Travel Diary: Lessons Learned by the Travelling Family, Europe Edition

Because I hope that you, too, will one day have the pleasure of exploring a far-off land that you wish to adventure to, I thought you might like to know a few of our “what we wish we knew, and what we are happy we did” ideas from this trip!

So, as this journey comes to an end (the loads of laundry currently spinning in my HUGE North American laundry machine can attest to that!)… here are a few lessons learned by the travelling family this time around:

  • First and foremost, if travelling with kids, it might go without saying, but flexibility, flexibility, flexibility! Sometimes things don’t go the way you planned, sometimes you’re just really tired, sometimes you need a break, and sometimes you just forgot to have an extra croissant and the hangries have taken over… either way, be willing to throw the plans out the window and just relax! It’s a holiday after all! If there is a lake, swim in it! A park, climb on it! A stroll through a forest, play pretend in it (in our family, every forest becomes Endor, the Shire, or the Forbidden Forest in two minutes or less)! No sight-seeing or landmark is worth ruining the closeness, fun, and relationship-building-memory-making that family trips are supposed to be!
  • Expedia is not your friend when booking hotels in Europe – we had much better service when booking on our own, and were able to get upgraded rooms on arrival in many cases, while rooms booked on Expedia were as is, and often resulted in grumpy hotel staff! Getting the hotel membership is also worth it (free wifi and upgrades when possible).
  • Hotel choice… staying close to the city center is well worth the extra coinage for the savings in travel time and cost for uber/transit when getting around the city. Hotels with only a half a star better rating were often much more roomy, newer, and in a better location. Ask for a family suite (make sure you are clear about the beds you are getting!). Always check on parking (free, close-by, accessible). Hotel breakfast is worth the extra money as kids up to 15 years old are free – the breakfasts included hot food, meat, cheese, fresh breads, museli, coffee/tea/espresso, fresh fruit, so are very filling for the day allowing us to eat only a small snack part way through the day and then a good supper.
  • Air B’n’B or VRBO type accommodation are good options for families, but be cautious. Ask lots of questions of the home owner and know what you are getting (close to restaurants/shopping/central areas/laundry?). Do not book with a no-cancellation policy (we have found this to be a red-flag in terms of the experience we will have with property owners). Trust your gut!
  • We found the car rental to be a more economical, and convenient choice, as 4 train/bus/public transport tickets becomes costly compared with one car, BUT, in the larger cities (Paris, Munich, Berlin) driving is stressful and better to avoid unless you are experienced with European driving. Hubby did a lot of research regarding rules of the road and driving tips for each of the countries we visited, and he is an excellent driver. Without his comfort and ability in this regard, we would still have been far better off using the public transportation system. We chose to use Uber within the city, as this was generally the same price or a bit cheaper than 4 train/bus tickets even for short trips (and far cheaper than taxi). If using the transportation system, book your hotel close to a major train hub or pack light and be ready to do some hiking with your bags!
  • Trip Advisor!!!! We LOVE Trip Advisor and rely on comments from other travellers for everything from where to eat dinner, to landmarks worth the visit, to which bus company is most reliable, best hotels, and everything in between! I have taken to adding as many reviews as I can on Trip Advisor for the places we visit as a family – I hope that our experiences will benefit other travellers as theirs have made our trip amazing!
  • Great luggage is worth the money. We chose High Sierra duffel/backpack/wheeling bags for ourselves and our kids The backpack straps are particularly useful in Europe.
  • Carry cash. Even some of the very large restaurants we visited in Germany did not accept cards. It’s a good idea to have enough cash to cover a full meal for your family and transportation to and from your accommodation at all times.
  • Bring water bottles (we brought camelback-style water bladders as well as regular water bottles), particularly in Germany, where you will be charged for water at restaurants… and it is costlier than Beer or other drinks!

OK… that’s a wrap on this Travel Diary this time around. Until our next adventure… happy travels to you and your family wherever the road takes you!!

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Travel Diary: East meets West

The final leg of our journey brought us to Berlin. With only a day and a half in such a big city, we chose another Hop-on-Hop off bus to see as many sites as possible, along with an extended stop at the DDR Museum of Berlin. The museum was fantastic – absolutely the most interactive museum we have been to, with exhibits allowing us to experience life in Soviet-occupied East Germany. This museum was informative and fun, and we all left with a better understanding of the politics, oppression, and daily reality of those living in East Germany and East Berlin prior to 1989.

