OVERVIEW. The odyssey begins. In the next three and a half months, we will tour four different countries on two different continents and experience two different climates. We land in Munich, Germany, on Oct 3, right in the middle of Octoberfest. On Oct 6, we will RV for three weeks in northern France. After another couple of weeks back in Germany, we will leave for 15 days to India. Finally, we spend six weeks, including Christmas and New Years in Thailand.
September 30, 2019. Chicago to Germany. Today was the first step. After spending what seemed like months of packing and repacking, organizing, and closing up the house, our neighbor, Frank, drove us to the Mosinee airport. The airport was completely fogged in, and the little commuter jet circled over Stevens Point for 40 minutes before it could swoop in to take us to Chicago.
We fly between Mosinee and O’Hare as standby passengers. Because Wanda retired as an American Airlines flight attendant, we have free standby privileges for life as long as there are open seats available. We chose to leave two days early since the passenger loads on the Sept 30 flight showed a light passenger load, guaranteeing open seats available for both of us.
In Chicago, we checked into the nearby Quality Inn O’Hare Hotel, the same hotel Wanda used to run a crashpad for flight attendants for many years. It is just three miles from the O’Hare Airport with a 24-hour airport shuttle service.
We planned to visit the Thai Embassy in Chicago and apply for our visas. Our visas for India were simple - we emailed an electronic photo of our passport and a 2” x 2” headshot. They mailed back a paper visa to my sister’s address in Germany, where the 2019 Odyssey begins.
Thailand turned out to be more complicated. No visa is required for US citizens visiting for 30 days or less. We are planning a six-week visit and will need a Thai visa. Wanda called the Embassy from the hotel and found out that it takes two business days to complete the visas - we didn’t have two days in Chicago. However, we thought that we could apply in Chicago and have the visas mailed it to my sister’s address in Germany. This was verboten. They would only send a processed visa for a US resident to a US address. Plan B. Diane made an appointment at the Thai Embassy in Munich. If we provide two forms of ID with a US address, they will issue us a visa to visit Thailand for up to 60 days. To save us a second trip to Munich to pick it up, they agreed to mail it to a German address as long as we signed a power-of-attorney over to Diane.
Quickly running into downtown Chicago to the Embassy suddenly wasn’t necessary. Instead, we split a terrific cob salad at a local neighborhood deli and walked the quaint local subdivision. It was a 1950s cookie-cutter housing tract that had been taken over by a young but diverse populace. The entire neighborhood, however, has been meticulously groomed and maintained. In the little green spaces around the community, we observed many very young moms pushing baby buggies. That made us smile.
Oct 1, 2019. CHICAGO. With a day to kill, we went downtown. Connections to downtown from Quality Inn O’Hare Hotel were cheap and straightforward. The hotel shuttle drops us off at the Blue Line “L” train station at O’Hare Airport. It’s a $6 train ride into town. I love the “L.” It is a throwback to an earlier era - loud, rickety, and rocking.
Wanda’s GoogleFit clocked us walking over 8 miles along the lakefront, exploring the commercial Navy Pier, window shopping along Chicago’s “Miracle Mile” Michigan Street, and finding a Whole Foods for lunch. The temperature was 85º in October with brave kids on the beach and in the lake. I got sticker shock at Whole Foods. The deli had delicious foods, and I am sure they were all healthy. But two small soups, two build-your-own salads, a couple of waters topped out at $33. WOW! Bezos better use my $33 wisely.
Oct 2, 2019. THE FLIGHT. I expected this day to be brutal. We first flew from Chicago to Charlotte followed by a nonstop 9-hour marathon flight to Munich crunched up in the back cattle section of a plane. In reality, it wasn’t too bad. A couple of years ago, we qualified for TSA’s Global Entry program by going through an FBI background check and paying $100. As a result, we by-pass the customs line when re-entering the US. More importantly, we are issued pre-check tickets making airport security a breeze. The pre-check line is short. We don’t have to take off our shoes or belts or take out our laptops or liquids and no disrobing or cavity searches. The whole security check, from entering the line to walking away, takes about two minutes. Pretty cool, eh?
