Archive for the ‘Germany 2011’ Category

Happy Mother’s Day 2012

Sunday, May 13th, 2012

Here’s to all mothers. Happy Mother’s Day! And here’s a little bit of history that’s surely a testimony to Mothers and the womenfolk amidst us.

Happy Mother's Day!

Happy Mother's Day!

This photo of a rose was taken in a little German town called Weinsberg in the southern state of Baden-Württemberg.

Statue commemorating the bravery and loyalty of Weinsberg's womenfolk.

Statue commemorating the bravery and loyalty of Weinsberg's womenfolk.

Weinsberg means “wine” in German and this quaint and sleepy little town, which is noted for its wine, has only 11,800 inhabitants.

The family had detoured there to visit its castle ruins during our drive last year from Heilbronn to another scenic town called Schwäbisch Hall.

While we were having a picnic at Weinsberg, an ancient couple who lived in Weinsberg came over to chat with us.

They told us a very interesting and touching bit of history about the town and its castle, which is somewhat relevant today since it’s Mother’s Day.

Between our non-existent German and their English, this was what we understood, which we later corroborated on Wikipedia.

In 1140, the castle was besieged by Konrad III. Eventually, it had to surrender.

Apparently, the women of the castle were allowed to go free and to take whatever they could carry on their backs.

Guess what they carried?

Their men! In so doing, these gallant women saved the lives of their fathers, husbands, brothers and sons, since the king adhered to his word.

These women became known as treue Weiber (“loyal women”), and the castle (today’s ruin) is called Weibertreu due to this incident.

Travel: Asus Eee Pad Transformer in Germany

Tuesday, July 5th, 2011

We had the chance to bring the freshly launched 10.1-inch Asus tablet with us to Germany and the Czech Republic.

It proved to be the favourite gadget for the kids, and a very useful gadget for the adults.

The kids on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer whilst taking a break from sight-seeing.

The kids on the Asus Eee Pad Transformer whilst taking a break from sight-seeing.

The Asus Eee Pad Transformer TF101 was launched in Singapore at the end of April. Here’s the nifty little device in action along the castle route from Frankfurt in Germany to Prague in the Czech Republic and back.

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

Erin loves visiting museums, and usually she sketches some of the exhibits that interests her on a paper notepad. This time, she was delighted to use the sketching app (Kids Doodle – Movie Kids Paint by Bejoy Mobile) on the Andoid tablet to do her sketches – in colour.

The app was in colour and could even reproduce the neon lighting effect of this exhibit!

The app was in colour and could even reproduce the neon lighting effect of this exhibit!

How do you keep the kids occupied while waiting for tea to arrive? You guessed it, let them at the tablet. Erin used it to write her journal of what she’d seen while Justin plays the games on it.

Erin dressing up her electronic doll in a girly app (Maidens Avatar Creator by Magicsoft) while waiting for tea to be served.

Erin dressing up her electronic doll in a girly app (Maidens Avatar Creator by Magicsoft) while waiting for tea to be served.

We don’t allow games and books during meals, so waiting for the meal to arrive is often the time to catch a breather and relax.

Afternoon tea at the Cafe in the cellar of Heidelberg Castle.

Afternoon tea at the Cafe in the cellar of Heidelberg Castle.

They love those quiz apps from the Android Market.

Anyone for maths quiz before pizza and kebab lunch at Weinheim?

Anyone for maths quiz before pizza and kebab lunch at Weinheim?

As I said mealtimes are reserved for relishing the food, conversation and company.

Pizza and kebab anyone?

Pizza and kebab anyone?

At the Frankfurt Zoo, Erin used the camera on the tablet to snap photos and record videos, which she then uploaded to the Internet, back at the hotel, to share with her friends. We also used it to surf the net check maps and to read up on the sights we planned to visit the next day.

The Frankfurt Zoo has a fabulous collection of primates.

The Frankfurt Zoo has a fabulous collection of primates.

Back at the hotel, the kids also used the tablet to read ebooks and worksheets in pdf format. It was a long vacation and we didn’t want the kids to totally lay off homework.

Almost every town we visited in Germany had an H&M. But the clothes just didn't suit us and we fell back on brands like Espirit and Benetton.