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Exploring the mock GDR apartment – complete with bedrooms, bathroom, living room and kitchen
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Learning about the politics of the GDR.
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Jake’s turn in the Trabant!

Our full day in Berlin was a whirlwind of places… Checkpoint Charlie (one of the most tense moments of the Cold War occurred here when Soviet and American soldiers stood their ground on either side of the line between East and West Berlin; had a single shot been fired, the threat of nuclear war loomed as a reality), Alexanderplatz (food and beer gardens!), Babelplatz (underground library memorial to the millions of books burned by the Nazi Regime), Potsdamer Platz (Embassy row and nearby memorial to the more than 6 million Jewish people murdered by the Nazi’s), remaining sections of the Berlin wall, and Brandenburg Gate (symbolic entrance to the city of Berlin and signified the separation between East and West during the Soviet occupation)… only to name a few.

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Victory Column, Berlin
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Berlin Koncerthaus (Opera House)
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Part of the remains of the Berlin Wall.
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Memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe
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Brandenburg Gate
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National Art Museum, Berlin
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Berlin Cathedral
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Berlin Cathedral

All-in-all, Berlin felt a lot like a large Americanish City. Perhaps due to the many influences of the west during the 40-year occupation by American, British, French, and Soviet influences –  it was more of a melting pot similar to what we are accustomed to in North America. With several opera houses, musical venues, museums, high-end shopping, and countless restaurants with cuisine from around the world, it is likely very popular with city-savvy folk… AKA, not us Irvine’s ;).

As I write this, we are beginning the 5-hour drive to Frankfurt before flying home to Canada tomorrow. Tomorrow, we will wake up at 6 am on August 15th, and 16 hours later arrive in Calgary at supper time, also on August 15th, then drive the 1.5 hours home ;). We are expecting it to be a long day. Stay tuned!

 

Travel Diary: Cities with Walls, Market Squares and Everything in Between

The past four days (and 700 km ;)) have flown by. From Munich, we hopped on the Autobahn to Nuremberg for a day of sight-seeing there, and then on to Dresden… new record 190 km/hr. Good Grief.

Nuremberg is home to famous Christmas Markets in November and December, and the market square there would be absolutely stunning when lit up during that season… another place to return to… that list keeps growing! 😉

In order to get to the market square, we passed through the city wall… once a fortress wall of the medieval city, it houses businesses and even little apartments today! It is this dichotomy that we have come to love about Europe… pass through a medieval wall, and walk along streets created in a medieval town, to shop at beautiful modern shops, eat delicious food, and appreciate music and art of today and yesterday. It is truly delightful for all the senses!

Walking along Nuremberg streets to arrive at the Nuremberg Palace means walking UP. From the market square, we chose one of several routes to walk along the cobblestone streets up, up, up, and up to the castle courtyard. An amazing thing happened there… two little knights-and-castles-crazy kids said, “can we just play outside this castle?!” I couldn’t believe it… Germany had taken the castle out of our kids. There are that many of them. Truly. So, we wandered around the castle grounds and did not do a tour of this one!

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A view of Nuremberg from the castle courtyard.
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Nuremberg Castle from below (and the rocky outcrop it is built on… a playground for these two climbers!)
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The boys have quite taken to “malzbier”… non-alcoholic malt beer on the kids drink menu… 😉
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This fountain is in the central market square (Hauptmarkt) of old Nuremberg. It is an example of the many BEAUTIFUL, extremely detailed, gold-plated statues and monuments we have seen throughout our travels
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Church of our Lady in the Hauptmarkt, Nuremberg

 

Nuremberg is also home to Zepplin Field and the National Socialist Party Parade Grounds. As with other sites we have visited with memories of war, this one felt oddly peaceful now. The city of Nuremberg is currently working to restore the site, but what currently remains is hardly magnificent or compelling as it was under Hitler. Today, it is merely stone and concrete grandstands with the grandeur of the columns and platforms demolished. We stood and imagined the hundreds of thousands of spectators cheering and encouraging the tyrannical government that once had its seat there, and it seemed like that must have been a lifetime ago, but visitors such as us remember so that the great atrocities of that time are not forgotten.

