Swapping Homes Anybody?


Saturday, July 30, 2016

Thermal baths: hot or nude?

So what is it about taking the waters in a spa resort like Bade-Baden?
A sip from that famous tap was the reason to go to a spa town for hundreds of years. People believed this water, rich in minerals, had healing qualities. This has been debunked, however, and since 2009 the government of the state of Baden gave up getting an official label for its water to have healing qualities.The famous drinking hall is still there. People still pay for a cup to drink it from. The water itself is free and you can take the cup home as a souvenir. These days it is more about enjoying the hot springs which supply two world famous spas, the Caracalla Spa, a modern facility with lots of glass, and the Friedrichsbad with a tradition of providing a bathing tradition that reaches back over 130 years. In fact, the latter now combines its tradition with hot-air Irish applications.(?)

The basic package costs EUR 25 p.p. Different wellness packages cost different prices. If you add on a massage or peeling etc., you can easily spend EUR 200.

A trip to The Friedrichsbad is modeled around 17 stations of well-being. The ideal route is as follows" shower, warm air, hot air, shower, massage, shower, steam, hot steam, full bath, whirlpool bath,exercise  bath, cold bath, towel down, cream application, relaxation and reading. You slip into another world and take a truly relaxing break.
You can visit the  adjacent Roman baths ruins for an extra EUR 2,50.
The temperature in the Caracalla bath ranges from 18-38. It's recommended not to stay longer in the 38 degree bath for longer than 3x10 minutes. How often do we stay longer in our pools in Florida in the summer when they have reached child bath's temperature, i.e. 38? We sit on the steps and have a drink or make phone calls.
Now to the nudity you all have been waiting for...I walked the planet for decades believing that a thermal bath was just that, a thermal= warm bath. Guidelines in Germany say that a "Therme" has to come from a spring that is over 20 degrees warm and that it is often said to have healing qualities, also because of its high mineral content.
I did not expect nudity. Some years ago, I visited a Thermal Bath that belonged to a big hotel and was shocked to see that everybody-except me- was naked. I had been wondering why I got looks in the changing room when I slipped into my swimsuit. A narrow walkway lead through the whole bath area and different pool full if naked people. I felt like I was the naked one and being stared at- not the naked people who were in the water ogling every newcomer. To be honest, the clientele were mostly older men and some dubious looking young women. I walked that path like on ice, embarrassed and hastened back to the changing room. Why did you leave so early? I had not expected nudity. I even complained to the hotel manager who claimed that everybody knew that thermal bath means nudity. Not in my books and from my knowledge of old Greek.

Now, after Baden-Baden, I stand corrected. Looking up the difference between the two spas and pondering which one to go to, hubby found out online, that Caracalla you may visit in a swimsuit whereas Friedrichsbad requires you shedding your clothes. Better to find out online...
Another little tidbit: Germans generally visit the sauna naked, just with a towel to sit on.

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

A Picture Book Village

A little village, just 5 km away, is picturesque Sasbachwalden. Almost every house a B& B or hotel that could be taken straight from a fairy tale story book. Surrounded by vineyards like our own town, Ottersweier, the countryside is ideal for hikers and bikers.
Remember, Hansel and Gretel? Here is the gingerbread house the nasty witch lured them into. Well, almost!

We had dinner there, nice,if a little overpriced. no wonder, prices were high; the village was teaming with tourists, primarily French. As it was very hot, in the high 90s, we didn't linger much longer but proceeded to the public swimming pool or Schwimmbad. The main attraction was a high slide/ Busloads of little French children were roaming around freely and enjoying their vacation and the water.

Some more impressions from Sasbachwalden.

As you can see the blooming of  the hollyhocks was almost over.
Mine at home just didn't want to flower for me. I picked a few ripe seeds. I often do that and smuggle them in my suitcase. A little souvenir from home.
We went back to that village several times; once started a rather strenuous hike there up towards a waterfall. More about next time!
Auf Wiedersehen!

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Our 2nd home swap near Baden-Baden

Yes, traveling is exhausting. Driving from one place to the next on German motorways is the easy part. Dropping off the rental car the day after your arrival when you still have to unpack is part of the joy. If you don't drop off at the same location, it becomes much more expensive. Especially if you take the car to a different country, like when we move from Germany to a houses in France. A lot of these places -if not at an airport or train station in a city center- are car dealers, like our Hertz dealer near Baden-Baden, in the middle of nowhere or some convoluted industrial center. God forbid, you return the car without gas...then you have to do the search for a gas station which is never close by - or bite the bullet and pay their inflated price. How did we ever manage all that without a navi-system? How did I ever find my way from Ireland on my own to the little Nierstein/Rhine from where I collected my wines for my wine import in Dublin amost 2,000 km each way: with the help of maps and then later, with print-outs of what Mappi or Google maps suggested.

