Christmas present from Expedia

Dusseldorf, Germany

Last week, Expedia sent me an urgent e-mail. Apparently, the hotel that I’d booked for our stay in Dusseldorf — the same one that Expedia had confirmed six weeks ago — was closed. A phone call with an apologetic customer service rep offered a “comparable” alternative: the Hilton Garden Inn. This obviously wasn’t going to cut it.

I explained to the rep that rates had all gone up since we had made the booking and “comparable” now would be much more expensive. He said that he understood and wanted to find an agreeable solution. “Where would you like to stay sir?” he asked me. The InterContinental, I replied. “Please hold,” he said.

A few minutes later, he came back on the line. The rate at the InterContinental was $615 per night; but because the mistake had been made by Expedia, the company would cover the difference. And, on top of that, my account would be credited $100 for the inconvenience. Okay.

Flash-forward to this morning, when we arrived in Dusseldorf, the wealthiest city in Germany, which is itself one of the richest countries in Europe. We returned the car at Avis and rolled our bags down the Konigsalle (or “Ko”), a picturesque street lined with every designer shop imaginable and separated by an ornamental canal.

At the InterContinental, we were met by a top-hat wearing doorman who led us into a lobby with a soaring atrium ceiling — beautiful, bright and elegant. This place was all class.

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We took the glass elevator up to the ninth floor and took a look down into the lobby before heading to our suite. With zebra wood walls, obscenely high thread-count sheets, a separate living room and sweeping views, this would be the dankest accommodation of the trip.

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We hadn’t had breakfast yet so the concierge recommended Bastian’s, a popular brunch spot in Karlplatz. Our first eggs of the trip were perfect — omelets with gouda cheese — and we loved the freshly squeezed orange juice and bread baked on site.

Much of this city was destroyed in the war except for a few buildings in the Altstadt, or Old Town. Through the largely quiet pre-Christmas Eve streets, we made our way there next, scoping out the marketplace and town hall.

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From the old Dusseldorf, we walked to the new Dusseldorf — the MedienHafen district. In the 19th century, this area along the Rhine was home mainly to warehouses. Today, it has become a showcase for modern architecture; the most amazing is a cluster of buildings designed by Frank Gehry. The Rhine Tower sits off in the distance.

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Back at the hotel, we warmed up and then, like good Jews on Christmas Eve, went out for Chinese food at Jin Ling, which was surprisingly good. Back at the hotel, we all wanted ice cream but assumed that every place in the city had to be closed. We rang the concierge who called back 10 minutes later. She had found one restaurant within walking distance that was open and served ice cream.

Kit-Kat McFlurry’s it was.

Cathedral claustrophobia

Cologne, Germany

We set out early this morning for the longest drive of our trip, a 3-hour journey north to Cologne. Cologne, the largest city in the Rhineland, traces its history back 2,000 years. Largely devastated in World War II, it has been rebuilt into a bustling and beautiful modern day city.

The drive was relatively uneventful until we were in the city center and our GPS system bugged out. This might have been caused by the fact that our accommodation — the Dom Hotel — was located on a pedestrian walkway, just a stone’s throw from the famous Cologne Cathedral. Yet, with twisting streets and maddening traffic, we could not figure out how to get there.

Getting desperate, we turned up a one-way street to be met by two police officers. “30 euro fine,” one of them demanded. “Sorry,” we replied. He looked at me, looked at his partner, and let us off with a warning. Finally, we decided to park the car and walk to the hotel. Our persistence paid off. The hotel lobby was beautiful and the staff let us know that they were at our service.

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But it wasn’t until we were up in our room did we truly experience the place. Here’s the view from our windows toward the square and up at the cathedral.

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Starving, we made a beeline for the Christmas market, just steps outside the hotel and, thankfully, not closed until tomorrow. Visiting such a place while really hungry is never a good idea — we were beyond indecisive before we simply started eating everything. There were delicious thick ham and slaw sandwiches on baguettes; humongous potato pancakes with applesauce and garlic cream; and super duper sausages that Peter demolished.