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Remains of the grandstand overlooking Zepplin Field where Hitler spoke to 200,000 people and addressed his Army.

On our way to Dresden, we stopped in the town of Bamberg for lunch. Bamberg is a World Historic Site, as it has been largely unaltered since medieval times. We walked along the bridges and narrow cobblestone streets – a perfect break from the Autobahn!!

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One of the Bridges of Bamberg.

As we drove into Dresden, we seemed to be entering a non-descript German city… until we arrived closer to the old city center… Dresden is FULL of beautiful architecture (CT and JJ decided that we had entered Hogsmeade and didn’t even know it!) and the most delicious drinking chocolate shop EVER (that’s right, it’s “drinking chocolate”… not “hot chocolate” – that would not do it justice. We are talking chocolate bar in a cup kind of goodness). Our day in Dresden was a very rainy one, so after a family run through the old city in the morning, we hunkered down in our room for a while, and then explored a little more later in the evening! We all agreed that Dresden was among the most beautiful cities we have visited. The camera got a VERY good work out after only one day there!!!

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Dresden Cathedral and Dresden Palace – too many photos, not enough time!
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Dresden Opera House
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The entrance to Hogsmeade (not really)… actually, part of the wall around Dresden Castle
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More of Beautiful Dresden
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Our noble gentlemen explore Dresden.
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A fairytale place… some Christmas market shopping in my bag!
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Singing in the rain in Dresden!
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Best. Park. EVER! Dresden.
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A wet run along the Elbe River, Dresden (Dresden Cathedral in the background).

Our adventure is quickly drawing to a close… Berlin awaits us… and very soon after the long flight home!

 

Travel Diary: La Belle Paris

First of all, it might seem crazy to you, but I was NOT excited to visit Paris. Of all the stops on this journey, this one was not high on my list. It seemed wrong to be passing through and not stop, but that’s about the extent of it…

I was wrong.

I’m not much for big cities, they usually leave me feeling cold, tired, and overwhelmed… but, Paris, you have my heart and I’m sorry I doubted you.

Let me back up a bit…

We walked onto the platform into the largest train station I have ever seen (train stations still freak me out… awesome to get you places, but totally freak me out… I like uber…) and didn’t know where to look – everywhere all at once and at nothing in particular. There are beautiful buildings, bridges, and landmarks in EVERY direction.

Since the train spat us out directly underneath the Musee du Louvre, we started there… (we actually visited the Louvre the following morning, but I have lumped all photos together… and ummm, yeah, the largest museum in the world is, well, Large. Gigantic. Impossible to cope with in one day… but amazing. Truly amazing.)

Musee du Louvre

 

Venus de Milo

 

The Louvre is home to collections from around the world.

 

Mona Lisa… JJ calls her “Mona,” and loved this room of the museum. Wherever you stand in her gallery, it is as if she is looking directly at you (even from behind the bullet-proof glass!)

 

Models…

Then a walk along the Jardin des Tuileries (we ate supper at an awesome cafe along the garden!) toward Place de la Concorde for a view of the Avenue de Champs Elysees and the the Arc de Triomphe… our Uber driver took us for a spin around the Arc de Triomphe traffic circle twice just for hubby… 14 roads converge on the Place de l’Etoile with buses, motorbikes, scooters, and cars zooming around (remember… always at break-neck speed!) – it is a NUT SHOW!!

Jardin des Tuileries – Place de la Concorde in the background.

 

Avenue de Champs-Elysees

 

Arc de Triomphe… I wish you could hear the noise of the cars… and see the 14 converging roads all around!!

 

…on we walked across the Pont Alexander III

Pont Alexander III

 

…and along the River Seine to the base of the Eiffel Tower where we embarked on a river cruise to see the sights of Paris by boat!

 

Eiffel Tower

 

Notre Dame Cathedral – view from the Rue de Seine

Before visiting Paris, there is not a chance I would have been able to string all of that together, but these are real places… almost mythical to me before now!!

After a further Big Bus Hop-on-Hop-off Tour of Paris (excellent commentary with interesting facts and crazy stories from an open-air roof-top seat!), several more delicious cafe excursions, and the realization that there are SO MANY sites around Paris we still want to see, we are looking forward to coming back to Paris some day. Next time, Paris, we will be ready for you… my list is long!!

