffee. Later, we visited the Rynek Underground Museum, an interactive panoramic archaeological museum at the medieval level of the city beneath the square.
he other major attraction is the impressive Wawel, the castle that dominates the city centre. The ancient seat of power in Poland since 1,000 AD, the Wawel is a rambling complex of historic buildings. People have been living here for about 5,000 years, and have built on the hill successively so there is no grand plan. As we explore this jumble of palace, chapels, cathedral, colonnaded courtyards, armouries, and crypts all sitting behind fortified walls, its very lack of classical harmony becomes one of its endearing features to me.
You can see Poland’s Crown Jewels in the treasury; the royal tombs and Russian murals in the cathedral; and the highly decorative apartments and state art collections in the castle.
I strongly recommend the recently re-opened Czartoryski Museum, which is famous, of course, for its Leonardo da Vinci painting Lady with an Ermine, but there is much more besides this including two works by Rembrandt.
Nearby Kazimierz brings home the terrors of the Second World War, when Poland was under German occupation. A Jewish community that had existed here for nearly 500 years was wiped out and reminders of that time are found in major attractions such as the Old Synagogue and the Galicia Jewish Museum. Today, Kazimierz is making a comeback, as it houses some of the wackiest and most-stylish independent stores, art galleries, bars and clubs in Kraków.
We walk across the pedestrian bridge that spans the Wisa River, linking Kazimierz with Podgórze, and linger to admire the 10 sculptures of acrobats suspended from its arch. Podgórze was Kraków’s ghetto during the Second World War, where 20,000 Jews were rounded up by the Nazis and forced into an area of 320 houses by a three-metre high wall.
We see the stunning St. Joseph’s Church then work our way across to Ghetto Heroes’ Square to see the 70 bronze chairs, representing the furniture left in the street after the residents were rounded up in 1943 for the “final liquidation” of the ghetto.
Most will know the name Oskar Schindler, the factory owner whose story gained worldwide recognition with the movie Schindler’s List. The factory is now a museum with a profoundly moving permanent exhibition that covers not only Schindler’s role in saving 1,000 Jews from the ghetto, but the wider story of life in Kraków under Nazi occupation from 1939 to 1945.
EATING, DRINKING AND PARTYING
Polish cuisine is not the world’s greatest but we enjoyed the 650-year-old Wierzynek Restaurant. It has elegant surroundings, decorative timbered ceilings and an excellent menu offering dishes such as venison tartar and wild boar goulash. Afterwards, we eat an ice-cream treat from Lody na Starowilnej, which has been serving a short menu of flavours for many years.
Nightlife in Krakow ranges from an uplifting evening listening to one of Fryderyk Chopin’s tinkling piano concertos in the 16th-century elegant Bonerowski Palace to braving Tytano, an old tobacco factory where there are bars, restaurants and clubs. The high ceilings, large loft windows and exposed brickwork have all been retained so there is plenty of atmosphere here.
There is a small community of Canadians living in Krakow and contact can be made through www.internations.org/krakow-expats/canadians.
The Krakow Tourist Card allows you to travel freely on buses and trams across the city, as well as granting free access to more than 30 of the city’s museums. The price for a three-day card is C$42.
Germany’s Romantic Road is Ideal for Slow Travel
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
Magnificent medieval architecture, the dramatic Alps, pretty green rolling countryside, castles and some of the most picturesque villages in Europe combine to make Germany’s Romantic Road a very special drive. Driving in Europe can be a challenge but this road is perfect for those who wish to take their time and experience the German countryside and explore some delightful towns.
For this Germany’s Romantic Road, we began in Füssen in the south with its large former monastery and castle and finished in Würzburg 350 kilometres to the north. While this drive could have taken four hours, in fact we took three days and felt rushed in the process.
These were some of Germany’s Romantic Road highlights.
This small village is home to one of Germany’s most iconic sights, Schloss Neuschwanstein, the fairy tale castle that inspired Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. Commissioned by King Ludwig II of Bavaria as a personal retreat, the castle has enough towers, turrets, balconies, pinnacles and sculptures to satisfy anyone.
You can visit the castle with a timed ticket but you will share the trip with hundreds of others during busy times. I suggest the best view is from Marienbrücke, the suspension bridge behind the castle where you can see the dreamy castle in all its glory.
If you have the time, also tour the less-visited Hohenschwangau, the neighbouring castle where King Ludwig II grew up and dreamed about his magical castle.
