This past weekend was a holiday weekend in the Netherlands (Hemelvaartsdag, celebrating the Ascension of Jesus on the 40th day of Easter). Willem and I decided to use the extra day off as an excuse to get out of the city. Road trip time!
I grew up taking family road trips, and while I absolutely love flying, I still believe there is no better way to see a place than to take a road trip. On a road trip, no one will stop you if you realize you just can’t miss the Toilet Seat Art Museum in Texas. And when you decide your life won’t be complete without witnessing the World’s Largest Ball of Twine in Missouri (surprisingly enough, there are multiple contenders for this tackiest of all tacky titles), you can fulfill your dreams without difficulty. They’re right off Exit 14 on highway 66 (not really). Sometimes it is just nice not to be at the whim of public transport schedules. It is difficult to really get “off the beaten path” when you have to limit your travels to places you can get by train, bus, or foot power.
Suffice to say we were excited to go on our first road trip together, and with our very own car! This would be the first real test of our little hybrid Honda Civic. And thanks to Willem’s job at Deloitte, the car is free for us to use as much as we want, with all gas paid for within Europe. We deliberately did not make many plans aside from booking our hotels, so that our trip could be as relaxed and stress-free as possible. I had never been to Luxembourg, so we ultimately chose to use Luxembourg as a rough destination, driving there via Germany on the way there and via Belgium on the return trip.
I drove the first leg of the trip, which was nice because I haven’t driven since the last time I visited the U.S. last year. I had forgotten how nice it is to just turn on the radio and drive on a highway, the wind in my hair and on my way to an exciting unknown place! Willem was a little jealous that I got to drive this leg, because we went through some of the fabled sections of Germany with no speed limit. It was slightly nerve-wracking at first, having all those Germans in their BMWs and Mercedes zooming past at 180km/hr or faster. *Don’t worry mom and dad, I didn’t drive that fast—just fast enough to keep up with traffic in the slow lane* Even if I wanted to drive fast, our poor little car was already protesting mightily at anything above 130km/hr, which was the “recommended” speed for the autobahn. A hybrid Honda cannot exactly compete with a Mercedes in that arena. So after a few seconds of speed just to say I did, I slowed back down to a leisurely 125 and drove in the slow lane with all the other cars with Dutch and Belgian license plates. A need for speed must be a German thing.
After about 4 hours of driving, we reached our stopover destination for the night: a little town called Kastellaun, in the Rhineland-Palatinate region of Germany. Willem and I have a mutual friend from LSE that comes from a very small village in Germany, and when we asked him if he knew anything about Kastellaun he replied, “How did you two find Kastellaun? If there is any place in Germany smaller than my town, it is Kastellaun!”
It was perfect:
Despite being officially labeled as a town in the middle of nowhere by our German friend, Kastellaun was a wonderful place for a stop-over on our road trip. We stayed in a small B&B/hotel called the Altes Stadtor. The name literally means “Old Town Gate”, so named because the structure is literally built into the medieval town gate and walls. The owners did an amazing restoration of the building. They left many of the old stone walls exposed within the structure, and furnished it with antiques. The whole place had a very gemütlichkeit feeling to it. If I owned a hotel, I would want it to look exactly like this place did.
We also had our best meal of the trip at the cozy restaurant attached to the hotel, where one of the hotel owners cooks all of the meals. The place only had ten tables, and it was clearly popular with the locals. We arrived at the hotel too late to do any exploring of the town, so we put that off until the next day and just enjoyed some relaxed drinks after dinner at the hotel (and did I mention how CHEAP food and drinks are in this part of Germany compared to the Netherlands? It was amazing), with Willem practicing his German while we chatted to the wait staff.
The next morning, Willem got up extra early to go running, since he is (supposed to be) training for a half-marathon in Brussels that is coming up in a few weeks. The sight of him returning to the hotel for breakfast was hilarious. Something he never considered was how easy running on the flat Dutch landscape is compared to running up the inclines of the German countryside. He came in the room, breathing hard, and just managed to gasp “HILLS!” before collapsing on the bed. I’m sure it did nothing for his ego to have me practically rolling on the floor laughing at him (I should be nicer to Willem; he is, in fact, a very good runner, and in much better shape than I make him sound!).
After breakfast we explored the town a little bit before moving on to our next off-the-beaten-path village destination. The castle in Kastellaun is actually quite beautiful. It was built in the 13th century on the hill above the town (one of the same hills that got the better of Willem earlier that morning), but was occupied during the Thirty Years’ War and then later destroyed by French troops in 1689 during the War of Palatinate Succession. Most of the castle is in ruins now, but it still maintains a dominant position overlooking the town. The nicest thing about the castle is that the ruins are free and open to wander around. None of those silly barriers (like the one that prevents you from getting within 100meters of Stonehenge in England) stand in your way from exploring as you please. There was barely anyone nearby, so it felt like we had the whole ruins to ourselves. From the top of the castle keep is a beautiful, expansive view of the German countryside.
We had lunch in Herrstein, a village about an hour south of Kastellaun that was recommended to us by our new friends, the owners of the Altes Stadtor. Herrstein is one of the best preserved medieval towns in Germany. We ate outside in the sun at a beautiful German café tucked away off a path in the village center. I am pretty decent at reading menus in German or Dutch, but this menu had so many local word variants even Willem had to ask what some items were. Every dish included some form of wurst, potato, or sauerkraut, and there were no fruits or vegetables in sight. It was exactly what I imagine to be perfect old-fashioned country food—hearty and filling. Willem went for the full German meal, meaning a massive plate of sauerkraut and leverkloße—some sort of liver sausage. I wasn’t quite so adventurous.
Our final stop of the day before reaching Luxembourg was Trier, Germany. Trier holds the distinction of being the oldest city in Germany. It was founded as early as 16 B.C. and was an important Roman city. Many of the famous sights in Trier date from Roman times, the most obvious of which is the Porta Nigra (Latin for “Black Gate”).
The Porta, which looms over the entrance to the Old Town, is a designated World Heritage Site and the largest existing Roman gate north of the Alps. Other famous sites we saw in Trier include the Constantine Basilica and the Trier Cathedral. The cathedral in particular was fascinating because it holds the Holy Tunic, a relic that is said to be the robe Jesus wore when he died. We could only see the secure chest where the garment is held, and not the robe itself, because the relic is only exhibited to the public every few decades.