Now that we had unloaded and unpacked our four heavy suitcases (over 50 pounds a piece) plus hubby's computer bag and several hand luggage items, we were ready to explore our new abode, a 5 bedroom family home with a wonderful garden in a little town of 6,000 people, Ottersweier.

A town where everybody knows each other and seems to recognize that we are in so-and-so's house, greeting or waving at us. Our exchange partners have done many swaps before, so people are used to seeing strangers around. (They also had ca. 120 refugees put up here, strangely enough I only saw five of them during our stay.)
The town is based a mere 15 km from the world famous spa of Baden-Baden. I used to laugh at older folks who liked to vacation there and take the waters or visit thermal baths. Now we are enjoying the beautiful countryside, the peace and quiet and proximity of many interesting archaeological sites, Roman ruins and castles, ruined or of stately splendor.In fact, within a radius of less than an hour's drive along scenic, windy country roads - not motorways- we discovered several true gems which I'm going to report about later. 
In German we differentiate between castle ruins or fortifications still intact which are called "Burg" and resplendent castles of kings often appointed with so much glamour that leaves you in awe about how the selected few lived in those days. Jut think of Sanssoucis in Potsdam, an example of a little Schloss, I introduced here before. Here is one of our latest finds, Burg Windeck.

Many of these added restaurants and hotels to cater to all the visitors. Burg Windeck has been mentioned in the Guide Michelin and is fighting for its first * (star) in this prestigious French restaurant and hotel guide.

You can drive up to most of theseenchanting places, definitely when they have a restaurant.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Getting Around

Home swapping is becoming increasingly popular. Whenever I mention that this is our preferred way of vacationing, people usually have heard about it or seen that film..A Hollywood movie "The Holiday" with Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslett. That's a start to talk about the topic, but I make it clear from the start that we don't swap partners!
In case you are thinking about it and choose Ireland for your favorite destination, I need to tell you that the Emerald Isle is hard to come by. This is not only my experience but was mentioned in Homelink's own newsletter. Now I said it. We are subscribed to USA Homelink.org for six years running now. In addition, we took out a subscription for Homeexchange.com to have even more choices. In fact, two of our three exchanges this year were made through the latter. The reason is simple: thousands of emigrants or descendants of Irish living in the States, England or Australia choose this option to trace their roots on the Ould Sod. For me who lived in Ireland for so many years, the choice becomes even more difficult when you know certain areas well.
As we are always doing more than one swap, you may wonder how we get from place a to place b.
The home swaps we do always come with a car swap. That's how you save money: free accommodation plus free use of car. For the interim and the travel between each swap we need to rent a car. With some years of experience under our belt now, we can give you an important advice. It works best for us to get the car the day before we vacate our adopted home, then return it at our new destination the day after our arrival. This way we can drive to the car rental place
with the car that goes with the house. We pack up that day and leave the next at the appointed time.
You may have your own experiences with car rentals! We found out the hard way that rentals are not always new, impeccable car but have dents and scratches. We learned to inspect each new rental top to bottom. First I scoffed at a man who walked around the rental and took pictures. But then it happened to us that we were held responsible for prior scratches. Bring a flashlight for your inspection. The rental company will do it; especially when you return the car in a multi-story car park.

Monday, July 18, 2016

Moving on

In the meantime we have moved on to the south of Germany, a state called Baden-Wuerttemberg, where the famous spa resort Baden-Baden is located. We did a home swap in this area before a couple of years ago; we came back because we like it so much.

Other big towns in the area are Karlsruhe, Freiburg, and Stuttgart where we like to vacation as well. If you look at a map, the mountains and its proximity to the Rhine valley, make it very popular. It has the mildest climate in all of Germany. In the days of climate change it can be a bit much. Germany is experiencing its 3rd heat weave since we've been here. As practically no private house here as AC, we came prepared and had bought and delivered an indoor portable fan to our first address in Berlin.
We took the route from Berlin south via Leipzig and then Bayreuth where we overnighted. Not to be mixed up with Beirut ( as some relatives wrongly understood), we went to the well-known Richard Wagner city in Bavaria, where the famous opera festival is held every year between the end of July and end of August since  1876.

