30 July 2013

Calling on Cologne (Part II)

We decided that we should include a Little Man centered activity during our visit Cologne, and yesterday we did just that.

Mondays are typically days that the museums are closed, but luckily, the Kölner Zoo has it's special reduced rate "Zoo Day" on Monday. What's also nice is that the zoo doesn't charge for children until they reach 4 years old, and between 4 and 12 years will receive a discounted rate. The zoo has been around for 150 years, but has kept up with the the changes over time. The zoo is fairly large - it houses over 500 species of animals - and sports a fantastic elephant house, a large ape house, a neat hippo enclosure, and idyllic-looking big cat enclosures, as well as plenty of nice habitats for other animals.

Watching the penguins during feeding time

Elephant shirt by the elephant house


Prowling cheetah - photo taken from just 10 feet above

Hilarious bowl full of sleeping meerkats

In particular, we marveled at standing just inches from the rhinoceros, with just the heavy glass/plastic shield and concrete wall between us.

Rhino out for a morning stroll

Just on the other side of this window, the rhino was inches away from us

There's also an aquarium, and though there aren't any "big" aquatic animals (i.e. no sharks, sting rays, sea turtles), the building is the perfect size for a 30-45 minute visit after cruising through the zoo for a glimpse at Nemos (clownfish), reptiles, and insects.

We found Nemo...

...and Dori.

We finished at the zoo mid afternoon, so we decided to cruise around the shopping district since it was open (unlike Sunday). There were far more people than we'd seen over the weekend, but moving around was easy enough.

Cologne is one of the many cities that boasts Roman roots and many of the walls built by the Romans are still visible, and in some cases are still in use. Taking time to wander around the city centre before heading back to the hotel, we were able to find one of the more impressive walls still standing and a plaque showing the extent of the original city walls.

Roman wall still standing

Today, we had an adventure of another kind - the Augustusburg and Falkenlust Palaces in Brühl, just 23km outside Cologne. When taking the DeutchBahn trains, you're dropped as close to the main entrance as you can get, and the walk up to the palace is nice and tree-lined. The Augustusburg Palace was built in the mid-18th century for the Archbishop-Elector of Cologne, Clemens-Augustus of the Wittelsbach family. The palace is an amazing piece of art that has been kept in a beautiful state and was maintained as an important (and impressing) building for the President of the Federal Republic of Germany to receive important guests. In 1984, the palace was added to the UNESCO list of cultural world heritage sites. 

Mark and Little Man by Augustusburg Palace

The main visitor's entrance area

I wish the had allowed photography (for the preservation of the amazing interior, it's forbidden), because it's really impressive. And since the family fostered a love of delftware during Augustus's father's time as stadtholder of the Netherlands, we were able to find all sorts of Dutch blue and white tiling around the "summer" rooms. Fortunately, the gardens are open to all and can be photographed. 

Beautiful grounds

The Palace from the gardens

The Falkenlust Palace is a "hunting lodge" built to entertain Clemens-Augustus's love of falconry about 2.5km from the main residence. It's a far cry from the Lincoln-log-lodges you build as a kid - It's modeled after the main palace with all sorts of "comforts" only the extremely wealthy would imagine necessary for a "hunting lodge," such as a coffee room, a cabinet room covered with mirrored walls for easier display of porcelain curios, and 10,500 hand painted Dutch tiles to cover the walls of the stairway. But thankfully, both buildings are open to the public to satisfy curious appetites like ours, and you can appreciate the art and maintenance that go into both buildings.

The scenic "woodsy" walk to Falkenlust


Tomorrow, we head up to Düsseldorf for the last leg of our vacation. More ruins, museums, and views of the Rhine loom in our future!

28 July 2013

Calling on Cologne (Part I)

It's a bit steamy (read as: unseasonably and unbearably hot) in western Europe - just in time for our travels in Germany. But we're not letting that stop us. We've been on the move, and we're now in Cologne, Germany.

We started our tour of the city yesterday after we arrived midday. After checking into our hotel, we headed straight for the Cathedral of Cologne.

Cologne Cathedral

This is the church I've been waiting for since we moved to Europe. It's a gorgeous Gothic-style cathedral; complete with gargoyles, saints, prophets, spires, and bells outside and stained glass, relics, prayer candles, mosaics, and a crypt inside - simply breath taking.

See the shiny gold box? It's supposed to contain bits of the 3 magi. 


It's one of the city's most proud monuments, can be seen from many places around the city, and adorns all sorts of touristy kitsch and lovely paintings and prints.

The back of the Cathedral

Next to the Cathedral is the stop for the Cologne "Bimmelbahn" - a small trolley dressed up like a steam engine that for 6 for adults and 3.50 for kids under 12 (for a round trip) can be taken around town for a brief tour with a recording in German and English talking about the highlights of the city. There are two different routes, but we rode the route toward the Zoo and Botanic Gardens so we didn't have to walk toward the Botanic Gardens. The ride itself was fine, but on both of our rides the audio kept cutting out for both languages, making it difficult to really know what it was talking about. However, we did get to see some parts of the city that we might not see on foot or by public bus. The bus only runs from March through November, but it seems like it's also available in December for the Christkindlmarkts.