J’aime Paris!

Travel Diary: 2000 km and Counting

Did you know… you can fit approximately 16 France’s into Canada? It’s true (one of the many interesting facts I learned about Canada at the Juno Beach Center in France. Embarrassingly, many of the facts presented there as part of the exhibit describing the Canadian political, economic, and social environment of Canada prior to WWII were new to me. I clearly need to brush up on my Canadian history…

What I am learning is that France is huge. Also, Germany to Belgium to France is a long way – Much, much, much farther than we naively imagined. Some of you are wondering how, with google maps at our fingertips, we would not have appreciated this fact prior to undertaking this adventure… well… we planned our route this past December or January… and we did it in spurts when we could snag the time in the evening or weekends. It went something like this…

“Oh, 400 km – that’s nothing!… we can do that stretch easily… Oh, 300 km – no problem!… 200 km – we do that in an evening to visit the family in Calgary – simple!”

Here’s what we know now… 400 km in Western Europe is different from 400 km in Western Canada. Some of the roads are much faster, yes, but some of them are much slower… and ALL OF THEM require a great deal of defensive driving. There are roads in France with a speed limit of 90 km/hr that we would generously call bike paths at home. No joke. It is exhausting (… maybe as much for the driver as for me?!…bahahaha…). Also, as we continued to add-on legs to this trip, we did not take the time to add those legs up… my current guesstimate is that our trip odometer will cross 5000 km before this journey is done. I wonder if the rental car company bargained on that when we signed up for unlimited kilometers?!

The most recent leg of our adventure took us down the coast of France to visit Dieppe, and the beaches of Operation Overlord (Sword, Juno, Gold, Omaha, and Utah). As with our visits to the hallowed sites of WWI atrocities, these also held great significance and were truly moving for us all.

The beaches of Dieppe are not “beaches” as you might imagine them – rather, they are hills of tennis-ball sized rocks rolling one atop the other as the Atlantic ocean rolls in and out. They are difficult to walk on, never mind run amid machine-gun fire carrying 80 pounds of gear…

The beaches of Dieppe.

 

Canadian monument at Dieppe with Dieppe Castle rising above.

But, the lessons learned at Dieppe in 1942 paved the way to what might be the most dramatic multinational war effort in modern history. The beaches of Normandy are now popular with vacationing European travellers. Sandy beaches, ice cream shops, and cafe’s line the water’s edge. However, just as the peaceful, picturesque towns and fields of Flanders are filled with monuments of remembrance for those who gave their lives to freedom, these beaches carry reminders and memorials of the sacrifices given on D-Day and beyond as our nation partnered to defend and restore Western Europe.

I was amazed with the size, grandeur, and attention to detail at the Normandy American Cemetery (Coleville-Sur-Mer, France)

 

Normandy American Cemetery (Coleville-sur-Mer, France)

 

Very proud to see our flag flying at these many sites on the coast of Normandy.

 

Gold Beach (Arromanches-les-Bains, France)

 

The remains of the Mulberry Harbour (Arromanches-les-Bains, France)

 

Juno Beach today

 

Picnic Lunch on Juno Beach (Courseulles-Sur-Mer, France)

 

Beny-Sur-Mer Canadian Cemetery.

 

As with the Canadian Cemeteries and Memorials in Flanders, the Canadian Cemetery at Beny-Sur-Mer is lined with Maple Trees.

 

Oh the tanks and artillery… and you can bet we looked at Every. Single. One.

 

The Grand Bunker Museum at Sword beach (Ouistreham, France)

And after all that…

I don’t like to be negative… and actually I would argue that maintaining a positive mindset is critical to the success of a family adventure like this one… so it goes a bit against the grain, but…

I’m done with war.

In truth, my heart just can’t take it anymore. I have a very active imagination, and can’t help but read every inscription, every placard in every museum… and the photos and video footage… oh, the footage (particularly graphic for WWII due to technological advances by that time)… well, my mind is overwhelmed, full, grateful, shocked… and a myriad of other emotions that I can’t really describe…

Next, we are on to Paris, and it does not escape me that I am blessed beyond measure to drive away from all of this and fill my mind with brighter things… fully knowing that there are countless others who could only imagine such a luxury.

Travel Diary: Mmmm. I love Waffles.

