In Search of Templar Castles
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 to discuss, based 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 this trip, so we scaled back the scope 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.
Paris was the first stop on this trip, because we wanted our son to see the city with us, and secondly because the city has good transportation choices & is full of beautiful sites, art and areas of interest.
Paris is an easy place to get around in, we always use the Paris Metro because it goes everywhere we are interested in going to. Just about anything you might want to explore is near a Metro Station, or it is an easy walk from a station. As just an example, everyone talks about how far the Paris Catacombs are, but they are only a 3 minute walk from the Denfert-Rochereau Metro Station. As a further example, the French RER Train System connects with many Metro Stations, giving you access to RER Trains that could take you to Versailles or the Disneyland Resort Paris.
This was our next stop after Paris, and we selected this city because of it's proximity to wine country and the Dune du Pilat. We were not yet ready to obtain our rental car, and we knew that we could easily explore Bordeaux and the surrounding area by local train.
The principle reason for our visit to Bordeaux, was to explore Arcachon and the Dune du Pilat which is the largest sand dune in Europe. We had read about that area during our trip research, but nothing can prepare you for the enormous size of that sand dune!
Driving through Wine Country
Our goal was to drive through "wine country" via Bergerac (Cyrano de Bergerac's birthplace) 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 the drive 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!
After departing Bordeaux, this was our next major stop on our 2013 European Trip and our game plan was to explore several Cathar Fortresses, the Carcassonne Fortress, Trebes and the Canal du Midi and of course Rustiques, where our rental unit was located.
This region of France was only 96 kilometers from our house rental in Rustiques, but because the route was two lane and was through a mountainous area, it took us two hours to reach it. Well worth the wait, as the Chateaus were part of the kind of history we were interested in exploring.
This visit was originally meant to just be a "break in between Rustiques and Annecy" - but it was such an interesting and pretty area that we probably stayed much longer than we had intended. Those Romans sure knew how to build incredible structures!
We had originally selected Annecy as a "stopover" because we did not want to drive non-stop to Munich from Rustiques (nearly 1,200 kilometers), and the more we researched the Annecy area the more we realized that it was not only an interesting area, but that it was a beautiful lake and that we would be close to the Chamonix area - which would give us a nice day trip to enjoy.
The Annecy area of France and the surrounding French countryside, is not only historically interesting, it is scenic beyond words. Please note that our Annecy Page also contains images and narrative for several day trips we took, ie; Annecy exploration, Gorges du Fier, Château de Menthon-Saint-Bernard, as well as a boat tour around Lake Annecy.
During our Trip Research, we had observed how close we would be to Chamonix while we were staying in Annecy, It is only a 100 kilometer drive, so we planned for a day trip. The opportunity to ride the Cable Car to Aigulle du Midi and explore the village was just too good to pass up.
From our prior Siemens Corporation employment, and numerous previous visits to Munich, adding it as one of this trip's destinations was an easy decision. From our Siemen's days we have a number of good friends who still live in Munich, and we planned a number of interesting day trips throughout Bavaria.
Munich has an efficient public transportation system, with the subway stations being connected to or serviced by buses & trams. It is very easy to get around the entire city, you just need a good transportation map and then you can easily travel to any Munich area of interest.
Nuremberg was our first day trip from Munich, as we wanted to explore some fascinating historical sites, as well as the Nazi Documentation Center. 170 kilometers from Munich via the A9 Autobahn with a pleasant view of the Bavarian countryside along the way.
Since Rothenburg ob der Tauber is essentially on the way back to Munich from Nuremberg, we decided to make that our next exploration. 112 kilometers from Nuremberg via the A-6 autobahn, however a major accident caused a horrendous traffic backup that turned what should have been an hour trip into a 2+ hour crawl.
Our next day trip was to Neuschwanstein Castle, south of Munich near the Forggensee lake. We drove south from Munich on route B472 until we merged onto the Romantic Road ("Romantische Straße" AKA route B17), which took us through some very pretty country side.
The castle is located at the western edge of the Ammergebirge Mountains and it is located not far from where King Ludwig was born and raised at Hohenschwangau Castle near the Alpsee Lake. There are tours available for both castles, however, Neuschwanstein is a very popular destination so you will need to acquire advance reservations to get into a tour - you cannot go inside unless you are in a tour group. See here or here for more information, ticket prices, etc.