The city was founded in 15 BC and was a free imperial city until the early 19th century. Due to a flourishing textile trade, luxurious palatial homes, civic buildings, baroque fountains and gothic churches were built. You can enjoy them all on a visit today.
Constructed in the early 1600s, the “Rathaus” still serves as the administrative centre of the city. Next to it you can climb an ancient Perlachturm tower, built over 1000 years ago to serve as a watchtower.
Towering over the town, Harburg Castle exemplifies medieval architecture. It comes complete with sentry walk, prison tower, dungeon and ballroom. There is a small hotel inside if you wish to stay.
This has beautifully preserved town walls and the Rieskrater Museum, where you’ll learn about the meteor that struck this area some 15 million years ago. In fact, the entire almost perfectly round walled old town is built inside a massive crater. Because it sees fewer tourists than Rothenburg or Dinkelsbühl, the other two walled towns, it can be enjoyed more quietly.
Dinkelsbühl was not bombed in the Second World War, so it stands as it was in the Middle Ages, when it was created. It is a gem.
St. George’s Minster, a late 15th-century Gothic masterpiece, dominates the town while magnificent gabled buildings, dating from around 1600, line the central Weinmarkt. Many are now restaurants and cafés. The square hosts many festivals and celebrations throughout the year.
I strongly suggest a walk on the town walls with their 18 towers and four gates. The views are nice but the thought of walking where many armed defenders have been over hundreds of years makes it something special.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber
This is a very popular tourist destination overlooking the Tauber River, so it can get quite crowded. You have a real sense of stepping back into Renaissance era Germany and most visitors love it. The narrow cobblestone streets feel like they haven’t changed in hundreds of years.
Late afternoon is the best time after the tourist buses have left and the shops are closing, leaving only the restaurants open. It’s a calm atmosphere allowing you to really take in the town.
Rothenburg’s well-preserved town walls which completely encircle the old town are great for walking along. It is free and it was one of the highlights for us.
Parking is almost impossible inside the walls so we chose a hotel close by with its own car park and we left our car there the whole time.
Walking along cobbled streets, you’ll notice that each building here is special. There are various popular photo points but we equally enjoyed walking the back streets and making our own discoveries.
This is home to one of Southern Germany’s spa resorts. If you’re looking for a massage, an Ayurvedic treatment or some time in a sauna, this is the place for you. There is also a large castle and a wonderful Rococo church.
Built around the Main River and surrounded by rolling hills, the city of Würzburg has impressive architecture and a nice vibe.
In 686, three Irish missionaries made a vain attempt to convert the town ruler to Christianity. Later, Würzburg had a bishop appointed and became a duchy as well, and the ruling prince-bishops brought their wealth here causing the city to experience a period of growth and lavishness.
You see this today in the Wurzburger Residenz a baroque palace now inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list and once the seat of the reigning prince-bishop; the rococo-style church Käppele; and Festung Marienberg, a medieval fortress high above the city.
Phensri and Len arrive in Ketchikan to be greeted with low cloud, rain and a bleak outlook. Although it was June, it looked more like February. But we should not have been surprised. The city has been nicknamed the “Rain Capital of Alaska” as it receives nearly four metres of rain each year over 230 wet days.
Ketchikan is the “first city,” along the popular Inside Passage and serves as the first port of call for many cruise ships visiting Alaska. It is on Revillagigedo Island at the southern tip of the tail that wags the rest of the giant state. You can only reach Ketchikan by air or sea.
Once known as the Salmon Capital of the world, then later as a major timber centre, Ketchikan is now a tourist town. With a population of around 13,000, at times during summer this doubles as up to six cruise boats arrive with thousands of passengers and crew.
The demise of the timber industry has led to a radical transformation of the town. Many people who used to earn their livelihoods through timber now have jobs in tourism. For many decades, the huge forests of spruce, hemlock and cedar trees were the source of timber for the logging industry. Logging camps dotted the islands of southeast Alaska, and pulp mills were robust economic drivers of the region.
Then one by one, those pulp mills shut down. Ketchikan’s was the last one still operating in Alaska when it shut down in 1997. Hundreds of good-paying jobs and the businesses that supported them went with it. The shoe shops, workwear stores, and Chevrolet and Ford dealerships went too.
In their place are many jewelry and watch stores, souvenir and gift shops, as well as local tour operations. The newer businesses provide seasonal retail work, but it’s nowhere near as well paid as the old year-round jobs: Now at the end of September, most of the businesses close and many people leave town.
