Neuschwanstein – The German Fairytale Castle

Germany is know for its castles – and especially, of course,  Neuschwanstein. With its delicate white towers and steepletops, it does look like a castle right out of a Cinderella movie. But did you know that no one actually lived there – ever? King Ludwig II started planning the castle in the late 1860s, the foundation stone was laid in 1869. But the construction took forever, and when the King died under mysterious circumstances in 1886, the castle still hadn’t been finished. It was opened to the public soon after his death, as a tourist attraction.

King Ludwig did live, however, in Neuschwanstein’s sister castle, Hohenschwangau. It is less known, but if you are in the area, why not visit both castles? Make a reservation for your tickets well in advance, because they are in high demand. That way, you know the exact time of the visit. You still have to pick up the tickets on the day of your visit, though. So make sure to get there early if you’re going by car and need a parking space. And enjoy the spectacular view of the Alps.

Oh, and if you are looking for a place to stay because you want to visit the castle early in the morning, check out the hotels and vacation rentals around the Hopfensee. It’s gorgeous there.

The Hopfensee – a pristine lake not far from Neuschwanstein

Brussels: Politics, Art, and Chocolate

When I was visiting Brussels last autumn, I discovered that the Belgian capital is not only a modern city where politicians are debating the future of Europe. It is also a place of art and history – and delicious chocolate, of course.

Going to the visitors’ center of the European Parliament, the Parlamentarium, is a great way to learn how European politics works and how the European idea came about in the first place.  You can spend quite a while there, since a lot of the exhibitions are interactive, and let you explore political Europe and the impact politics has on EU citizens and member states on your own.

Brussels Grande-Place, the central square, is a most-go, of course. I recommend going in the evening, when all the guild houses, as well as the City Hall, are spectacularly illuminated (picture above). Also a must is the Manneken-Pis, the statue of the peeing boy, that has more than 900 suits to wear for every occasion. Its female counterpart is Jeanneke-Pis, much less known, situated in downtown Brussels, too, but hidden in  a tiny cul-de-sac.

If you are looking for a place to have lunch, why not visit the Musical Instruments Museum and take the elevator to the top floor of the former Old England department store. Along with a nice meal in the restaurant, you get a great view of the city. You don’t have to buy a museum ticket to get to the restaurant, btw, going up to eat is free of charge. Check the opening hours.

Right around the corner is the Magritte Museum, where I fell in love with Magritte’s painting “The Empire of Lights”.

Magritte’s “The Empire of Lights”

But an even more spectacular museum, although a bit off the beaten path, is the Horta Museum. The two buildings, situated next to each other, and their rooms, furniture, interior design, and art are jaw-dropping. Every door handle, every window, every piece of furniture is a piece of art. The Belgian Art Nouveau architect Victor Horta (1861-1947) lived and worked here. It was recognized by the UNESCO as World Heritage site in 2000. I have no pictures to show, since it is strictly prohibited to take photos inside the buildings.

Horta Museum

I did not have the time to go into the most famous symbol of Brussels, the Atomium, but at least stopped by to take a peak. It looks really cool. I guess I have to come back one day to check it out. And, of course, to eat more chocolate – either at one of the chocolatiers inside the Galerie de la Reine, like Pierre Marcolini, or at the shop that was recommended to me as the best place to buy chocolate in Brussels: Mary. I bought a lot, for friends and family (and myself) and everybody loved it.

Beautiful Strasbourg

If you are traveling the Eastern part of France, or the Western part of Germany, be sure to visit the city of Strasbourg.  Little shops and restaurants invite you to stay and shop or eat. Wear comfortable shoes, because most of the historic downtown area is a pedestrian zone, with cobble stones. Of course lots of tourists are crowding the streets, but if you visit the Cathedral de Notre Dame in the late afternoon, lines might not be as long as during the day.  You need a ticket to go all the way up to the top, but can get inside for free and marvel at the architecture of one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals in  Europe. During church services, access is restricted. Strasbourg is supposed to be especially beautiful in December, when its Christmas Market is open.

Strasbourg’s history goes back many, many centuries. It was originally a celtic village. In more recent times, the French city was captured by Germans twice, the first time after the 1870/71 war between the two countries, and then again during WWII.  Today, it is the official seat of the European Parliament.