The route from Neuschwanstein Castle to Andechs Monastery is straight forward and takes you through some beautifl countryside. We took route 17 to Fussen, then north on route B472 to the Andechs Monastery exit. Once we got to Vorderfischen though, we discovered that the normal route to the Monastery was closed, so we had to continue along Lake Ammersee on Herrschinger Strasse until we were a bit north of Andechs (near Herrsching), and then we were able to back-track to the Monastery.
When I worked for Siemens (many years ago), I visited Andechs Monastery on a number of occasions, which provided me with some very fond memories of the beer the monks brewed there. I was accompanied on these visits with various friends from Siemens who would take me to visit their favorite destinations in Bavaria. Since we were going to be driving back to Munich close to Andechs, and as we still had some very good German friends in Munich, we made some plans.
So our plan was for our German friends to meet us at Andechs Monastery, to have dinner with us and enjoy some of the locally brewed beer. All of us enjoyed several beers, and a good dinner, in the court yard of the monastery - sort of a mini-beer garden.
The Andechs Brewery is well-known for its high-quality beer. The beer is brewed on location and is still controlled by the monks. There are various different types of beer brewed. The most famous is the 7% alcohol "Andechser Doppelbock Dunkel", but they also brew other beers such as a Helles ("Andechser Hell"), a Dunkles ("Andechser Dunkel") and an "Andechser Weissbier". There is also a distillery producing high-quality Andechs Monastery liqueurs.
The opportunity to meet our German friends while enjoying the beer brewed there, was just too good to pass up! When I worked for Siemens, we would visit this Monastery for dinner and drinks. Obviously there are a lot of great memories about this place...
These concentration 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 the first concentration camp 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, gypsies, religious minorities, communists, and prisoners from German-occupied countries.
The Nazis established approximately 110 camps (based on the Dachau "model") starting in 1933 to imprison political opponents and other undesirables. The number expanded as the Third Reich expanded and the Germans began occupying parts of Europe. When the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum first began to document all of the camps, the belief was that the list would total approximately 7,000. However, researchers found that the Nazis actually established about 42,500 camps and ghettoes between 1933 and 1945. This figure includes 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettoes, 980 concentration camps; 1,000 POW camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm; Germanizing prisoners or transporting victims to killing centers. The Berlin, Germany area alone had nearly 3,000 camps.
Dachau was liberated by American forces on April 29, 1945.
Dachau Concentration Camp Tour
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.
Our goal in visiting Dachau, was to reinforce our son Jeremy's understanding of what horrible things the Nazi's had done, and to insure that Jeremy could see for himself a Nazi concentration camp as it had been during the Nazi time frame.
We found this visit to be a very somber experience; the museum contains hundreds and hundreds of photographs from the Nazi era. For a more complete description of Dachau, click here to to go the Wikipedia Dachau Page.
Dachau Concentration Camp
As can be seen in this picture, many of the original barracks buildings from WW2 were removed. Two of the barracks have been rebuilt and one shows a cross-section of the entire history of the camp since the original barracks had to be torn down due to their poor condition when the memorial was built. The removal of the old buildings was commenced in 1965 in order to create the Dachau Memorial Site.
Dachau Concentration Camp Barracks Area
In image # 1 you can see the barracks foundation slabs where the barracks once stood (Most of the camp's dilapidated buildings were torn down before 1965). The foundations of the old barracks remain, and beyond them are three memorials: the Catholic Mortal Agony of Christ Chapel (built in 1960), the Carmelite Holy Blood Convent (1064), the Jewish Memorial (1967) and the Protestant Church of Reconciliation (1967).
Image # 2 is the original S.S. Building which is now the Museum that contains a number of images from the WW2 era as well as numerous artifacts. The museum's mission is to educate future generations about the Holocaust, fostering empathy and promoting tolerance. Guided tours, audiovisual presentations, and interactive displays provide a comprehensive education on the camp's role in the Nazi regime's systematic persecution and genocide.
Image # 3 are more of the camp memorial buildings. This image is the property of Netha Hussain via Wikimedia Commons using the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Universal Public Domain Dedication license.
All other images, unless otherwise noted, are the property of Just Traveling Thru, LLC.
Our next "day trip" adventure was to drive to Salzburg, Austria just over the Germany-Austria border on the A94 autobahn. The drive from Munich was brief, but the traffic levels as we got close to Salzburg were impressive! There was an accident on the autobahn and what should have been a 90 minute drive (145 kilometers) took almost 3 hours. We had a good game plan though, and knew our destinations from previous trips.
Back Home and our New Puppy
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. (Post-Edit) Maggie is still with us 9 years later, and she has been the smartest most laid-back dog we have ever owned.
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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