During the five-month cruise season, this is not apparent to most visitors. When the gangplank is lowered and the tourists march ashore, they find a gaggle of tour operators waiting to entice them with local offerings: The world’s largest totem poles; an all-you-can-eat Dungeness crab feast; a chance to see killer whales and humpbacks; and the chance to enjoy a brothel tour.
The Ketchikan Visitors Bureau on the waterfront is where we found a map with a self-guided walking tour. Despite the rain, we set out to explore.
Many streets in town are boardwalks or steep wooden staircases so walking is never boring. St John’s Episcopal Church built in 1902, Whale Park and two impressive replica totem poles are initial highlights. We then visit the Tongass Historical Museum to see artefacts from periods going back to a Native Fishing Camp.
Ketchikan Creek flows through the centre of town year-round, its cold water populated in summer by salmon who come up the creek to spawn. Numbers are multiplied by the Deer Mountain Tribal Hatchery which raises and releases 300,000 salmon, steelhead and rainbow trout each year.
Totem Heritage Centre
Ketchikan has the world’s largest collection of totem poles. Giant carved cedar poles stand in numbers in the Saxman Native Village and the Totem Bright State Historical Park but I recommend a visit to the Totem Heritage Centre which displays very old and rare poles from three Native Nations.
Many were carved 150–175 years ago and they tell the stories of families. When a totem pole was raised during a big celebration, everyone would be told why the pole was carved and what it meant.
Until 1953, this was lined with up to 30 bordellos. During the Prohibition era, some houses became speakeasies. Now shops, museums, galleries and a restaurant welcome visitors to the unique piled street which is now on the US National Register of Historic Places.
A highlight is Dolly’s House which belonged to Dolly Arthur, Ketchikan’s most famous madam. Her house, preserved much as she left it, has antiques, garish décor and an aura that many want to experience. Tours of the small building are offered.
Southeast Alaska Discovery Centre
Here you can explore the natural and cultural history of the Tongass National Forest, by far the largest national forest in the U.S. You can visit a re-created native fishing village and learn how the lush forest sustains southeast Alaska communities today.
For those wanting a walk through the forest, the four-kilometre Rainbow Trail only 15 minutes from town provides a wilderness experience while also having some nice views of Ketchikan
If you want a theatrical taste of the industry that used to fuel Ketchikan, you can go to the Great Alaskan Lumberjack Show, where burly competitors in flannel shirts and braces chop stumps, saw logs, and heave axes at a bullseye. It’s great fun.
Ketchikan is just 90 minutes by air from Seattle, with several daily flights in and out provided by Alaska Airlines. A scheduled daily jet service is also available to and from Anchorage and there are regular services to several other Alaskan towns. Ferries connect Ketchikan with the lower 48 states, and Canada. Many cruise lines operate Alaska cruises from Vancouver and Seattle to Ketchikan
Words: Len Rutledge Images: Phensri Rutledge
I’ve just posted the first of the 2020 Experience Guides on the amazon website. Both paperback and e‑book versions are now available.
With geysers, grizzlies, an impressive grand canyon, and great mud pools, Yellowstone National Park in America’s west is dramatic, imposing and at times overwhelming. The world’s first national park, established in 1872, is a wonderful blend of land, water, forest, grassland, wildlife and geothermal features. It challenges your senses and stirs your soul.
The first expedition to reach here returned with accounts that were rebuffed by magazine editors and politicians who said their accounts were too far-fetched to be believed. Writers need to be careful even today. Fortunately, images and video readily available on our screens confirm today’s words.
Yellowstone is in Wyoming with small parts spilling over into Montana and Idaho. Heat and volcanic activity from the depths of Earth power this dramatic landscape which is visited by four million visitors each year. In 1978, Yellowstone was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
There are several different approaches that feed into the Grand Loop Road, a figure-eight highway in the middle of the park. Rather than a single focus, Yellowstone has several hubs so travelling around is essential. Most visitors do this by car but various tours are available which visit most areas. During my recent visit, I thought these were some of the park highlights.
Old Faithful Village
A highlight here is Old Faithful Inn, a masterpiece of national park rustic architecture, with the lobby containing a massive stone fireplace and soaring timber ceiling. Just outside, Old Faithfull Geyser erupts around 17 times per day to an average height of 40 metres. Wait on the wooden boardwalk built around the geyser and watch it erupt with your camera in hand. With its reliable eruption times it’s easy to plan a visit to witness a blowout.