Almost every town we visited in Germany had an H&M. But the clothes just didn't suit us and we fell back on brands like Espirit and Benetton.

And finally shopping. No prizes for guessing how the Justin occupied himself while the rest of the family was busy shopping away.

Day at the Frankfurt Zoo

Friday, June 24th, 2011

A special day out for the children who have been such charms throughout the holiday. We visited one of the oldest zoos in the world and rounded off the day at the Römerberg.

Apart from animals, the Frankfurt Zoo had a fun playground for kids.

Apart from animals, the Frankfurt Zoo had a fun playground for kids.

The Zoologischer Garten of Frankfurt/Main features over 5,000 animals of more than 600 species on more than 13 hectares in the eastern part of the Innenstadt (inner city). The zoo was founded in 1858 and is the second oldest Zoo in Germany – after the Berlin Zoo which opened its doors in 1844.

The Römerberg is the old city square of Frankfurt. On the eastern side is a group of half-timbered houses called the Ostzeiles.

The Römerberg is the old city square of Frankfurt. On the eastern side is a group of half-timbered houses called the Ostzeiles.

As it was a public holiday (Corpus Christi) for the state of Hesse, the zoo was crowded with local Frankfurters taking their family for the day out. Arriving in the late morning, I encountered for the first time the difficulty of finding a parking lot since all the lots along the roads within half a kilometer of the zoo were occupied.

Parking in Frankfurt

The rules for city parking are relatively simple – you can park anywhere along the road as long as it hasn’t been marked as no parking areas – and as long as it’s not blocking an access road or garage. Look at other cars or road signs that specify whether you’re to park on the road, fully on the curb or with two wheels on the curb.

Feeding time for the Alpacas. Taken with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Feeding time for the Alpacas. Taken with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Some are free-of-charge, while others you pay for the amount of time you want to park at a meter which then issues you a ticket with the expiry time that you display on the dashboard. Some lots allow parking for only a limited period of time whether for free or paid. For free limited time parking, you have to display this special indicator that shows the time that you started parking. And – avoid handicapped lots unless you want your car towed away.

Beautiful restored half-timbered houses around the Römerberg.

Beautiful restored half-timbered houses around the Römerberg.

With the narrow streets, you can’t just stop the car on the road, like in an HDB car park, and wait for someone to come along to vacate his lot – especially when the tram shares the road with cars as well. You’ve got to keep moving and hope to spot a parking space.

I was fortunate in that after going a few rounds around where the Zoo was located, I came upon a car that was just leaving – and it was right next to the entrance. It was a matter of right time, right place – any faster or slower and the driver in front or behind me would have bagged that lot.

Zoologischer Garten

The zoo itself was great fun. It was not slick or anything but thoroughly enjoyable. As with other sights in Germany, the entire place was impeccably clean even though we didn’t see any cleaners. The zoo keepers were also a rare sight except during the shows.

I've never been so up close and personal with a gorilla before.

I've never been so up close and personal with a gorilla before.

But the enclosures were very well designed – there were plenty of glass panels through which visitors could view the animals close-up. I got so close-up to a Gorilla I had difficulty focusing the camera on his face!

An okapi getting at the leaves with its long tongue.

An okapi getting at the leaves with its long tongue.

The Singapore Zoo and a couple of other zoos we’d visited also features these close-up viewing glass panels, but there’re only one for each animal. Over here, you could easily have more than two such panels for an animal.

The highlight was their primate exhibit, featuring gorillas, orang utans and chimpanzees and a type of chimpanzee called the Bonobo that I felt was more human-like than the usual chimpanzees in terms of torso proportions and facial expressions. There was even this fingernail and toenail biting specimen than reminded me of some humans I’ve seen!

There were also okapis, an aquarium, and a tigress nursing two cubs.

Römerberg

After the zoo’s closure at 7 pm, we drove to the Römerberg – Frankfurt’s old city square.

The Römer, or City Hall sits on the Western side of the Römerberg.

The Römer, or City Hall sits on the Western side of the Römerberg.