It’s sad, but true… I think I might remember the food on this trip as much as the places and the people. But, who am I kidding… I love eating, no use pretending ;).

Here’s a few food confessions from a novice European traveller:

  • I have become so accustomed to having Espresso every day that I might need to get an actual espresso maker when we get home. It’s that good.
  • Apfelstrudel in Germany (served with some amazing custard-like sauce – a bit nut-meggy) is worth the jet lag.
  • Belgian Waffles in Belgium are nothing like the ones I try to make at home… when combined with nutella (which is actually FROM Belgium! Who knew?!), bananas, and gelato… well, oh my.
  • Paprika Nuts are delicious (also Made in Belgium).
  • Belgian CHOCOLATE. The. End.
  • 4EUR bottles of Bordeaux from the grocery store in France… are VERY, VERY, VERY drinkable.
  • Croissants.

But… quite a lot has been going on other than eating (I am happy to say that the 20,ooo+ steps we are getting every day seem to be accommodating for the above mentioned deliciousness. We are now in Caen, France… and I haven’t even begun to tell you about the amazing significance and beautiful sights we saw around Ypres, Belgium… but you can check out the boys blogs concerning our adventures in Trier and Bouillon on the road to Ypres.

Our first day in Ypres was a treat… partly because we did not get in the car AT ALL! Ypres is a beautiful town, with lovely walking paths, excellent restaurants (Flemish Stew is AMAZING!), and a plethora of tributes and reminders of WWI battles and fallen soldiers.

Panorama of Ypres from the top of the Bell Tower (Cloth Hall)

We began our day at the In Flanders Fields Museum… and 4 hours later came up for air! The museum is housed in the old town Cloth Hall (historic, medieval Ypres was well-known for their beautiful cloth trade, and the central Cloth Hall was a symbol of the prosperous nature of the town), and it is absolutely fantastic. If you are planning on visiting, it is well worth the extra cost to climb to the top of the Bell Tower. We were captivated by the history and significance of this area during WWI, and humbled by the sheer number of lives sacrificed in the battles… over 50,000 of their names are written on the wall of the Menin Gate in Ypres, once a grand entrance to a grand town, and now an historic and striking reminder of its war-torn past, and dedication to peace of this Belgian town.

Menin Gate, Ypres Belgium. The Cloth Hall is visible behind the gate.

 

Under the Menin Gate, reading some of the 50,000+ names written on the walls. We drove under this gate as we entered the city on our way to our hotel.

We finished this day with a beautiful run in a park surrounding the city. We did get a few strange looks as we ran amid the tourists though… What? People don’t run in Belgium?!

The last days of our pilgrimage in the Flanders area took us through the Belgian countryside, marvelling at the golden fields of wheat and barley, the cattle (every singe one of them a Belgian Blue!), horses (none of them actual Belgians as far as I could tell!), corn, and sleepy towns (each with at least one beautiful, Gothic church), and trying to imagine the moonscape and mud that were the Ypres Salient (front line) – the First, Second, and Third Battles of Ypres, Paschendale, and Vimy Ridge were particularly bloody battles that we were blessed to learn about and to now remember with a higher level of consciousness. What remains is a countryside literally changed by memorials, monuments, and cemeteries devoted to those who died. Many were named and laid to rest as known heroes to their families and countries… but many are laid to rest in unmarked graves. The striking similarity of each of these sites is the feeling of quiet and peace that they evoked in us all. When passing among the graves, I felt the air was a little stiller, a little warmer. I’m not sure what that is… whispers from those lost to never forget is what the signs and interpreters say. Surrounded by Canadian Maple trees, with Canadian Flags billowing, it is hard not to feel sad, proud, and fiercely protective of these fallen heroes. Truly, we must never forget.

In this case, pictures speak far louder than words…

We must never forget… and we must learn to do better, lessons from the past.

 

The names of the 12,000+ soldiers buried at Tyne Cot Cemetery are written on the walls surrounding the grave sites.

 

This photo is not staged. I found JJ sitting here… we were all very thoughtful during these visits.

 

Tyne Cot Cemetery

 

Rest in Peace.

 

Cattle graze peacefully beside the graves of fallen Canadian Soldiers at Tyne Cot Cemetery

 

Over 12,000 Canadian Soldiers are buried here. It is a strikingly beautiful and peaceful place.