Afterwards, the Old Faithful Visitor Education Centre explains the geology behind the world’s most famous geyser. Visitors can then easily hike the Upper Geyser Basin, home to around 60 percent of the world’s geysers.
Further north is the Norris Geyser Basin, where geological wonders like Artist Paint Pots, Roaring Mountain, and Steamboat Geyser are complemented by the indoor exhibits of two museums. Visitors can also explore the eerie Norris-Canyon Blowdown with its ghost trees, or fly fish for trout in the swift-flowing Gibson River.
Grand Prismatic Spring
Yellowstone’s largest hot spring, is in the Midway Geyser Basin and is accessible by boardwalk. It is a large turquoise pool ringed with orange and yellow with steam coming off the surface. Temperatures around the pool are high, especially during the summer. The rainbow colours are best viewed from a height so take a slightly strenuous hike up the Midway Bluff trailfor the perfect vantage point.
Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone
This is an immense multicoloured trench that stretches 38 kilometres and rises as much as 360 metres above the Yellowstone River. Trails lead to outstanding viewpoints like Artist’s Point on the south rim and Lookout Point on the north rim, for great views of the 100-metre-high Lower Yellowstone Falls. The canyon is marked by steep white-and-yellow cliffs and its vents and spires reveal thermal activity that continues unabated underground.
The largest high-altitude lake in North America offers the park’s best opportunities for boating, fishing, and waterfront camping but it is too cold for swimming. There are rental boats, guided fishing charters, and scenic lake cruises, as well as shuttle services to remote campsites along the 141-mile lake shore.
This is the best place in Yellowstone to get a glimpse of the wolves that have been reintroduced to the park. Bison and elk also frequent the valley with its lush grasslands.
Here and elsewhere there is abundant wildlife, including elk, bison, grizzlies, black bear, pronghorn antelope, moose, and bighorn sheep. March and April are the best months to view bear, while the winter months are best for wolves and bighorn sheep. Elk, moose, bison, and mountain goats can be spotted during the summer months.
You are guaranteed to see bison. The park’s herd dwindled to just 23 animals during the late 19th century, but the population later bounced back thanks to more effective protection and now totals roughly 5,500.
Surrounded by mountain towns immediately to the north, east, and west, and bordered by Grand Teton National Park to the south, there is plenty to do not only within, but also around the park.
These hotels provide accommodation in the park. Old Faithful Inn is the world’s largest log structure with restaurants, bars and shop. Lake Yellowstone Hotel with its Greek Revival facade is the park’s oldest hotel overlooking the lake. Mammoth Hot Springs Hotel is a classic motor lodge with motel-style rooms and cabins, restaurant, shop, and map room.
The park has 12 developed campgrounds, including Mammoth, Canyon, and Grant Village.
Along the way, he has started a newspaper, a travel magazine, a Visitor and TV Guide, and completed a PhD in tourism. His travels have taken him to more than 100 countries and his writings have collected a PATA award, an ASEAN award, an IgoUgo Hall of Fame award, and other recognition.
He is the author of the Experience Guidebook series which currently includes Experience Thailand, Experience Norway, Experience Northern Italy, Experience Myanmar, Experience Istanbul, Experience Singapore, Experience Melbourne, and Experience Ireland. They are available as ebooks or paperbacks from amazon.com
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a highlight on Germany’s Romantic Road
Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a rather ordinary, highly-promoted pastry specialty called Schneeball, Rothenburg is still an absolute treasure.
In the Middle Ages, Rothenburg was Germany’s second-largest city, Today, it’s the country’s most exciting medieval town, enjoying tremendous popularity with tourists. There’s a thousand years of history packed within the walls that completely surround the Old Town. This is the area that you won’t want to leave.
The ancient town of turreted fortifications and winding cobblestone streets in some ways feels more like something out of a Disney film. It’s touristy, but if you want it to, it somehow manages to remain genuine.
A walking tour helps bring the Old Town alive. To learn something of Rothenburg’s history, I suggest you take the tour offered by the town’s tourist office in Market Square. Then for a thoroughly fun hour, take the Night Watchman’s Tour and follow his black cape and broad-brimmed hat as he points out places of interest and explains their place in Rothenburg’s history in a unique entertaining style.