On one side of the square is the Römer, which had been the Rathaus or City Hall for 600 years. On the opposite side is a row of half-timbered houses called Ostzeiles. These look remarkably new because the originals from the 15th century had been badly damaged during the Second World War and had to be rebuilt.

Alte Nikolaikirche, crane behind the church removed using Photoshop CS5.

Alte Nikolaikirche, crane behind the church removed using Photoshop CS5.

Dim interior of the Protestant church shot handheld with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Dim interior of the Protestant church shot handheld with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Dom St. Bartholomaus, seen from the Schirn Kunsthalle - the cultural exhibition center next to the Römerberg.

Dom St. Bartholomaus, seen from the Schirn Kunsthalle - the cultural exhibition center next to the Römerberg.

We visited the quaint St Nicholas’ Church on a third side of the square, and Saint Bartholomaus’ Cathedral behind the Ostzeiles.

The Protestant Alte Nikolaikirche is an early-Gothic church from the 12th century.

The Dom St Bartholomaus is the largest ecclesiastical building in Frankfurt, and was used for the election and coronation of the Holy Roman Emperors from 1356 and 1562 respectively until 1792. Heavily damaged during the Second World War, it was rebuilt in 1953.

Schloss Thurnau to Frankfurt – through hail, flood and demonstrations.

Thursday, June 23rd, 2011

If you thought the day’s planned itinerary of two pits stops over a 300 km drive was intimidating, think again. We had to brave an intense hailstorm in the summer season, drive through a flooded road from which many turned around, and circumnavigate the road blocks the polizei had set up around Frankfurt because of demonstrations which coincided with our time of arrival in the financial capital of Germany.

The realistic painting on a flat wall takes on an appearance of 3D

The realistic painting on a flat wall takes on an appearance of 3D.

The day started grey with a slight drizzle but turned sunny by the time we checked out of Schloss Thurnau. We roamed the event function rooms of the castle and admired the realistic Trompe-l’œil on the walls. There was to be an art symposium in the castle and painters from a number of countries were working on their canvasses in a hall in the castle.

One of these we got acquainted with was a lithographer named Mireck who had participated in last year’s exhibition and had been invited back by the organisers this year.

Scratch its neck and Sam the black Labrador can stay as still as a statue lying on its back.

Scratch its neck and Sam the black Labrador can stay as still as a statue lying on its back.

He had this dark brown Labrador that loved to dash around capering with the kids, yet would remain absolutely still on its back when the kids scratched it. It could keep so still that at first, I’d thought the kids were fawning over a very realistic statue that the artists in the hall had sculpted!

Mireck remarked that it was opportune that a man and his dog from Prague and a family of tourists from Singapore would meet in little Thurnau in Germany. Imagine his surprise when we told him we’d only just arrived in Thurnau from Prague two night ago! Mireck himself had only arrived the morning before.

One of a number of foreign artists invited to the painters symposium.

One of a number of foreign artists invited to the painters symposium.

He agreed with us that Prague had become rather expensive but assured us that outside of the capital, things in the Czech Republic were not as expensive. He showed us some of his lithography – paintings made by first applying colour on stone before printing on paper to form abstract images with natural texture. One painting comprised three adjoining oval shapes linked by a tenuous white vein. The oval shapes were symbolic of the current life, the previous life and the coming reincarnation, linked by the weak vein of life.

I felt Mireck’s work reflected the depth of thought and philosophical outlook of life of an artist.

Parishioners or wedding guests can either sit on the ground floor or at the upper two storeys around the sides.

Parishioners or wedding guests can either sit on the ground floor or at the upper two storeys around the sides.

We then visited the church next to the castle. It was one of the most interesting small churches I have visited. Probably because of its small size, apart from the benches in front of the main altar, the three walls around the sides had two additional storeys holding additional benches, like box seats in a concert hall. These were accessed via two spiral staircases at the back corners in the church.

The covered wooden bridge from the castle led to a room on the third storey directly facing the altar. I suppose during rain or the cold months, wedding guests could get from the castle to the church via the bridge.

Onwards to Bamberg

Bamberg is a big but charming city.

Bamberg is a big but charming city.