All our flights left on time and arrived early. Our checked bags were free because we are Citi Platinum Select credit cardholders. Just as sweet, all our checked bags made it to Munich on time. Hurricane Lorenzo, hanging off the Azores Islands, must have given us a tremendous kick in the tail. Our ground speed reached 619 mph gifting us with an hour earlier arrival. The plane was cold, but I was travel-ready wearing a lightweight, packable, and warm fleece jacket. Even the airplane meal was decent, although the two tiny leaves of lettuce they called a salad cracked me up. I was allowed two huge glasses of red wine before I was cut off. Customs in Munich was quick. The only bummer was I couldn’t sleep, and the two movies I chose to watch sucked.
Oct 3, 2019. Family Reunion.
We arrived in Munich at 5:45 am Munich time, but 10:45 pm Stevens Point, WI time. It’s an hour’s drive to Langenreichen, the tiny farm village that Diane and her husband, Heinrich, call home.
Lanegenreichen is also home for Diane’s daughter’s family; Deborah and Bruce, along with Deborah’s daughter’s family; Tanja, Alex and son. Deborah’s son, Christopher, lives in a close-by neighboring village.
Bruce and Heinrich met us at the airport, which was amazing considering our early morning arrival. Bruce drove and showed us what it feels like to cruise 160 kph (100 mph). Today was a German holiday celebrating the tearing down of the Berlin Wall, which resulted in less traffic on the autobahn. That was fun.
After many arrival hugs, I crashed for a couple of hours before the whole family came over for a wonderful gathering and a fabulous dinner. The highlight of the meal for me was a selection of home-smoked meats by Heinrich and Alex.
After the party, we walked about two blocks to the construction site where Deborah’s daughter & family are building their new home. The proud young couple showed us around. It will be an impressive home. Alex works for a factory home-building company and utilized his company and skills to assist in the construction.
German factory homes are not nearly as prefab as American factory homes, where the houses are completed in the factory and then put together on-site in just a day or two. For Tanya and Alex’s new home, only the walls were framed out in the factory and then assembled in 20 sections on the foundation. This, a stick-built home, is a somewhat radical building technique for Europe. Concrete is the traditional construction material. But these are not 2x6 walls. The wall framing is far more robust.
The roof, plumbing, heating, wiring, sheetrock, flooring, trim, etc. are all built on site. Alex is doing much of the work himself. His sheetrocking was flawless. It’s a shame that it will be covered up with texture and paint. The house will feature in-floor radiant heating. The walls are about 16 inches thick and super insulated. Windows are all state-of-the-art triple-pane, some with automatic curtains. Designed by Alex, the house is an open design with a cathedral ceiling. The opposite wings of the house have opposing second floors that are connected by a bridge running under the tall cathedral ceiling. They have been working on the house for nearly a year and expect to move in sometime in February.
Oct 4, 2019. LANGENREICHEN, GERMANY. We had one job on this day: pack the RV for our upcoming trip. This 3.5-month trip will be our fourth trip with Diane and Heinrich in their RV. We were so well organized this time around, that we completed the move to th RV quickly.
That left us a big chunk of the day left to discover Langenreichen. The village is a farm village. All the farms are right in town, complete with barns, animals, and farmhouses, with many barns attached to the farmhouse. Farm fields surround the village and farmers drive their tractors from their barns through town out to their fields.
The other thing that stands out is the community’s devotion to alternative energy production. Many barn roofs have full-coverage solar panels - not just a couple of panels, but wholly covered roofs. Many homes are likewise fitted with solar panels, including my sister’s house, which has solar-assist hot water heating. There are also five or six giant wind generators slowly twirling just outside the village.
Langenreichen is about 2 miles long but only about three streets wide. Diane lives on one end of the village, and her daughter, Deborah lives on the other side. We ended our discovery walk finding Deborah’s house by identifying a yard filled with her one-of-a-kind fat-bird ceramic ornaments. Deborah is quite an artist and enjoys expressing her creativity with different mediums. Her latest art project consists of taking pliable willow branches soaked in a liquid, and weaving them into a variety of forms that she conjures up. A few of these were displayed around her home.
It started to rain so Deb gave us a ride back to Diane’s. We started to assess whether to go to Octoberfest in Munich the next morning. The weather was forecast to be miserable, but how could we miss Octoberfest? We decided to wait until the morning to make a final decision. Heinrich cautioned us that if we go, we must leave early. The train to downtown Munich leaves Meitingen, a town with a population of 2,000 just 3 km alway, at 8:38 am.