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Properly fed, we took a couple of baby steps to massive Cologne Cathedral. It’s the largest Gothic cathedral in Germany and the second largest cathedral in the world — after St. Peters Basilica. Construction began in 1248 and after several starts and stops, was completed in 1880. Photos fail to put its size in perspective. In fact, it was impossible to get a photo that took it all in.

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We walked around the massive interior, taking in the soaring ceilings and colorful stained glass.

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To burn off lunch, we began our claustrophobia-inducing ascent to the top. Around and around we went up the tight spiral staircase, stopping to check out the ginormous bells before the last leg up an open staircase. Not good for vertigo. But the views were spectacular.

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Back on terra firma, we joined the masses and cruised the main shopping drag. Unfortunately for us, the prices were in Euros and a bit more difficult to stomach. Instead, we retreated to the hotel and relaxed before dinner — at a surprisingly good Italian place called 12 Apostles. Thin crust pizzas and local beers all around.

History of the automobile

Stuttgart, Germany

We grabbed a couple of pastries from the bakery across the street for our 2-hour drive this morning through the Black Forest. The weather was about as nice as a European winter day gets: clear blue skies and temperatures hovering around 45 degrees. Cruising the autobahn, we experienced the German’s notorious driving etiquette. Cars certainly moved faster but the drivers were smart and courteous. No slow movers in the left lane or reckless weaving — basically, the exact opposite as back home.

On the outskirts of Stuttgart, a Mercedes-Benz logo rotated like a beacon in the sky. It was the first of many we would spot in this city, which is home to headquarters to both Mercedes-Benz and competitor Porsche, as well as their sleek and shiny museums.

Given our mode of transportation, we started at the Mercedes-Benz Museum, a wavy silver box whose undulating curves gave the impression of movement.

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After an elevator to the sixth floor, we started in 1886 with the world’s first four-wheel automobile. From there, we worked our way downward, exploring decade after decade and watching the evolution of the Mercedes. Some of the coolest of the 75 cars were from the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

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Off of each floor was a separate wing with other Mercedes vehicles, like its buses and Pope Mobiles. Unfortunately, we weren’t allowed to board the latter.

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Downstairs, we checked out some of the Mercedes race cars — including the Blitzen-Benz, the Silver Arrow and the Indy car — before grabbing a surprisingly good lunch of schnitzel and maultasche in the café. Peter rocked the meat dumplings but said, for the record, that he prefers spaghetti bolognese.

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From Mercedes, it was a 15-minute drive across town to the Porsche Museum, completed just this January. From the outside, it was another modern beast with lots of glass, steel and mirrors.

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As we were waiting to buy our tickets, some friendly German fellow came over and offered us his unused ones — we danke’ed him and made our way upstairs. The museum was much smaller and provided less history but with around 80 cars on display, was impressive no less.

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Alex got me hanging out with this hot 911 GT1, a “supercar” that is apparently kind of a big deal. We also checked out a new Panamera that had been cut in half. Alright, fine, Porsche, you win. Your cars rock and we all want one!

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Back at another Le Méridien, we checked in and settled into our comfortable room. The gorgeous spa was about deserted so we took over the fitness center, sauna and steam room.

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The concierge suggested dinner at Alte Kanzlei, a contemporary restaurant serving updated traditional German cuisine. Between the schaufele and the rostbraten, washed down with a bottle of Lemberger wine, we don’t think Swabian cuisine could get much better.

Tomorrow, we continue northward to Cologne.

Ludwig’s castles in an E-Class

Augsburg, Germany

The beeping alarm awoke us this morning to dark skies and a steadily falling snow. Combating jet lag, we showered, checked out and navigated the slushy streets to Avis to pick up our rental car. The agent inside promptly informed us that while there were no four-wheel drive vehicles available (as we had reserved), she did have a Mercedes E-Class with snow tires available. We took the keys to the $80,000 car, added extra insurance, and offered a danke.

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It took us about 1.5 hours to drive south-west to Fussen, home to the royal castles of Neuschwanstein and Hohenschwangau, two of the country’s finest. After parking, we bought tickets and at the appointed time, entered Hohenschwangau, built by Maximillian II in 1836. The original massive mustard yellow structure — sitting in stark contrast to the snow-dusted mountains and evergreens — dates back to the 12th century.