The 50 km drive to Bamberg was pleasant enough, and we had lunch, walked around the old town centre and visited the large St Peter’s and St George’s cathedral. You can tell Bamberg is a relatively larger city since ice-cream stands charge 90 Euro cents per single-scoop cone like in Nuremberg, compared with smaller towns where the ice-cream index is lower at 70 or 80 Euro cents.

This altar in dim light was shot using an Olympus E5 DSLR.

This altar in dim light was shot using an Olympus E5 DSLR. I like the sharp detail and lack of noise despite a high ISO OF 1600.

Shopping rain or shine

The 150 km drive to the shopping outlet at Wertheim was more dramatic. The sunny weather gave way to heavy rain. It even hailed for what seemed like ages although looking back, it probably didn’t last longer than 10 minutes.

Poor visibility - and this is only at the beginning of the hailstorm.

Poor visibility at the beginning of the hailstorm.

The rain stopped after the hail stopped.

The rain stopped after the hail stopped.

The hailstones were small – about 5 mm in diameter but pelted down so intensely that I was worried the windscreen might break. Fortunately, we’d just turned off the autobahn and was on a small country road so I could simply pull over to a layby to wait out the hail. A BMW that arrived slightly later also had to stop but on the road itself. Fortunately, other cars must have stopped also so nobody drove into that BM.
The entire windscreen was obscured by the rain and hail.

The entire windscreen was obscured by the rain and hail.

After the hail stopped, we continued the drive once we saw that the hailstones on the ground had melted. We’d considered earlier whether it was better to shelter from the hailstones under leafier foliage but that would have been a bad idea, because we could see leaves and branches had been strewn all over roads under tree branches.

The flooded area was small and shallow but nobody wanted to take the risk of getting stuck in the water.

The flooded area was small and shallow but nobody wanted to take the risk of getting stuck in the water.

Although the rain had stopped after the hail, we soon came upon a part of the road where there was a slight flood about the size of half a basketball court. A queue started building up as cars on either side of the flood began to make 3-point U-turns to avoid the small flooded area. I guess they weren’t sure how deep the flooded area was or whether there were potholes below the puddle.

We could tell from the GPS that a detour would involve a huge loop. The flooded area was really quite small, and we didn’t think it was that deep. So we decided to wait a while to see if a local who knew the depth of the flooded area would drive through the water. After most of the cars had done their U-turns and left, residents from nearby houses who’d emerged to snap photos of the flood gestured to us that it was alright to drive through. A merc came along and took the lead. We followed once he made it through unscathed and “speeded” through. Bravo!

A group of chinese ladies were filming some variety cum hosting programme at the shopping outlet.

A group of chinese ladies were filming some variety cum hosting programme at the shopping outlet.

We made it to Wertheim Village shopping outlet through more rainy weather. The outlet was like those we’d visited in France, Spain and Japan, although the discounts weren’t as substantial, nor was the selection as varied. By the way, a single-scoop of ice-cream in a cone sets one back by 1 Euro. After the shopping and dinner, we embarked upon the final 100 km to our next hotel at Frankfurt.

Police road blocks, marching protesters and demonstrators.

Police road blocks, marching protesters and demonstrators.

We’d thought the drives so far had been adequately exciting. But upon arriving at River Main, we found the bridge blocked off by Frankfurt police. We had to make a detour to cross the river at the next bridge. But after the bridge, we were blocked off once again by police.

Convoy of riot police vans driving through the red light district.

This is not a police van visiting an "Erotik-shop" at the red light district of Frankfurt, but a convoy of riot police vans driving through.

We’d thought earlier that the detour might have been due to some large festival or performance but when we saw the riot police, convoy of police vans and finally the marching protesters themselves, we realised how “lucky” we were to enter the city at the exact appointed time of a protest/demonstration.

Detour through the red light district of Frankfurt.

Detour through the red light district of Frankfurt.

It was only after more jams and a few more detours – including a drive through the red light district – that we finally arrived at our final hotel in Germany. What a relief! What remains is to check the ice-cream index of Frankfurt.

Rest and recuperation in Heilbronn

Tuesday, June 14th, 2011

Rest and recuperation – and more ice-cream in this relatively bigger city.