A giddy Little Man, post Bimmelbahn ride.

Our trip through the Botanic Gardens was nice, even despite the heat. We purposely kept to the shady parts of the garden and spent about 1.5 hours wandering the grounds before heading back to the Zoo/Flora stop for the Bimmelbahn. For a free admission, it was well worth the visit. On the grounds are all sorts of plants (as one would expect), but you can also find bee hives (located and fenced off a safe distance from visitors' walking paths), frogs in the ponds, and various birds.

Palm trees in Germany - who knew?

After taking the Bimmelbahn back to the Cathedral, we walked over to the Hohenzollern Bridge for a moment to gawk.

Hohenzollern Bridge

The bridge is known as one of the "love lock" locations around the world, and the number of locks is actually a bit astounding. We didn't add to the number (insert bad joke about love not being bound by chains, etc.) but did watch a few people add theirs or come back and find a lock already added.

Love locks around the bridge

In Cologne, the shops are all closed on Sundays, so even the large shopping district is mostly closed. But, we found an unexpectedly amazing taste of Boston and the States in a Dunkin' Donuts, which I relished despite a longer than advised wait in line for a simple iced coffee.

A taste of home

Since the stores are closed, the museums are all open on Sundays and use Monday as their "weekend closing day." We made good use of the open museums today, starting with a trip to the Museum Schütgen. The museum houses medieval artwork (mostly from Germany and the Netherlands) in a former church building that is over 1,000 years old. The pieces are beautiful and give you an appreciation for the fine craftsmanship that went into their creation as well as their ability to survive the centuries. And while Little Man's presence often concerns the staff at places with old, priceless pieces, I have to say that the security staff were surprisingly kind and friendly with him.

Side view of the church that holds the Museum Schutgen

From there, we made our way over to the Museum Ludwig, the contemporary art museum of Cologne. A surprising number of pieces by Andy Warhol and Pablo Picasso are at home at this museum, as well as a number of other interesting pieces. It's worth taking the time to go through the entire museum (about 1.5-2 hours) and viewing each of the pieces.

Andy Warhol's Brillo and Campbell's Soup boxes... and Mark.

Pablo Picasso's Woman with a Mandolin

The Little Man was a good sport about the art museums and not touching anything, and was well rewarded with the Schokoladenmuseum (Chocolate Museum). The museum is located directly on the Rhine River and has an interesting combination of information about how cocoa beans are grown, how chocolate is processed, the history of chocolate, and a hands-on fun-and-games experience specifically for kids.

Watching chocolates

I found mixed reviews of this Lindt-sponsored museum online, but we felt like it was very child-friendly and not a giant push to get you into the gift shop.

Ride the chocolate bunny!

We did take advantage of the "made to order Lindt chocolate bar" service (dark chocolate with freeze-dried coffee and caramel biscuit balls) and thoroughly enjoyed the result.

The heat looks like it will be holding, but we're planning on making the best of it. Here's to more fun in Cologne!

27 July 2013

Bonnie Bonn

We've spent the last two days in Bonn, Germany, the birthplace of Ludwig van Beethoven, the former seat of government of the Federal Republic of Germany, and a pretty city along the Rhine River. We've moved on to Cologne today (and already seen a few things), but Bonn was wonderful, and worth recounting.

Mark had a presentation at a conference held at the university in Bonn, so we decided to turn it into a family vacation. We left home on Thursday morning and took several trains to Bonn. When you plan trips through the NS Hispeed website with enough notice, you can get really cheap fares to your destination. We made it to Bonn from our local train station at just 32 by booking the fares back in May, and the travel is far more convenient than trying to rent a car.

Once we arrived we found our hotel before heading out into the city centre. Our first stop was the Beethoven-Haus, the birthplace of one of the most famous composers the world has known.

Beethoven-Haus Museum

The birthplace is actually behind the house that faces the street but the houses are connected. The buildings were slated for demolition in 1889, but a group of citizens saved the property and started the Beethoven-Haus Society.

Beethoven's birthplace. The museum speculates he was born in a
 room on the top floor, all the way to the right of this photo.

The admission to the museum is 5 per adult. The house by itself, while important historically, doesn't feel like it's worth the admission. They have documents, instruments, and other artifacts from Beethoven's life - which are all interesting - but the house itself feels like it's missing something (this may also be because half the staff seem annoyed that you're there). An audio tour is available for 2, which we did not purchase, but that may have had more of the story element that I look for in a history museum, but it also wasn't clear that there was one available in English. What makes the admission price worth it is the "Stage for Musical Visualization." It's a 3D interactive show that puts a 3D graphic element that can be partially controlled by the audience to scenes from Beethoven's opera, "Fidelio." The visual interpretation is intriguing and well done, the added bonus of audience participation is engaging whether you're controlling or watching, and the staff member running the program was great with the guests and clearly appreciated the music, the story, and the artwork. Close to the museum, it's possible to visit the local statue of Beethoven that was dedicated in 1845.