Oct 5, 2019. OCTOBERFEST. We woke at 7:20 am. It was dreary with a fine mist, but I was psyched. I had brought a light rain shell to wear over my fleece, and we have two “highly-touted-on-Amazon” umbrellas. Heinrich quickly printed out round-trip train tickets, and Diane drove the three of us to the train station in Meitingen.
German trains, like Spanish trains, are superb - clean, smooth, modern, quiet, and fast. About half the passengers were dressed in traditional Octoberfest costumes and drinking pre-festival beers at 9 am - we were riding the “Octoberfest Special.”
It took just a bit over an hour to arrive in downtown Munich. We followed the crowd and the Octoberfest arrows inlaid in the sidewalk, about four city blocks to the giant Octoberfest gate. Even with the cold misty weather, the merriment was palpable. Throngs of costumed revelers swarmed past the gate. We were swept in with the crowd. The polizei did their best to check for large handbags and backpacks, which were not allowed.
The fairgrounds were gigantic. The first thing we noticed were the huge beer halls. Although they looked like permanent buildings, they are packed up after the two-week international celebration. A large German brewery sponsors each beer hall. Paulaner, Hofbrau, and Spatenbrau all had multiple halls. Interspersed among the big halls were tons of small shops selling all sorts of trinkets, giant pretzels, white sausages, gingerbread, and even foot-long hot dogs.
Further down the midway were the big rides. There were all sorts of swirling, circling, bouncing, and falling rides. These weren’t the tiny tilt-a-whirl rides that travel between summer shows in the US. These were gargantuan rides, much like those found at permanent grounds like Six Flags, yet they are all packed up after Octoberfest. Each ride must utilize dozens of flatbed trucks to be hauled away.
First things first, we entered into the beer hall next to the gate. It was a Paulaner sponsored hall. Inside was jammed, loud, brightly lit, and bustling women dressed-in-traditional costumes carrying up to 16 liter-sized (34 ounces) steins of beer. Heinrich explained that waiters and waitresses are actually independent contractors. They buy each beer from the brewery and sell at a profit to the customers they serve. The same goes for the food, which looked scrumptious. The prices were steep, but the flowing beer lubricated the wallets.
After fighting our way around the hall and gawking at every merry sight, we located a seat. At 11 am we ordered a liter of Paulaner. The Oompa band, set up on a high stage in the middle of the hall, started up to the cheers of the crowd. High above the band were large “flying” speaker systems projecting the band loudly and perfectly balanced. The tubas’ low notes just thumped your chest. It was as intoxicating as the Paulaner. And the Paulaner was intoxicating. I started spinning pretty well when Heinrich informed us that they jack up the alcohol content for Octoberfest.
By the time we got back outside, the beer halls were jammed and impossible to enter. We were lucky to have found a spot in the first tent because we got there early. Usually, people have to make reservations a year in advance to get into a beer hall.
It took until 3:30 pm to see everything at the fairgrounds. There was a whole section devoted to the historical Octoberfest with antique rides, games, and beer halls. We could, at least, enter these beer halls, but there were no seats available. Each hall had great Oompa bands whipping the crowds up into a swaying mass. In one tent we heard the band playing John Denver’s “Take me home, Country Road” and all the people were singing along in English. That was the only non-polka tune we heard.
The return train was scheduled for 4:03 pm. It left the station precisely at 4:03 pm. Back at Diane’s, we had another family reunion. The whole gang showed up. Diane served Ratatouille, and Heinrich brought out half-liter (17 ounces) bottles of Kellerbier. He bought these for 50 cents each. They featured the old-time wire caps that he says are making a comeback. What’s great is that they not only look cool, but you can easily reseal the bottles. I had noticed some of Diane’s wine bottles also had these caps. The Kellerbier was delicious, unfiltered, and creamy smooth.
Oct 6, 2019. LANGENREICHEN. This was supposed to be our RV departure day. The morning started off pleasant and we completed the last minute loading of the RV. Heinrich had two electric bikes and two gas mopeds to load. The gas mopeds are unique. The company, Saxonette, built them until 2004 and they have a cult-like following in Europe. The engines are 30cc, 1 hp, and get 60 miles to the quart. They are surprisingly clean and modern looking. Heinrich has one 1998 model and one 2004 model. I can’t wait to ride them.