Our 5 weeks-old hotel in Heilbronn

Our 5 weeks-old hotel in Heilbronn. Photo from www.hotelbb.de.

The hotel we were staying in was only 5 weeks old. Though it was named B&B Heilbronn, it was really not a bed & breakfast establishment at all! It was a new branch of the B&B chain of hotels with more than 210 hotels in Germany, Italy, Poland, Portugal, Spain and France.

The historical astronomical clock at the City Hall was an amazing mechanical clock that could tell time, AND day of the week, the month and the moonphase. Taken with an Olympus E450.

The historical astronomical clock at the City Hall was an amazing mechanical clock that could tell time, AND day of the week, the month and the moonphase. Taken with an Olympus E450.

The family room we were in comprised one double bed and a double-decker bed for the kids. I had remembered how excited the kids had been with the bunkerbeds we had had in Kurashiki – Japan and thought I would give them the same treat. It was like having a playground right in the bedroom, with the kids clamouring up and down the ladder.

The dim lighting within Saint Killian's Church was a test for the low light capability of the Olympus E5 which passed with flying colours. This handheld snapshot had little noise or grain.

The dim lighting within Saint Killian's Church was a test for the low light capability of the Olympus E5 which passed with flying colours. This handheld snapshot had little noise or grain.

Everything was still so new and the hot water shower was just as shiok as that in the previous hotel – it was real hot and there was no lack in water pressure.

Another impressive low-light shot of a vase of roses in the church. Very little noise and grain even at ISO 1600. Taken handheld with an Olympus E5.

Another impressive low-light shot of a vase of roses in the church. Very little noise and grain even at ISO 1600. Taken handheld with an Olympus E5.

Self-service on-the-spot room booking and checking-in kiosk at the entrance of the hotel.

Self-service on-the-spot room booking and checking-in kiosk at the entrance of the hotel.

The hotel had an interesting concept, no physical keys were used for the rooms. Instead a number code was issued upon check-in for the electronic combination lock on the door of each room. The code was also used to enter the hotel lobby after hours at night. The cleaners came every morning but there was no need for check-out – you would just disappear since there was no key to return.

If you were a walk-in guest, and the receptionist had already left, there was a computer terminal between the external and internal (locked) door of the hotel lobby for you to check for room availability, pay using a credit card and receive a number code for a room. Everything was automated and self-helped.

While we were there, someone actually used the self-service kiosk to book himself a room at the hotel.

While we were there, someone actually used the self-service kiosk to book himself a room at the hotel.

For in-room Wi-Fi, simply connect to the hotel’s network and register with your mobile number on the log-in page and the password is sent to you as an sms in an instant – even for an international number.

As it was a public holiday – what they call a bank holiday – everything was closed except for the church, the train station and the eateries. We walked around town and along the river, and then came upon this ice-cream parlour that was doing business like there was no tomorrow. The queue for people buying ice-cream cones for take away snaked more than twenty metres, while the seats in the parlour and al fresco were full. This Eiscafe Dellarte must be a famous and popular outlet. The banana splits and strawberry bowls looked really delectable. As expected, we stuffed ourselves silly.

Mouth-watering ice-cream concoctions had people downing ice-cream dishes despite a chilly temperature. The cafe is open from 1100 til midnight.

Mouth-watering concoctions had people downing ice-cream dishes despite a chilly temperature.

Long queue at Eiscafe Dellarte for take-away ice-cream cones.

Long queue at the Eiscafe Dellarte for take-away ice-cream cones. The cafe is open from 1100 til midnight.

With free Wi-Fi in the room, Erin logged on using the Asus tablet to clock some maths practice on problemsums.com. This vacation spans more than half the June school holidays and the kids really can’t afford to go totally without practice during this period. This was a day for rest and recuperation before we get on the road again and head for the next hotel in Schonach, to the north of Rothenburg ob der Tauber.

Weinheim to Heilbronn via Mosbach and Bad Wimpfen

Monday, June 13th, 2011

After three nights in Weinheim, we checked out and headed for Heilbronn, stopping by in Mosbach and Bad Wimpfen along the way.

One of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E5

One of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E5.

