You’ll remember how part one of our summer vacation left us in Gloucstershire, at the Peakettle wedding. We felt our work in England was done, so we flew from London down to Frankfurt, then boarded a train up to a cluster of little towns near Kassel in the Hesse region.
Our host Stefan picked us up at the rail station and drove us to the smaller village of Gertebach, where we bought groceries, and then to his little hamlet, Ziegenhagen. It was here he tucked us into his little guest cabin behind his main house, all on the edge of the great woods. If it sounds like a long trip through increasingly smaller towns, it kind of was, and that was the point: We were looking for a rustic little spot to while away a few days in relative obscurity, and this was a great place to do it.
Our little cabin had a small kitchen, and a cozy bed, and outside was a nice chimney fireplace with a statue of Buddha to bring us peace. Down the path was a space for hammocks (shout-out to Eagle Nest Outfitters!), and that was all we needed. We basically hung out for five days, reading books and hiking in the woods and eating sausage and cheese. Vacation success!
This is a little known part of Germany and we feared we’d have a hard time getting around. But no worries, German efficiency to the rescue! Trains run everywhere, and even the most remote places have bus service at least twice a day.
Also, Stefan was a fantastic and generous host; he let us rent his car for a day, and on others we borrowed a set of bicycles and a motor scooter. So we were able to get down to the train station and make a day trip into Kassel, historic home of the Brothers Grimm, noted librarians, folklorists and fairy tale collectors.It was an amazing collection that didn’t pander to kids , Ari would have loved it. There’s an entire Grimm Brothers Trail that leads along the Wesse, out through the woods that inspired the tales we all know, and at the museum was great artwork of old tales I hadn’t heard of like The Cold Heart, and the legend of Frau Holle.
This area of Germany is also, no surprise, chock full of old castles. One of them stood just over the line that defined the old East Germany-West Germany border. This was Burgruine Hanstein – the ruins of the Hanstein castle. We also visited Schloss Berlepsch, which is in better condition. In the spirit of the times, it’s been converted to a hotel and destination restaurant, and on the night we went a cover band was rocking out to highlights of the 90’s and 00’s. Hearing their music bounce off the ancient stone while we munched on pork sandwiches was almost like being a time traveller… sort of…
After a week of bicycles, scooters, hammocks and cars, though, it was time to move on. We took a train up to Berlin, then east into the heart of the old Soviet bloc: Poland. We spent our first night in the ancient capital of Poznan, then continued up to the coast city of Gdansk.
Gdansk was an amazingly beautiful city. There are apparently no big stones in northern Poland, but there is a lot of clay, so everything is made of brick. All the train stations and churches, palaces and fortresses are all made of red clay brick.
Our AirBnB was a beautiful attic dormer with a recently renovated bathroom and a grand view of a (brick) church. We had no clue that the 740 year old St. Dominic’s Fair was going on for our entire stay and we had a view of the kids playland next door. It was an amazing fair with a thousand vendors selling art, crafts, food, toys all temptingly beautiful and amazing. My favorite vendor, Coolawoola, sold these wonderful circular sweaters. Every night the fair was closed and the streets clean by 10 PM and reopened the next morning at 10. We were nervous that it would be too crowded and loud, but it was just right and we met other visitors from all over the world. I’d love to go again!
Gdansk is a working class town dominated by the shipyards to the north. They played a big part in the fall of communism – the Solidarity movement started here. But in the historic old town we found a vibrant art scene. We stopped and ate at a restaurant just to listen to the musicians who were playing funky covers of cool songs on accordion, cello and guitar.
The food here was amazing as well. There was of course the traditional Polish comfort food of sausage, ham hocks, potatoes, and saurkraut washed down with beer. But there was also a great variety of international food. We ate Paella and sangria one night, and Thai food with french wine the next.
Did I mention we visited a lot of castles last summer? Not far from Gdansk is Marienbourg Castle, the medieval home of the Teutonic Knights. We showed up around 3, just in time for the only English tour of the day. Our guide, Bogdan, was a law professor at the local university, who looked happy just to have someone show up for his tour. As it turned out, we were glad to have him to ourselves as he was one of the best guides we’ve ever had.
He told us all about the Teutonic’s origins in Palestine, and how they moved to Poland at the invitation of a King, and of the founding of the castle in the 13th century. For centuries, the knights had a great influence on medieval European history. The castle itself is one of the largest brick fortresses in the world, and survived siege after siege before being almost flattened by the Soviets in 1944 on their way to Berlin. It made for a spectacular afternoon.
You’d think that would be enough for a summer vacation, but no! We were also able to squeeze in some beach time. Across the bay from Gdansk is a spit of land ending in a little ball of sand and a tiny village called Hel. We took the ferry in the morning, and whiled away an afternoon with cribbage, then lazed about on a white-sand beach.
But there was more! We spent two more nights in Europe, wandering the streets of Berlin. It’s a big, bustling city, exciting and full of culture and history. Blah blah blah, we said. Perhaps we’d had enough of history and excitement, but Berlin just wasn’t our cup of tea, even with a street fair on Alexanderplatz featuring street performers on slacklines and acrobats doing all sorts of stunts in front of us.
It was fun, of course – we took a cruise on the river Spree, and wandered up and down street after street, but after two days we boarded an overnight train for Frankfurt. From there, it was a hop to Istanbul and and skip to Ankara, and finally we were tucked into our own bed again, with our dog by our side, ready for the school year to start.