Travelling in Europe by Car
As we spent the limited time we had on the outbound journey from Paris to Rome and speeded up on the return trip, I'll confine myself to the former leg.
Our stopping points were Paris, Friesenheim-Heilingenzell, Kreβbronn (in Bodensee), Hopferau/Ostallgäu, Florence, Siena and Rome. Paris, Florence and Rome being the touristed-out cities that they are, we had made reservations for hotels there prior to leaving the States. But at the intermediate points we decided to risk it regarding where to stay.
Initially, we had flown from Baltimore-Washington International to London/Heathrow. After a short stay in London, which overlapped that terrible July day when London's underground was paralysed by a terrorist attack, we took a train from Waterloo station to Gare du Nord in Paris. We had booked in advance, from http://www.raileurope.com/us/index.htm, roundtrip tickets for 2nd class Leisure 5 seats on a Eurostar train that would take us to Paris. The seating in that class was comfortable. Snacks and beverages were available in a separate cafeteria car. The train goes through the chunnel for part of the time and except for some countryside scenery coming out of Waterloo and when emerging out into France en route to Gare du Nord there isn't anything special. Next time around perhaps the ferry.
Staying in Paris
We rented two rooms for the family in Hotel de Rouen. As they do not have a website, contact was made by phone (00/33(0)142613821 and e-mail (firstname.lastname@example.org). The hotel is conveniently located on Rue Croix des Petits Champs opposite the Banque de France. A picture of the bank taken from our hotel window is shown here. Furthermore, it is walking distance from the Louvre. Just as important, a commercial laundromat is just around the corner. Though space was rather tight, considering that all we really needed was a place to sleep and given the delicious patisserie nearby along with the fact that Madame proprieteress spoke good English, it was a nice bargain.
Renting a Car from Europcar
After a few days in Paris, we rented a car from Europcar (www.europcar.fr) located in Gare du Nord for the journey to Rome and back. Europcar is a rental agency that appears to deal primarily with Europeans especially since it was apparent that the English of the persons behind the counter was not their strongpoint. Still we would go to them in the future not only because they were courteous despite language issues, but also because they gave us, quite nonchalantly, a practically brand-new Volkswagen Golfplus 105D diesel engine-powered car with a smooth manual transmission and a French license plate. The car's performance was reassuring as we negotiated hilly terrain at many points during our journey such as in the Schwarzwald, in the alpine region between Austria and Italy and in the Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast.
What is it like to drive on Europe's motorways? While Europeans drive fast, a crucial fact is that they pretty much follow the rule of going fast (or is it unlimited speed?!) on the left-hand side of the right lane and leave the right-hand side of the lane for those who wish to travel at a slower pace. We found them practising that etiquette whether in France, Germany or Italy. Should you happen to breach the rule and stray into the fast lane while puttering along you will have someone tailgating/flashing headlights/honking you soon enough. Given that roads are well-maintained, keeping the above point in mind one should have a pleasant driving experience.
We drove almost directly due east of Paris eventually crossing the Rhine outside Strassbourg. Then we turned south on Highway 3 according to Freytag & Berndt's Europe Centrale road map. As twilight fell, we became anxious to find a place to stay for the night. Somewhere between Offenburg in the north and Lahr to the south, we paused at what appeared to be an inn where the only person there barely spoke English but, in the end, he proved to be our savior as he pointed us to Hotel-Ristorante Trinacria a little way up the road in Heiligenzeller Hauptstrasse 22, 77948 Friesenheim-Heiligenzell. Not only did we have a nice meal there, but to our good fortune, the proprietor Dino, who spoke English well, arranged for us to spend the night in two beautiful rooms atop the restaurant. In the morning he gave us a hearty breakfast. We shall always remember Dino's kindness to us. The telephone number for Trinacria is 07821/96980.
Motoring through the Black Forest en route to Lake Constance or the Bodensee was akin to meandering along a beautiful path through a peaceful countryside. See the photograph. After passing through Triberg to see "Germany's highest waterfalls" eventually we ended up at Lindau where we enjoyed lunch. Such is the nature of the people there that when we pointed out we had been charged for something we had not had the waiter refunded us without a murmur. We also had a friendly conversation in English with a lady who ran a gift shop, Brög Trockenfrüchte, and as we left she gave us a souvenir in the form of a little matchbox with a picture of the Lake on the cover.