We went for the grave of Franz Liszt which happened to be on the cemetery close to our hotel - which was not air-conditioned either.
To my surprise I also stumbled across a big mausoleum of a name sake of mine,  my maiden name that is. Never knew I had relatives in the south. On TV I spotted an advertisement of ancestry.de; something to explore...
We're spending 3 weeks in this little picturesque town. I posted a few pics on Facebook already. more to come. The house is very big with a wonderful yard. Quiet and safe. We see little 1st grader come home from school on their bikes with their parents or with a pal, peddling along proudly, safety hats on and their school bags on their backs.

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Back to the Ould Sod

The Irish countryside hadn't changed at all.This picture could be taken straight from my book cover.
Whole towns, however, had vanished since my last visit 8 years ago. How is that possible? Driving down the country from Dublin, all I saw were green fields. I used to know the route like the palm of my hand:  every town on the way, almost every bend in the road, and most certainly every location for a pit stop. Where were Moneygall and Toomevara? 
The new motorway (M7) was built cutting straight across fields circumnavigating towns that lay on the route. The tourist is now getting an even greener impression of the Emerald Isle. A new sign stuck out in the countryside, however: Obama Town. Since President Obama visited his ancestral home in Moneygall,a village of ca. 315 people, it had turned into Obama Town.

From our lovely base in Killaloe, we toured around Lough Dergh. Garrykennedy on this one sunny morning was a picturesque as ever.

Killaloe itself still had the same landmarks that were burned into my memory: "Fine Rags" where in our second year I looked for a summer dress and left with a useful Barbour rain hat that got a lot of wear.

The small garage that used to fix our Toyota Landcruiser, the first SUV in town.

Another place that almost broke my heart, utterly neglected and sad looking was the house where my youngest had his boy-scouts meetings. Many houses in the town had fallen into disrepair.
Some of them were for sale and full of hope, stuck out the For Sale sign by one Harry Brann. He was the real estate agent we bought our farm from. He died, however, almost 20 years ago! Only in Ireland...

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Side Trip to Ireland

While staying in Berlin, I used the opportunity for a quick trip to my old haunts in Ireland. As you may know, I used to have an organic farm in Ireland in a previous life. My daughter had requested this journey down memory lane.
Not much has changed in Ireland since I moved away. Certainly not the weather. We had one sunny afternoon and one sunny morning during our 8 days stay. This was in the middle of June. The lovely green island stays so green because of all the rain- as one of my clever students at the University of Limerick where I used to teach found out. I was right in bringing a rain coat, brolly and long johns.
The pic at the top gives a beautiful view of Killaloe from our hotel where we were staying. Actually, the only hotel in Killaloe, hence THE Killaloe Hotel & Spa. It had just opened, was still going through some teething problems but can highly be recommended. The staff was extraordinary and made up for any shortcomings. Plus we got an excellent rate! In my time, there used to be a real big marina which had made Killaloe famous. Situated on magnificent Lough Derg, Its location was unique: where the River Shannon bursts out from the lake. We were floored when we saw that it had totally fallen into disrepair, in fact had literally fallen into the lake. The new owner, a lottery winner of EUR 145 Million, let it go pieces.
Here's a sample of the great food we had in the hotel. I was pleasantly surprised. The food in Ireland overall has greatly improved in contrast to earlier years. It used to be bangers and mashed potatoes or fish & chips or the all present pot roast with a slightly congealed gravy...as it often was served not hot enough. Anything more adventurous used to be mediocre but overpriced.

The trip to our farm broke our hearts. It was totally overgrown. My meticulously planned and executed ornamental garden couldn't even be traced anymore. Our glasshouses had broken apart and the new owner proudly said they had done some renovation to our classy conservatory: They had put on a corrugated roof!

Here's the entrance. I was happy I had stayed in the car while my daughter asked to have a look round. She came back in tears. I was melancholic too but I knew: THERE IS NO GOING BACK.

In my farm book I tell the story of a haunted local house which we now revisited. Here's the house and the tree in question which saved a little boy's life during the Troubles of 1923 when the Black and Tans killed his family.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Auf Wiedersehen, Berlin!

 Bildergebnis für berlin     Bundestag /Government buildings
Every good thing comes to an end...and we have to say good-bye to our adopted Berlin home after 3 weeks. Since i also made a side trip to my old haunts (Heimat) in Ireland in the meantime, time really sped by fast. I will repost about that briefly here. It was not a home exchange.
Hubby and I had a wonderful time. The flat was exactly as described,  nicely appointed and well-kept. Our watering of all their window boxes not too much bother. We enjoyed the location and can highly recommend it for anybody considering going to visit Berlin.
At the end of a home swap, people exchnage a review which I will do shortly. We sometimes keep in touch with our exchnage partners. I talked about it recently on Facebook (Intrepidhomeswappers) when one Sunday afternoon we met up with a couple who have become our friends. We had an exchange with the in the Stuttgart area three years ago. Elisabeth is her name and she created her on website for prospective swapping partners to check out the area where they live in detail, what they have to offer and see many photos. It is called Home Exchange Germany on Facebook.
 (BTW she also published her first book, although in Germany).
We learned from our Berlin partners that they are off to Spain in August for another exchnage and will be in the Washington area in October on yet another one.Traveling can be so cheap when you  do home swaps!