Walking the streets of the town without a plan is my favourite thing to do here and I could spend hours just doing this but there are a few specific attractions to see. For views and a great medieval feeling, walk the top of the wall that surrounds the Old Town. This is at its most attractive before breakfast or at sunset when it is almost deserted. You can walk most of the 1.5 kilometres but this would have taken me days because I found every metre so fascinating.
Rising above the market square and the town hall stands the bell tower, the tallest building in Rothenburg. It offers a panoramic view of the entire town and the surrounding Tauber Valley. We climbed countless steps and then found the area at the top to be very confined for the 20 or so people allowed up there at the one time.
The Puppen & Spielzeug Museum has the largest doll and toy collection in Germany, model trains, stuffed animals, and other toys from the past 200 years. The most popular museum is the Kriminalmuseum. Here we found 10,000 grisly devices include iron maidens, a spike-covered chair, and much more over three floors.
History is on display everywhere in the half-timbered gables and the grooves of centuries of horse carts in the old cobbled streets. This gradually seeps into your being as you enjoy the Old Town. It is difficult to describe but easily felt.
The classic image which appears in countless promotion items for Rothenburg, is of the distinctive yellow half-timbered house sitting between the Siebers Tower and the Kobolzeller Gate. With its shutters, colourful flower boxes, and a small fountain at the front, it is picture-perfect. My wife waited until the crowds had gone then snapped away until after the sun went down.
Käthe Wohlfahrt, the world-famous Christmas store, is the home of the German Christmas Museum. It houses a permanent collection of ornaments, decorations, toys and artefacts. We learned about German Christmas traditions and history, including the fact that Germany invented the Christmas tree, prior to making our way through several rooms of exhibits.
Just outside town is an historic medieval double road bridge that spans the Tauber Valley. the structure was blown up by German troops in World War II but it was rebuilt and reopened in 1956.
When to visit
Rothenburg is great to visit anytime but there are a few special occasions. Every June at Pentecost, the city becomes a stage reflecting the events of the devastating 30 Years War (1618–1648) between Catholic and Reformation Protestant forces which ravaged central Europe. The 400-year anniversary of the outbreak of war was celebrated last year.
Then there is the Imperial City Festival in September, when historical groups perform music, there is a knights’ encampment in front of the town’s gates, and you will be able to see the royal court in their colourful attire. The impressive program also includes two evenings of fireworks and public theatrical productions on Market Square.
Rothenburg hosts one of the most popular Christmas markets in Germany from the end of November to Christmas. This is the busiest time of year for this little town.
Is Rothenburg real?
I have no doubt that Rothenburg has gone to great lengths to maintain a certain vibe and match tourist expectations. It is certainly effective in attracting hordes of tourists. This could be off-putting if you are looking for a quaint village away from the crowds, but you should still go. Instead of visiting during the middle of the day when the crowds are heavy, go in the late afternoon and evening and stay for the night. By 7 p.m. the streets are virtually empty.
Even with crowds, overpriced souvenirs, and a rather ordinary, highly-promoted pastry specialty called Schneeball, Rothenburg is still an absolute treasure. This was my third visit but I will certainly go back again.
There are non-stop and one-stop flights to Frankfurt, Germany from Johannesburg and one-stop flights from Cape Town. There are trains from Frankfurt Airport which require one change and take about three hours.
South African passport holders require a short-term tourist visa (Schengen visa) to enter the country, but the visa application process is a relatively painless one! You will need to apply at one of the Intergate Visalink Visa Application Centres in South Africa.
Exploring Transylvania for signs of Dracula
By Len Rutledge
WE ARE DRIVING along narrow, winding roads through dense, dark, ancient forests and over steep mountain passes through the Carpathian Mountains in Transylvania.
Tales of the supernatural have featured in Romanian folklore for centuries and the countryside seems so right for this that we now find it easy to be caught up in the Dracula story. Certainly, Transylvania evokes powerful images of vampires and Gothic castles.
We are here now because we want to visit some sites associated with Dracula and try to sort legend from truth. When Irish writer Bram Stoker wrote his famous novel, he started something outside the country which at first was shunned by the locals but is now accepted by many for what it is; a great tourist attraction.
Count Dracula, a fictional character in the Stoker novel, was inspired by one of the best-known figures of Romanian history, Vlad Dracula, nicknamed Vlad the Impaler, who was the ruler of the Romanian province of Walachia in the mid 1400s. As we travel around, we find some physical evidence and hear many stories about him, which have vague connections with the Count.