Soon after we loaded the bikes, the cold rain came down. The plan was to go into Meitingen and pick up some Kabobs from a Turkish family run restaurant, eat lunch, and then head out. When Heinrich and I got to the Kabob restaurant, it was closed and didn’t open until 4 pm. With the rain pouring down, Heinrich made an executive decision to wait until morning to leave.
At 4 pm we returned to the Kabab restaurant to pick up the Kababs. The Turkish family that owns and operates the restaurant have a nice little business going. The pocket breads are hand made and shoved in ovens right behind the front counter. The rotisserie meat is hand packed every morning from freshly butchered meat delivered from local farms. The sandwiches are packed to the gills with meat, lettuce, tomatoes and sauce. At $4.20, its a steal. And the locals know it. Heinrich says that there are days that the lines snake well out the door into the street.
Back home, Deb and Bruce join us for drinks. It was another terrific family gathering. I caught a tiny touch of something from the cold rain at Octoberfest. Deb brought some elixirs that seemed to help. I was bound and determined to head off a full-blown cold or flu.
Oct 7, 2019. BAD DURRHEIM. We left Langenreichen around 9:30 am in a gentle grey mist. We were back on the road and loving it. At 1:30 pm, we arrived at Bad Durheim’s Wellness Center. The RV parking lot for motorhomes/caravans was at least three football fields large and nearly filled to the brim with RV Campers. By chance, we found a spot near the front entrance to the Wellness Resort. It was spa time.
Bad means bath, and in this instance, it means hot springs spa. Long ago, the town of Durrheim discovered salty hot groundwater and developed a first-rate spa-resort around their resource, resulting in Durrheim becoming Bad Durrheim. Bad Durrheim was our first destination of the 3 1/2 month journey.
Wanda and I had experienced some spectacular spa centers in Spain and Germany from previous trips, so our expectations were guarded. However, we were pleasantly impressed with the Bad Durrheim’s thermal waters complex. Three big domes housed a variety of indoor and outdoor geothermal hot-water pools, saunas, and steam baths. For $15, you enjoy unlimited, all-day access to the entire area.
When I went in, I was feeling a bit under the weather from whatever bug I picked up at Octoberfest. I felt achy up and down my back, and my stomach carried a low-grade nausea. Seven hours in the hot salted waters picked me right up. I was beaten up by water jets, cooked by steam baths, my skin turned prunish, and my lungs received a protective coating in the super-heated-foggy salt cave. By the time I exited the building, I was a new man. Tomorrow will be a repeat, and I expect to knock out all vestiges of this invader bug. Then, onward to France.
Oct 8, 2019 BAD DURRHEIM. It is Ladies Day today at the center. That meant, women received a considerable discount in the extensive sauna area. Yesterday, Heinrich went to the sauna area, and somehow, I missed out on this opportunity.
Today, Wanda and Diane went for the ladies-only day. All came back with great stories of how enjoyable the sauna experience was. How did I miss out? I’m not sure, but I am going to schedule some sauna time at the next geothermal spa center. Wanda glowed after being smeared with honey and baked in steamy aromatic ovens. Cheez, I have been deprived.
The day hit 17º C (62º F), and the sun even peeked out occasionally. Heinrich and I enjoyed the array of hot pools. My favorite has become the extra salty, extra heated pool. It’s as salty as the Great Salt Lake in Utah, where you automatically float. I would float on my back and doze off into a psychedelic dream state. It was like a sensory deprivation tank. Wow, I dreamed of all kinds of oddball stuff. I know that the hot super-buoyant water only provided the means and that my demented mind supplied the visual effects, but, hey, it was pretty cool. And it worked twice in one day.
The Bad Durrheim thermal resort was initially set up to be a wellness center, and it is still called that. When built, it was not open to the general public unless prescribed as physical therapy. Today prescriptions for physical therapy continue benefiting patients while simultaneously providing its varied wellness and relaxation properties to the general public and tourists.
