Saturday, May 10, 2008

Here at Home: Natural Chimneys

We are so fortunate to live in an area which, for many city-dwellers, is a vacation destination. When we came back from Europe last May, we were stunned by how, well, ugly Harrisonburg is. If you stand in the parking lot behind our church and look northwest at the downtown, it's just such a mishmosh of scattershot attempts at historic preservation, agri-business utilitarian structures, and 60's/70's urban renewal crap, too many parking lots, and the huge satellite dishes on top of the TV3 building. Yuck. We have to remind ourselves that European cities are beautiful but unspoiled natural areas are almost unheard of. What we have here in Virginia are (comparably) un-inspiring cities but breathtaking scenic beauty once you hit the road.

Last Sunday we took JieJie and MeiMei to a popular spot in this area: Natural Chimneys, a lovely spot not far from Bridgewater, not to be confused with Natural Bridge in the Lexington area. Natural Chimneys gets its name from some chimney-shaped rock formations, which are surrounded by a beautiful open green area on three sides. In June and August, they hold JOUSTING championships here. Definitely something to put on the to-do list, though it may have to be next year, because this June we'll be on our big European Adventure and in August I'm too averse to getting eaten alive by mosquitoes to venture too far afield.

We know a lot of families who like to introduce kids to camping at Natural Chimneys, and I can see why. It's hardly the sort of place where your little one can accidentally get eaten by a bear or trip off a cliff. It's not all that wooded, so you can keep track of kids. There's a pool, playground, and 2.5 miles of trails for walking or learning to ride your bike. The girls were happy just running around, picking wildflowers and birdwatching. We were only gone for the afternoon, but it felt like a getaway. And it was beautiful. I'm hopeful that over time, the efforts of groups like Harrisonburg Downtown Renaissance will help the city get rid of or camouflage what's ugly about this town, and build a city with its own kind of beauty. For now, when I can't stand the urban mishmosh any longer, I lift mine eyes unto the hills.

Hostel: Warsberger Hof in Trier

If you would like to read Warsberger Hof's website in English, try Google Translate.

I wanted to mention this privately owned and operated hostel (jugendgasthaus) in Trier, Germany. When I contacted the Trier hostel belonging to the Jugendherbergen / HI Hostels associations, they were booked solid, but suggested I contact Warsberger Hof.

I'll be sure to let you know how the place is after we've stayed there, but wanted to praise the proprietors of both places. The HI Hostel manager is to be commended for following his "sorry, no" with "but..." and the Warsberger Hof has been prompt in correspondence.

They're giving me a good feeling about the place already.


Thursday, May 08, 2008

OK, got it.

Here's the itinerary:

Antwerpen to Cologne (Koln), Germany's oldest city
Cologne to Koblenz, where the Rhine and Mosel Rivers come together
Koblenz to Trier, site of Roman ruins
Trier to Antwerpen

After many disappointments with hostels already being booked when we hoped to travel, it suddenly occurred to me--what about Etap and Ibis hotels??? Faithful readers will recall our stays at these modular bare-bones places on our trip to Strasbourg/Paris. I looked up Accor Hotels (the same chain that owns all the high-end Sofitel and Novotel establishments) and sure enough, they have great places to stay, centrally located, at just a notch above hostel prices.

So no, it ain't the Hotel Melba (see the Bastogne post) and we won't have the ISH experience (see London) BUT we can set the itinerary first, then book places to stay. With the dwindling availability of hostel rooms, we were starting to go at it backwards, based on hostel availability. That's just dumb, because it means you could be setting yourself up for a logistical nightmare in terms of distance from train stations ("just a little further, honey...can you carry your own Dora backpack up the mountain, you big five-year-old? It's just like the end of The Sound of Music! Val-der-i...val-der-ah...come on, sing honey!") so this is much better.

Thanks to mom for the Rail Map of Europe you gave us like 12 years ago (happy birthday by the way MOM!). It helped a lot to see where the major routes are as we plotted our course. Thanks also to Google for the great maps and translate functions. I'm able to email the hostel and hotel operators in English AND clumsily translated German! What a great world we live in.

Now that we've got the thumbtacks in the map, it's time to play everyone's favorite game, "Train, Boat, or Bus?" Hurrah!


Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Too many choices!

OK, so we STILL haven't pinned down the Rhine excursion, though we have our dates in mind now. We'll leave the morning after we get to see Bruce Springsteen at the Sportpaleis (which is going to be amazing btw because it was supposed to be in a huge soccer stadium, but was moved to the MUCH smaller Sportpaleis Arena where we saw K3 in "De 3 Biggetjes" last year--we should be able to see really well!).

And it's absolutely dumb of us to procrastinate because the longer we wait, the fewer hostel options we'll have. Thank you for reading this, because it actually helps motivate me to know that People Are Waiting To Hear Something.

We will be going over several weekdays and coming back by Friday evening. Traveling on weekends by train is more expensive and also more crowded (I remember going to the seaside at DePanne and sitting between cars with the girls on my lap, on my feet, on my head...). You can usually find discounts if you are willing to travel between 10am and 3pm on weekdays. I think we have elected not to rent a car, but I should make sure John is in agreement because at one point he was interested in driving.

My business associate in Brussels, T, said the train from Koblenz, Germany to Antwerpen via Luxembourg is beautiful, so that's a possibility that would allow us to stop in Trier and see the Roman-era structures. We could do it as a daytime layover and stay further along the way. So now we're back to the Great Circle Route (as applied to this trip) which is a clockwise circle from Antwerp-Koln-down the Rhine-up the Moselle-through Luxembourg and back home.

Well, back to the Jugendherbergen website...I think we're just going to have to make a decision and live with it. We know that we like to see fewer places in greater depth, rather than rushing around for quick photo-ops in a zillion places, so at least that helps as a guiding principle.

Watch This Space...some more...


You can search FTJ for past posts, e.g. China info...