The city of Sighisoara is at the heart of the Count Dracula legends. This was founded in the 12th century by Transylvanian Saxons, but it’s Dracula that has put the town on the map with today’s visitors. Designated as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO, the town is full of cobbled streets and ornate churches. We climb the 175-step wooden staircase leading up to the Church on the Hill, following the steps of Saxon churchgoers, students, and visitors since it was built in 1642.
Sighisoara is the birthplace of Vlad Dracula. You can visit his birth home which is now a restaurant and museum. As we climb the narrow stairs to the museum in almost complete darkness, something falls on my neck causing goose bumps all over my body. Emerging into a darkened room we come face to face with a vampire in a coffin. As we approach, his arm springs out causing muffled screams from several visitors. For one second I almost believe in vampires.
Not too many people can call vampire acting their full-time occupation!
Brașov is the largest city in this part of Romania. It is fringed by the Southern Carpathian Mountains and resplendent with glorious architecture and historical attractions. It was founded by Teutonic Knights in 1211 on an ancient site and was settled by the Saxons as one of their seven walled citadels.
We stroll around the old Town Hall Square where we admire colourfully painted and ornately trimmed baroque structures. We go inside the Black Church, the largest gothic church in Romania, named for damage caused by the Great Brașov Fire of 1689, when flames and smoke blackened its walls. The interior is impressive and it houses one of the largest pipe organs in Eastern Europe.
Part of the defensive wall, once 13-metres-high, two-metres-thick, and over three-kilometres-long, can still be seen today. So too can Rope Street, the narrowest street in Europe, at just 1.3‑metres wide.
The relationship between Vlad Dracula and Brașov was problematic over a number of years. In 1460 he invaded southern Transylvania and destroyed the suburbs of Brașov, ordering the impalement of all men and women who had been captured. It is said that Brașov has the distinction of seeing more stakes bearing Dracula’s victims than any other place. Fortunately, there is no evidence of this today.
Sibiu is the other city in this region. The heart of the city is its medieval centre complete with open squares, stone wall defences, towers, and centuries-old buildings and churches. Staircases link the Lower Town with its small, colourful houses and the Upper Town, which was inside the main fortifications.
The Council Tower dates back to the late 1500s and sits in the passageway between the Big Square and Small Square. We climb the stairs for fantastic views overlooking the city. We notice the houses with eyes. They’re actually ventilation windows, however, throughout periods of political strife, locals believed they were being watched by the “eyes” to ensure they were not causing trouble.
From 1451 to 1456 Vlad Dracula lived in Sibiu yet just four years later he mercilessly raided this region and killed, impaled and tortured 10,000 of his former fellow citizens and neighbours. I wonder if Count Dracula would be impressed.
Perched on top of an 80-metre-high rock, Bran Castle owes its fame to its imposing towers and turrets as well as to being the castle Stoker used in his book.
Although Stoker never visited Transylvania, his book has encouraged persistent myths that this was once the home of Vlad Dracula. While the association with Dracula is dubious, the castle continues to hold a strong attraction for all fans of the Count, so naturally we have to visit.
Narrow winding stairways and torturous passages lead through some 60 timbered rooms. It’s easy to tour the castle on your own, but expect to spend several hours doing so and keep in mind there are always crowds. The castle is in private hands and the owners have, fortunately, resisted the temptation to add any Dracula features here.
While Bran Castle is the spooky place that inspired Stoker’s tale, it’s really Poenari Fortress about two hours west that is considered to be the real Dracula’s Castle. Poenari Castle was erected around the beginning of the 13th century then later was abandoned and left in ruins. In the 15th century, Vlad the Impaler repaired and consolidated the structure perched high on a steep precipice of rock, making it one of his main fortresses.
The ruins of Poenari Fortress are all that are left today. If you decide to climb the 1,462 stairs, you’ll be able to touch pieces of the walls and towers that are still standing.
Did we find Dracula?
We encountered a make believe vampire and learned much about Vlad Dracula and his exploits. While vampires may not be real, there is no doubt that Stoker’s Dracula has become a powerful reminder of the rich and authentic Romanian folklore, and a great tourist attraction and money-spinner for the country today.
IF YOU GO:
There are one-stop flights from Vancouver to Bucharest the capital of Romania. Transylvania is about 200 km north of Bucharest. You can reach there on package tours, by train or by rental car.