Tomorrow, the plan is to continue to Strasburg and tour the city with the mopeds. The weather reports are forecasting only cold rain. However, there is talk about staying for another full day at the wellness center - I would then be cured of all present and future ailments. Actually, my flu-like symptoms have decreased dramatically, and my cold is barely registering. Maybe there is something to this wellness thing. And hey, a couple more psychedelic trips in the sensory deprivation pool might be fun.
Oct 9, 2019 BLACK FOREST. Another wellness day wasn’t going to happen. Instead, it was off to Strassburg, France, just on the other side of the Rhine River. In the end, we didn’t quite get across the Rhine River and into France, but we ended up camping on the Rhine River at a remote boat landing.
All-day, the weather fluctuated from misty to peeks of sun, to rain, to more sun peeking, to rain. We drove Hwy 33 through the Black Forest area, which followed the Gutach River as it tumbled down a steep, narrow, wooded valley. It was the most exquisite road scenery imaginable.
The architecture in the Black Forest evolved into a very distinctive Swiss-style, with massive steep roof designs and big exposed oak 16” x16” square wooden framing. The building fronts tended to have large overhangs. The villages tightly hugging the narrow valleys.
Logging predominated what industry there was. Each village has a sawmill, yet you never saw anything like a clear-cut field. According to our tour-guide, Heinrich says that all logging is on a strict selective-cut process. A forester goes into a tract of land and marks the trees that are allowed to be cut down and utilized: the trunk is used for lumber, the brush is gathered and processed into biofuel. In protected areas, draft horses are still used to haul the trees out of the forest to lessen the impact on the surrounding grounds.
With wood being the only resource, wood-working became a regional skill. This is where kuckuk (coo coo) clocks were born. Most villages had a kuckuk clock store. We stopped at one that bragged about having 1000 kuckuk clocks. They did - ranging from a couple of hundred dollars up to $10,000. Most had wonderfully carved farm scenes, beer-drinking scenes, and a variety of roaming animals and a handful of plain ultra-modern kuckuk clocks. These were strange square cubist designs with a tiny door shoe-horned in for a bird to come out and announce that, “yes, as strange as it seems, this is a kuckuk clock.”
We stopped in the village of Gutach, named after the river, and toured the Freilicht museum (an open-air museum). An extensive collection of farms that depicted life in the Black Forest in the “good” old days. There were a dozen farms scattered on a steep hillside spanning about 40 acres. These were all original combination-house-barn buildings. One house-barn, the largest, was built in 1609 and occupied until 1964.
These were massive buildings, with three-story living quarters located in the front half. The rear half was the barn, housing the animals on the lower level, and hay storage in the cavernous middle level. With the rear of the entire building backed up against the side of a steep hill, the top level was the ground level in the rear. Here was where the wagons were stored, and the hay could be unloaded and thrown down into the large second level storage area. The steep thatched roofs constructed with about 16 inches of straw roofs perfectly shedding the water during today's intermittent showers.
People were awfully short in the 1600s and 1700s. All the ceilings were low, and the beds were short. Humans are definitely evolving taller.The best part of these farms, and even the modern farms in this area, is that they are clinging to the sides of steep hillsides. The pastures are on 45º angles. The animals must all have shorter legs on one side of their bodies to be able to stand straight.
The Black Forest used to be quite poor due the severely limited farmland, but it sure looks prosperous now. Tourism has been good in these villages; gorgeous, meticulously maintained, and pristinely preserved,
When we reached the Rhine River, the RV motorhome was parked in a very remote boat landing for the night. The Rhine is a wide fast-moving river, near the size of the Mississippi. It handles tour boats and barge traffic. After sundown, we watched a Viking River Cruise ship fight its way up-river with its lights all ablaze. These were very long, but low and narrow boats resembling a big needle plying the waters. Practically weekly, back home, we get advertisements in the mail for Viking river cruises. Now I have seen one in action.
It was time for Heinrich and me to sample the 69 cent German craft beers we picked up at Aldi: one red beer and one black stout. Both were nearly 8% alcohol, and both were unfiltered, creamy, and satisfying.
Wanda and Diane enjoyed a delicious bottle of $1.49 sweet Spanish red wine (you can’t afford not to drink). Diane baked a dish of pre-made lasagna from Lidl. We had this last year in Spain and knew it makes for excellent RV food - easy to store, easy to bake, and tasty after a few beers.