Tip of the day comes from hubby: When you go to Europe or Germany in particular, you will need adapters to connect you to the German round 2-prong-system. Do bring enough extension cables so that you have enough power points for all your electrical needs, be that smartphones, iPads, laptops, shavers etc. He also travels with a long Ethernet cable in case we get a shoddy Internet connection. Today I learned he also has a HDMI cable which will hook us up to our Netflix subscription at home on a German TV--just for a rainy day...

Saturday, July 9, 2016

A Visit to Potsdam

Describing the town of Postdam - it's hard to know where to start.Situated about 10 km from Berlin suburbs like Charlottenburg where we stayed, this town has so much to offer.It played an important role in German history and is a beautiful little town, surrounded by lakes, marshes and forests.
The magnificent castle of Sanssouci comes to mind first.

                                           Bildergebnis für schloss sanssouci potsdam                                                  
The smallish castle is a gem with beautiful gardens and water fountains. It was built by "The Old Fritz", as this king was lovingly called ( King Friederich II of Prussia or Friederich the Great, * 24. January 1712 in Berlin; † 17. August 1786 in Potsdam). He got his name for being a successful yet reluctant king, statesman and hero -  he won 3 so called Silesian Wars and the 7-Year War establishing Prussia as a super power besides Austria, England, France and Russia in the 18th century.
A friend of Voltaire, he was dedicated to the idea of Enlightenment; he abolished torture and practiced tolerance towards the Huguenots and Catholics..
                                                Bildergebnis für der alte fritz
We had visited the castle on a winter day winter before a couple of years ago. It was a joy to stroll through the gardens on a summer's afternoon.
                                    Bildergebnis für schloss sanssouci potsdam   
When visiting Potsdam, the Dutch Quarter is a must. The Old Fritz had it built primarily by Dutch builders who were used to building on swampy land. It still resembles Dutch towns; the quarter is a cute little town in itself with lots of cafes, restaurants and boutiques vying for your attention.
                                         Bildergebnis für holländisches viertel potsdam

Potsdam maybe mostly known for its role at the end of World War II. The three heads of state, Josef Stalin, Truman, Winston Churchill and later France met in Potsdam's Cecilienhof  (another castle) to discuss the future of Germany in July- August 1945. The Allies signed the Potsdam Treaty which effectively decided paved the way for denazification, the establishment of democracy and the rebuilding of Germany. Until 1989 when the wall fell, Potsdam, however, remained in the hands of the Russians and under GDR rule (German Democratic republic=communist Germany and not so democratic at all!).
So worth a day trip! We still want to go back on day.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Berlin's Green Heart & Belt

                                                    Bildergebnis für Tiergarten Berlin
A little known fact about Berlin is that is has wide areas of parks for recreation, located primarily in the south west of the center but also throughout the capital; Tiergarten,  Botanische Garten and the vast expanse of the Grunewald. In the middle of the upper picture you can see the Siegessauele, a national monument to commemorate several wars (built between 1868-1873) and well-known landmark.

                                        Bildergebnis für Tiergarten Berlin     
This was already the most important region for R & R for the common populace 100 years ago, long before the World Wars.It encompasses about 1,000 acres and several lakes.When Germany was still divided and the wall up, it was the biggest recreational area in the west of the city. The Grunewald has been mentioned in an old popular song from 1929: There is an wood auction in Grunewald. Funny title? Listen to this almost 90 year old recording of this song!
The Grunewald Tower below was built about 100 years ago. We were too lazy to climb it but enjoyed the "Biergarten & Restaurant" next to it very much on a hot day (about 90 degrees). Here we found a lovely breeze when the rest of the city was rather stifling.
Another song recording from the 1951 gives you a glimpse of the famous lake Wannsee in the Grunewald:Pack your Swimming Trunks! (Pack die Badehose ein).
Nothing much has changed except that Berlin has gained its freedom!
Approaching Berlin from the air above Potsdam (more about Potsdam in my next post.)

                                                         Image result for Potsdam aus der Luft