Wednesday, August 29, 2007

In the Eifel

The Eifel region of Germany, that is! Just under 3 hours' drive from Wassenaar, we visited the part of the Eifel region that borders The Netherlands and Belgium.

Aachen is probably one of the most historic German towns you've never heard of. The town is dominated by the cathedral (left), part of which dates back to the reign of Charlemagne. While the exterior (with its mishmash of styles) and the interior (particularly the mosaic dome) are interesting, the treasury is the real can't miss. Several huge reliquaries, a sarcophagus dating from the second century, and numerous other invaluable relics are displayed here. Charlemagne built quite a treasure trove of goodies, and Aachen's importance as a place for the coronation for German kings evidently kept the riches rolling in for some time.

Above: Charlemagne (looking a little concerned); detail from the cathedral roof

Above: cathedral interior; mosaics in the dome

Above: decorative mosaics, Persephone sarcophagus

Above: Charlemagne's bust and reliquaries from the cathedral treasury

Of course, there are more sights than just the cathedral. There are more statues than you can count, and the streets are filled with shops selling the local delicacy printen (a sort of chewy gingerbread).

Above: local statuary (the one in the middle picture moves!) and a printen shop window

We happened upon a pretty busy day: stag/hen parties, a string trio, and a bike race! All that and we still found time to relax at a friendly wine bar (those are real grapes pictured above).

Above: a groom-to-be, string trio

Above: scenes from the bike race

The following day we visited two picturesque villages. We blogged about the second town, Valkenburg (NL), on our daily blog. Our first stop on Sunday was the picture-postcard town of Monschau (DE). Situated about a half hour's drive south of Aachen, it is nestled along the sleepy riverbank of the river Rur. Tourism seems to be the order of the day; not very crowded when we first arrived, by afternoon it was bustling with activity.

Above: Monschau contains lots of pretty half-timbered buildings, old churches, and interesting architectural details like downspouts shaped like lobsters.

Among the sights (pictured above) were a sculpture garden, a brass band, and perhaps the prettiest firehouse we've ever seen. After a nice riverside meal, we set off for home relaxed and ready for our trip back to the US to visit family & friends.

We'll do a mini post on Chicago in two weeks as our next installment.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Scotland Part III: The Animal Life

By "animal life" we don't mean the pubgoers. Truthfully, although we consumed our fair share, we didn't see much rowdiness. But we did see more than our fair share of real animals!

The guy on the left is a red squirrel; they are endangered in the UK because the American grey squirrel is taking over. Great, another reason to resent the yanks!

The farm animals lived up to their billing on this trip: the highland "coos" grazing in wild fields, and sheep everywhere, as you can see from the pics below.

At the farm in Glen Fruin, part of the menagerie was a group of peacocks. At right is a female that posed in the sunset; pictured below are the male showing off and one of the young in the trees (we had no idea peacocks flew up into the trees).

One of our stops on the Isle of Mull was a bird of prey rehabilitation center, "Wings over Mull." Despite the cold rainy weather, we were treated to a falconry demonstration.

The second of two boat trips took us to Troup Head, a bird sanctuary on the east coast. Just us, five Scots, and two RSPB guides. The seas were very rocky, so it was difficult to try and hold on while taking pictures. But the trip was great for several reasons: (1) the guides were very knowledgeable, (2) the other passengers were very friendly, (3) we saw lots of birds including the gannets and kittiwakes the area is famous for, and (4) we had an incredible pod of dolphins following us for most of the trip.

On the way back from the cliffs, we had somewhat of a tea party on the boat. How the captain and our guides prepared tea and coffee in these seas we'll never know. We talked about places to see, where to eat, and our experiences with the Dutch. And one of the passengers shared her homemade tablet. A great end to a wonderful trip!

Pictured: the foggy coast; gannets and kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs

Pictured: our dolphin escorts

Our first boat trip was to the Staffa & Trenish Isles. The main reason we took the trip was to see puffins, and we weren't disappointed! One of the best days of our trip weather-wise, we saw other animals on this trip too. Soon after we left the dock at Ulva, there was an otter sighting. We didn't get very close, but as this was the only otter we saw in Scotland it was nonetheless pretty exciting. No good otter pics, though. Once out to sea we saw the dorsal fin of a minke whale. On Staffa we saw numerous seabirds like oystercatchers. And on Trenish the guillemots tend to nest on one part of the island; there are so many you can't hear anything but their calls.

Pictured: minke whale, guillemots

But the stars of the show were the puffins. It is incredible how close you can get to these birds; they were only slightly wary of the group of us rushing to snap their photos. The first pic is Rochelle's prize photo; out of the hundreds of shots we took, this is the only successful one of a puffin coming in for a landing (along with a couple of the missed shots).

All in all, we couldn't be happier with our trip. As we said in our first entry, Scotland is a land of contrasts, and we experienced a lot in our two weeks there. Next time we visit we'll spend a bit more time in the cities, which will likely be a different sort of "wild!"