Ludwig van Beethoven dedication statue

On the same square as the statue is the Bonn Münster, a Roman Catholic basilica. It's not huge like the grand cathedrals of larger cities, but it's still gorgeous inside. The large churches are always full of visitors, but this church clearly had many people their for worship and meditation, something that I haven't seen to the same extend in the other churches we've seen recently.

Bonn Münster, a view toward the alter

Before getting dinner, we decided to go for a walk along the path next to the river. The landscape is beautiful, and the paths are neatly kept. It's pretty clear that this is a popular pathway for locals traveling around the city by foot or bicycle.

The Rhine River from Bonn

We found a traditional German dinner in a little place by city centre. What's not to enjoy about home made sausage, sauerkraut, schnitzel, and various potato-makings?

Friday, Mark attended his conference, so Little Man and I took another tour of the town on our own. Our first stop was the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum - and it was well worth the half hour walk from the hotel. This museum offers so much for kids! On the main floor there are a variety of "habitats" represented (African grasslands, arctic circle, desserts, Eurasian forests) with taxidermied animals. It might sound a bit gruesome, but it's not. The displays let you see what the animals would look like "in the wild" but you can get up close enough to appreciate them.

"Africa" at the Zoologisches Forschungsmuseum, Bonn

The museum has a several interactive parts to the exhibits (microscopes, moving charts, matching games, etc.) that make the visit even more enjoyable (and educational!).


Other floors include more taxidermied animals on display, a bug exhibit that explains DNA (though in German only), and a live animal display of lizards and reptiles in the Vivarium. This place was a gem of a find. We spent 2.5 hours in the museum, but it would have been easy to spend more time had we not gotten hungry. And the admission is really reasonable - 4.50 for adults, Little Man is still free.

Little Man and the beetles

Despite the rain, I decided to continue on with my plan of visiting the botanic gardens. We made the walk toward the gardens and managed to find a dry spot under a large ginko tree for some lunch before taking a good look around.

The gardens are on the grounds of the old Poppelsdorf Palace, which is now home to a mineral museum and part of the University of Bonn. The grounds are beautiful and provide a nice place for a stroll, picnic, or even reading a book; and the grounds open 10:00 to 18:00 with free admittance every day except Sunday.

View of the Poppelsdorf Palace

We had a relaxing evening getting cheap pizza dinner and playing in the hotel pool, but this morning before checkout, we made the walk down to the Contemporary History Museum (De Stiftung Haus der Geschichte Bundesrepublik Deutschland), which is free admittance and open every day of the week (there are also counterpart museums in Berlin and Leipzig). Currently, they have an exhibit documenting US relations with Germany after the Second World War through today, which was interesting if only because we got to see how our own country's involvement in Germany over the past 70 years is viewed by the Germans. The museum is really well done - it's easy to view the artifacts and you easily find your way through the exhibits, and as an added bonus, at least the major exhibit signage is translated into English.

Apparently, the Boss (Bruce Springsteen) was really big in Germany

After checking out of the hotel, we made our way to Cologne and started having some adventures here. More to come as we explore!

UPDATE: 12 January 2014
I'm pulling this post out of the archives to join up with Sara at Chasing the Donkey and her co-hosts for the Sunday Traveler linky. There are lots of interesting travel posts linked up and worth checking out. Enjoy!

Cologne Cathedral: The Three Magi Are Buried Here

26 July 2013

Morning Work on the Rhine

One Year Later: Our Dutch Anniversary

We have officially lived in the Netherlands for one year.

One year ago, we were exhausted and drained. We sold/donated/gave away all but 4 pieces of furniture, we moved out of Chicago - our home as a married couple for 5 years and our home as a family for a little over 2.5 years - and we said goodbye to our friends and family. We flew across the Atlantic and slept a mere hour of the 9 hours aboard the airplanes (thanks to Little Man's fascination with the individual TVs in every seat), and arrived in Amsterdam with 3 carry-ons, 5 suitcases, 2 cats stuck to the ceilings of their carriers, and a growing sense of bewilderment. Thanks to our wonderful relocation company, P&D Care, we survived the first few days as they took care of everything from arranging the rental agreement to stocking the refrigerator; and then they helped us stay legal as we were walked through the residency process.

Ace and Little Man at the Reykjavik airport, 26 July 2012 

Looking back on last year, it's hard to believe more time hasn't passed. We feel settled. We have a better idea of how the city is laid out. Little Man speaks Nederlish - a weird combination of English verbs and adverbs with Dutch nouns and sometimes English/sometimes Dutch adjectives. Not all of the Dutch language escapes our understanding (just most of it). We've made some new friends - other expats and native Dutch people - and been able to keep in touch with all our friends and family back home. We can get most anywhere by bike or train/bus. The cats only eye us suspiciously when the suitcases or cat carriers come out.

Cats learning to regularly use stairs, August 2012

Today, we're celebrating this anniversary with a bit of exploration - Little Man and I are wandering through Bonn, Germany while Mark presents at a conference. Then we're off to Cologne and Dusseldorf for a few days. It seems fitting that on the anniversary of the beginning of our grand adventure, we're off on an adventure in a different country. We've taken advantage of the opportunities to explore and experience a different culture, and hundreds of possibilities still lay ahead of us.

Here's to another great year!
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