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No pictures were allowed inside but the style was heavy Gothic, with lots of ornately carved wood, tremendous chandeliers and mosaic floors. It was a style replicated at Neuschwanstein, the castle of King Ludwig II, Maximillian’s son. This is the castle of fairy-tales, the most photographed in Germany, and the one that inspired Walt Disney’s home for Cinderella. Construction lasted 17 years and King Ludwig lived here for only about 6 months between 1884 and 1886 until his mysterious death.

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Sweeping views from the castle made the 30-minute muddy walk up worth it. The structure itself was also in great shape despite the fact that up to 25,000 tourists a day visit it during the summer months. We relished the relative quiet of our off-peak visit.

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With the sun starting its late afternoon descent, we piled back into the E Class for our drive north to Augsburg. This city, the largest on the Romantic Road, was founded 2,000 years ago. We assumed that our five-star hotel, Steigenberger Drei Mohren, itself dating to 1723, had been updated since. Unfortunately, our drab, uninspiring room left a good deal to be desired. Still, it was clean and comfortable and served its purpose — a stop-over base for the next 12 hours.

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The city itself was quiet and quaint, with cobblestone streets and an assortment of shops and old burghers’ houses lining the main drag, appropriately named Maximilianstrasse.

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As darkness fell, we passed over the Christmas Market in search of dinner. Suddenly, an illuminated neon cactus came into view. Next thing, we were eating chicken fajitas and drinking margaritas at Sausalito’s, a somewhat tacky Tex-Mex chain.

Twenty-four hours into it, we were already over sausages.

Return of the schnitzel

Munich, Germany

The tweet was a bit premature.

In fact, the impending snowstorm that hit New York this afternoon caused more problems than we had anticipated. With a late afternoon departure to Europe, we thought we might get out in time before the forecasted 12-18 inches shut down JFK Airport and jeopardized our travel plans.

The extra security (including intrusive pat downs) we received at the airport might have been the first ominous sign that this was going to be a long trip. Yet, we boarded on time, got deiced and then sat on the runway for 2 hours. By the time we had made our way to the front of the queue for take-off, our deice time window had expired and we needed to return to the terminal. Meanwhile, the weather deteriorated, raising concern that our flight would just be canceled.

Our pilot remained committed to getting us to Germany though. And three hours later, after spending nearly as much time on the ground as we would in the skies, we were airborne for Munich. We touched down at around 12 noon local time, about 4-hours later than estimated, and grabbed a taxi that raced us to our hotel, Le Méridien, in what seemed like record time.

There wasn’t a pink-footed tub but the festively decorated hotel was comfortable and sufficiently trendy. (See funky orange tube lights in lobby.)

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Our location was across the street from the central station, about a 12-minute walk to Marienplatz. Under clear blue skies but unseasonably cool temperatures, we made our way to the hub of old city life here in Munich, passing ice skating rinks and frenzied shoppers.

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Along the way, we stopped at our first Christmas Market, filled with stalls selling small gifts, crafts — and, more importantly, mulled wine and sausages. Hello, Germany.

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Unsurprisingly, throngs of tourists were lined up to witness the spectacle that is the Glockenspiel. The thought of standing around to watch animatronics do a little jig while breathing in the icy German Tundra air didn’t appeal to us. Onward we went.

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We found shelter from the bitter cold at the Deutsches Museum; the largest technological museum in the world, it would be better described as the Man Museum. A couple of hours didn’t do this place justice, but we did see the first Benz automobile, the first diesel engine and more airplanes, helicopters and space ships than we thought could be crammed into a museum.

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Post museum, we refueled at Hofbrauhaus, the world’s most famous beer hall. With roots originating in 1589, this place has undergone several reincarnations but today houses close to 5,000 drinkers. There’s a brass band, big 1 liter beers and plenty of sausages and sauerkraut.

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Exhausted from our travels and exploding with swine, we returned to the hotel for some sauna, steam room and jacuzzi action. Adequately sweated out, we collapsed into our soft beds.

Like the good youngest brother he is, Peter took the cot.

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