Last night, there was some wedding function at the hotel we were staying at. Guests were streaming in over the course of the evening. A few busloads of Japanese tourists also shipped into the hotel. They were still milling around the hotel posing and taking photographs of each other early this morning during breakfast time.

Another of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E450

Another of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E450.

We checked out around noon, after the kids had completed their daily compo practices. The route recommended by the GPS took us through the hills. We drove through Neckarsteinach – “the town with four castles”, stopping to snap some photos of the castles overlooking the road. We had considered visiting the charming town square and perhaps the castles but Justin was fast asleep in the car and we wanted him to catch up on some sleep so we gave the town a miss.

Yet another of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E450

Yet another of four castles in Neckarsteinach, taken with an Olympus E450.

Next stop was a little town named Mosbach. It had a very charming old quarter town square and it was really fun just wandering through the streets, taking in the half-timbered houses lining the streets. We were amazed at how cheap the ice-cream was – 70 Euro cents per scoop in a cone. I vaguely remembered it to be 1.5 to 2 Euros for the same single-scoop cone in France. Naturally, we stuffed ourselves silly – after all, we’d done plenty of walking to justify the extra calories.

Relief on the corner of a building in Mosbach, with half-timbered houses in the background. Taken with an Olympus E5

Relief on the corner of a building in Mosbach, with half-timbered houses in the background. Taken with an Olympus E5

After Mosbach, we stopped by Bad Wimpfen, a town some 15 km to the north of our destination Heilbronn. It was even more charming than Mostback, with a more extensive old town and the castle foundation surrounding it. We went up the Blauer Turm (Blue Tower) which gave us a 360 degrees panoramic view of the surrounding Neckar valley. Justin was really fresh from his nap and made it up and down the steep stairs all on his own.

Roses by the road, with the Blauer Turm in the background. Taken with an Olympus E5

Roses by the road, with the Blauer Turm in the background. Taken with an Olympus E5.

Strolling around the castle walls was very pleasant in the evening hour. It seems that with the longer day, the golden hour around sunrise and sunset has been stretched to last longer by another hour or so – it’s actually a boon to photographers.

View of Bad Wimpfen old quarters from the Blauer Turm. Taken with an Olympus 450 with Pop-Art effect.

View of Bad Wimpfen old quarters from the Blauer Turm. Taken with an Olympus 450 with Pop-Art effect.

After Bad Wimpfen, it took only 20 minutes to arrive at our next hotel at Heilbronn, where we planned to stay for the next two nights.

Schriesheim and Ladenburg near Weinheim

Sunday, June 12th, 2011

On a more relaxed pace, we drove and visited two beautiful towns near where we were staying in Weinheim.

Beautiful rose covered house in Schriesheim

Beautiful rose covered house in Schriesheim. Roses are so plentiful and beautiful in Germany.

After the hectic pace of the first day of sightseeing, we decided to take it easy and adopt a more relaxed pace. We drove to Schriesheim and had pastry and tea for breakfast at Riegler in Schriesheim. It was a small town, and the pace of life was slow on a weekend morning. We strolled through the beautiful streets and stumbled upon a charming house covered in roses. It was absolutely beautiful.

German roses. Olympus E5 at f/4, 108mm (35mm equiv), 14-54 mm lens

German roses. Olympus E5 at f/4, 108mm (35mm equiv), 14-54 mm lens

We then drove over to Ladenburg, only some 10 minutes away. This was a bigger town. There was a Mercedes-Benz vintage car festival by the river on and we headed in looking for that elusive bratwurst stand. We’d thought German towns would be sporting bratwurst stands and restaurants around every street corner so imagine our surprise when we didn’t encounter any during the first day in Mannheim, Schwetzingen and Heidelberg. We finally had our beer and Bratwurst lunch at the festival, ogling at the sexy vintage Benzs on display.

The Germans really love to garden, even on a window sill. There were roses and flowers all along the roadsides and houses along the roads.

The Germans really love to garden, even on a window sill. There were roses and flowers all along the roadsides and houses along the roads.

After lunch, we headed into the old town centre and came across a mini beer festival in a back alley as well as a wedding at the local church.