 

The Brooding Soldier (the Second Battle of Ypres monument). This spot marks the beginning of the use of chemical warfare. A dark time in the history of this war… and for all mankind.

 

Many of the sites of Canadian war dead have been given to Canada by Begium. These government of Canada signs made us feel like we were coming home as we entered the sites.

 

Langemaark German Cemetery… this site is the final resting place of over 44,000 fallen German Soldiers, buried without the grandeur of Allied soldiers. This too, is a quiet, peaceful place… sons, husbands, and fathers that didn’t make it home.

 

On a lighter note… read this inscription. …children in Canada learn paper mache… we might need to step up our programs…

 

CT and JJ have asked to tell of our visits to Hill 62 (strategically important – Canadians fought to hold this hill, but were overtaken in June 1916), and Vimy Ridge (considered impregnable by German defenders, and Canadas Allies, but Canadians captured Vimy none-the-less in April, 1917), so I will leave that to them and give you the links once they are done. We are all spent emotionally after our days in Ypres. Our hearts are full, yet heavy at the same time. We love this place, because it feels a little bit like an extension of our place… just a world away.

Travel Diary: Reichswald Forest War Cemetery and Cologne

On behalf of hubbie, I first need to say that when driving 185 Km/hr for the first time in your life, it is slightly aggravating as families driving their children to school in mini-vans pass you by. Just saying… our children, btw, have taken to this road trip like it is any other road trip we’ve been on (some of you might know, us Irvine’s do A LOT of car time!)… and were oblivious to our speedy adventure as they watched a movie!

Even when travelling faster than a speeding bullet, driving north towards Reichswald Forest War Cemetery (Kleve, GER) was stunning. The German countryside is picturesque… old barns, new barns, farms EVERYWHERE. It is harvest time here for some crops (we guessed Wheat, Barley, and Rye from what we could see, but we can’t be sure… again with the speed!).

My first footsteps on the Cemetery were extremely emotional. I was overcome with the loss… reading the gravestones we were reminded that each one represented a life – many of them young boys (16, 17, 18, 19 years old), and so many unnamed. This was our first taste of the cost of the Great War and it was powerful.

Cole and I reading the gravestones at Reichswald Forest War Cemetery. Our highest respect to those fallen.

A short walk in the forest was required after visiting the cemetery… giving us all time to reflect on what we had seen… for those of you travelling here in the future with children, I would recommend having some conversation starters ready to help the kids process what they learn and see in these regions (we will be in Flanders next, and visiting many museums and memorials where this will become more important). What we realize is that our children have come here with a glorified version of “war” that is both dangerous and unrealistic. It is also then, very confusing to them as they process emotions of grief, sadness, and loss as they understand more of the truth. We have had some wonderfully candid conversations as a result, and all of our hearts have been broken, and opened enough to yearn for peace for all.

And that was only the morning…

The rest of the day was much lighter. We stopped in Dusseldorf for a small lunch in the marketplace in the center of the city (Currywurst is one of my new favorite foods)… but more importantly, back to the driving… there are A LOT of road signs here that we do not understand. Daily google driving tutorials have become the norm. The boys have suggested a sign reading, “Canadians… doing our best!” as a possible strategy to avoid extreme disapproval from local drivers. It’s like this… Dusseldorf is a large city, the downtown is very busy, parking is difficult, and apparently there is still no excuse for slow or irregular driving… We’re doing our best…

Our day ended with our first tram ride to the center of Cologne…

Our first tram ride… in which the boys asked us, “Could you just pretend that you dont know us and sit over there?” Ummm… OK.

…where we encountered our first Cathedral (1280-1880!).

Kolner Dom – Koln Cathedral
Kolner Dom

The mythology surrounding the middle ages becomes something of reality when you gaze up at these behemoth gothic structures… and this one isn’t even one of the biggest! We ate dinner (our first Schnitzel of this trip… and the boys have quite taken to drinking Maltbier – kids non-alcoholic beer – which tastes a bit like sweetened regular beer… yuck, if you ask me…) overlooking the Rhein River, which was beautiful. And the people-watching… oh, the people watching!!

Looking for some Schnitzel in Koln…

The night finished with a beautiful walk along the river and watching the sunset behind the cathedral. I felt like we were walking in a postcard.

Time for sleep… in a beautiful city.