As we drove along the northern edge of Lake Constance, dinner time rapidly approached. At this point, our journey had taken us to Kreβbronn where we had tasty grilled seafood at a restaurant at the edge of the Lake. Among other things we had a nice locally produced rotwein, the Kressbronner Berghalde, with our dinner. Upon making inquiries it appeared that we could get more of that from a gentleman/farmer who made it on the premises - and so we did and what pleasure it gave! We spent a comfortable night in Gastenhaus Rosenhof, Bodanstrasse 2, 88079 Kreβbronn (viewable at www.gaestehaus-rosenhof.com).
While it was our aim to vist Schloss Neuschwanstein (popularized as the Sleeping Beauty Castle in Disneyland), see the photograph showing the tiny Schloss perched on the side of a mountain, since we reached that point (in Hohenschwangau) too late in the day, we backtracked and stopped at Cafe-Restaurant Pension Keiβ in 87659 Hopferau/Ostallgäu, Hauptstrasse 14, a short distance away, which we had spotted en route. Remember we had no reservation there at all, yet the lady who ran the place found us two connected suites which were spacious and oh so comfortable especially as we had been driving a considerable while. That evening while on an exploratory walk we found signs to, and attended, a concert by a local brass band on the grounds of a small castle (or so it appeared) a short distance from the pension. What with the effect of a clear twilight sky, the good company and some excellent light beer it was memorable. Next morning we had a sumptuous breakfast. Our whole stay came to 100 euros - all for "1 Übernachtung mit Frühstück für 4 Pers." It doesn't get better than that. We would gladly stay there all over again. Keiβ's website is at www.pension-keiss.de.
The visit to Schloss Neuschwanstein was a treat. We went to the castle on a horse-drawn carriage up a hilly path. It seems that King Ludwig II (sometimes called the Mad King Ludwig) didn't so much reside there as he turned it into a venue for staging Wagner's productions. The mystical ambience of the area is reflected in the following photograph which shows a mid-morning view looking inside out from the castle.
Eating Places along the Motorways
We found that the most convenient places to eat as we sped along the motorway were the Autogrills. They are ubiquitous and the quality/quantity of the food is rather good considering it's a pit stop. In fact, they cook pasta right in front of you after you place an order and the selection of food and beverages is pleasing. To give an idea of the variety and price, a menu consisting of pesto/potatoes au gratin/slice of carrot cake/fruit cup/a small bottle of wine/mineral water came to 16 euros.
After crossing the Brenner pass into Italy and driving along the famous A13/E45 motorway (said by Wikipedia to be "one of the most important north-south connections in Europe") we eventually made our way to Florence for our next port of call in Hotel David at 1 Viale Michelangelo. This is one of the best hotels we stayed in with respect to value for the price. We got a single but large room. It appears that a good many of their patrons are English speakers - consequently their staff also readily understood and spoke good English. The location too is ideal as it is walking distance from the Ponte Vecchio and various museums. One important service they provided was to get us tickets to the Uffizi Gallery, in advance, thus saving us a long wait in a long line. Thankfully, Hotel David has on-site parking. For details see their website http://www.davidhotel.it/en/index.htm.
We hadn't meant to go to Siena, which lies between Florence and Rome, at all. That was a result of being turned away from the Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast due to a heavy tourist influx the day we were there. So we stayed at Hotel San Marco, Via Massetana, 70 (see http://www.sanmarcosiena.it/) a newly built modern facility to be found just after taking the Siena exit off of Highway 2. The charge for one night in two rooms with breakfast was 170 euros. One happy incident merits mention. I had left behind my new linen jacket taking off for Rome. So on the way back we were delighted that they had saved the jacket for me to collect. The main piazza or campo is worth a visit. It is also the venue of a traditional horse racing competition as I recall from one of Rick Steves' programs. Here's a photograph of the countryside taken as we motored up a winding road from Hotel San Marco to the historic center.
After an arduous journey on via Aurelia (sharing the road with heavy freight traffic) we made it to Zone Hotel (see http://www.zonehotel.com/). While all roads are said to lead to Rome, in Rome itself it seems that roads do not directly lead to one's destination. Thus we found ourselves close to and just one street away from our hotel with no idea as to how to get to it. Fortunately, a kindly passer-by gave us proper directions. Zone Hotel proved to be a comfortable facility from which we could visit the Vatican, Colliseum, Pantheon, etc.. Here's a photograph of a very recognizable Roman landmark.
Attention is drawn to the following website which complements the above by providing a more pictorial account of our travel - http://mysite.verizon.net/vze1recf/europetrip/.