Sexy Benzs all splayed out at Ladenburg under the fantastic sunny weather.

Sexy Benzs all splayed out at Ladenburg under the fantastic sunny weather.

When we got back to where we had parked the car, we found that the festival organisers had cordoned off the road for the obstacle race for the vintage cars. We tarried to watch the interesting display but realised that it was going to last till evening. Fortunately, the organisers were kind enough to lift the cordon to let us drive our car out since it was parked just inside of the white tape.

Charming timbered houses at Ladenburg under the summer sky.

Charming timbered houses at Ladenburg under the summer sky.

Back at the hotel, we took a nap before heading out to the old town quarters of Weinheim. The good thing about long summer days in Europe is that you get long daylight hours to do the sightseeing. The flip side is you’ve got to get up real early or stay up real late to see a sunrise or sunset. Daylight here in southern Germany is from 4:30 am to 9:30 pm.

Weinheim Rathaus (Town Hall) in twilight. Taken with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Weinheim Rathaus (Town Hall) in twilight. Taken handheld with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

The old quarters of Weinheim sits at the top of the hill. There was some memorial service in the park with people wearing 18th century uniforms and guskets, after which they marched into the charming town square.

It was rather crowded and I had to lift the camera above their heads to get some snapshots. The articulated LCD screen of the Olympus E5 came in really useful here, because it allowed me to frame the shot on the LCD panel which I folded downwards so I could look at it in live-view mode even though the camera was held high up.

Twilight memorial at Weinheim Schlosspark. Taken with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Twilight memorial at Weinheim Schlosspark. Taken handheld with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

By now, it was getting dark. The night-shot capability of the E5 also excelled. Focus was fast even in live-view and the picture quality, even at ISO 1600 was really good – sharp and with little noise.

Mannheim – first stop on the castle route

Saturday, June 11th, 2011

Mannheim is the start of the castle route that originally extended to Kulmbach but it’s now been extended all the way to Prague. We also visited Schwetzingen and Heidelberg.

Wasserturm (Water Tower) at Friedrichsplatz in Mannheim

Wasserturm (Water Tower) at Friedrichsplatz in Mannheim. Taken with an Olympus E5 DSLR.

Mannheim was a small fishing hamlet as early as 766 AD. In the eleventh century, a fortress was built at the junction of the rivers Rhine and Neckar. The fishing hamlet grew into a trading settlement and eventually into a town.

The Kunsthalle museum in Mannheim

The Kunsthalle museum in Mannheim. Taken with an Olympus E5.

The sleepy town is the second largest town in the region, with a Baroque palace replacing the former fortress in the eighteenth century. We visited the Wasserturm (Water Tower) and the Kunsthalle museum in Friedrichsplatz. The former is a symbol of Mannheim while the small museum featured many quirky installation art. One involved a room full of junk and fake logs to extoll the need to save the planet from environmental pollution.

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

The centrepiece for the day was a group of artists positioned around various paraphernalia of daily life. Before we could figure out what it was all about, we had to shuffle the kids out when one of the young nubile artists began to undress herself fully.

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

Using an Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead of paper to do museum sketches

There were many German school children visiting, holding paper sketch pads to sketch the paintings and exhibits on display. Erin used her Asus EeePad Transformer tablet instead drawing curious looks from the locals. She was trying out this Android app called “Kids Doodle”.

Schloss Schwetzingen

Schloss Schwetzingen. Olympus E450 with Pop-Art effect.

We decided to give the Baroque palace in Mannheim a miss since we were visiting the more reputed Schloss Schwetzingen. Located between Mannheim and Heidelberg in Schwetzingen, the Baroque-Renaissance palace was built as a summer residence on the site of a medieval castle. The original hunting lodge was converted into the main building with two curved side wings added. The palace garden was originally modeled after Versailles palace but converted into an English style garden.

It was a pleasant park visit and we had our picnic lunch by the lake.

Partially scaffolded Heidelberg Castle overlooking the Neckar river

Partially scaffolded Heidelberg Castle overlooking the Neckar river.

After Schwetzingen, we headed for Heidelberg. Sitting right by the river Neckar, it is one of Germany’s most beautiful towns. Germany’s first university was established here in 1386, while the ruins of the castle sits on a hill overlooking the town. Originally a Gothic castle, it repeatedly extended between the 13th and 17th century. It was remodelled in the 16th century into a beautiful Renaissance residence, before being destroyed in the 17th century as a result of the Thirty Years’ Was and the 1689 war with France.

Getting to the first hotel in Weinheim

Friday, June 10th, 2011

Upon arrival at Frankfurt, we’d picked up the rental car and driven the 64km from the airport to Weinheim in slightly less than an hour. Thanks to the GPS, finding the hotel was a breeze.

This is the first time I’m using a TomTom GPS and so far so good. The GO 750 is easy to use and the turn by turn navigation for the dedicated GPS device is clear and timely.

NH Hotel Weinheim

NH Hotel Weinheim, a good base to explore Mannheim, Schwetzingen, Heidelberg and the surrounding region. Photo from www.nh-hotels.com

I remember the first time I’d used a GPS years ago, the voice instructions came so late I frequently missed turnings.

What does one look for in a navigational GPS device? Here are some things I look out for from my own experience.

  • Good database so that the hotel or sight you’re looking for is in the map data. Good road database also helps in planning a good route from start point to destination. I had this GPS in the past that repeatedly tried to direct me to enter an expressway by driving into a one-way EXIT from the expressway. I had to take things into my own hads and figure out how to get onto that expressway in France.
  • Good user interface so you can find that hotel or sight and select it for navigation. The “point of interest” (POI) is only useful only if you can dig it out from the map data. I’ve used devices in the past where I tore my hair out just to locate a specific hotel to get to but can’t find it – only to discover later that it was in the database after all. I couldn’t find it because I didn’t have the exact address down to the door number. Then again, in Japan you can just key in the phone number of that establishment, and the GPS gives you the location and route to that specific hotel or sight.
  • Intelligent route planning to give you the shortest or fastest or least congested (based on live traffic data) route, with quick adjustment of the route should you make a wrong turn. Again the GPS that came with the rental car in Japan was exemplary, it was dead accurate on estimating time of arrival – after taking into account the traffic congestions along the way.
Nice spacious rooms with plenty of power outlets.

Nice spacious rooms with plenty of power outlets. www.nh-hotels.com

Pre-planning

While still on the flight, I keyed in the six hotels that we are going to stay in for this vacation and saved them as my personal “Favourites”. It was a breeze on the GO 750. By simply keying in the postal code, the menu gave a list of streets to choose from. You can then type in the house number if you had it.

TomTom GO 750 dedicated turn-by-turn navigational GPS

TomTom GO 750 dedicated turn-by-turn navigational GPS

It helped that I had consolidated all the full addresses of the hotels in a summary sheet, so that I didn’t have to rifle through reams of booking vouchers to find the addresses of the hotels.

By the way, in that summary, I find it useful to include other pertinent information like prices, phone numbers, check-in dates and time.

Having stored the hotel as a POI, I could set it as the destination the moment I got into the car and drive off. Rather than start fiddling with the GPS in the confines of the car park.

Road trip to Germany and Prague

Thursday, June 9th, 2011

On my driving vacation in Europe, I’ll see how much of my digital lifestyle I can bring along, and how much I can live without.

It’s that time of the year again, when we uproot the entire family and squeeze ourselves into a four wheeler and drive around a new country. For this school holiday, we’d decided to visit Germany and Prague in the Czech Republic.

For our 16-day escape from the grunt of daily routine, we will be visiting the castles in southern Germany and the historic city of Prague. The romantic lanterns on Charles Bridge had left such a deep impression for my wife that we’d decided to revisit it again someday.

But would you believe it – for the longest time, we hadn’t hear much about Germany in the media. Then suddenly, just weeks prior to setting off, it started making its way into the news for all the wrong reasons.

Empty seats on the SQ 326 from Singapore to Frankfurt

Empty seats on the SQ 326 from Singapore to Frankfurt

First it was the ash cloud from Iceland that threatened to scuttle our plans. Fortunately, that blew away soon enough. Then it’s now the E Coli outbreak that is still plaguing the country. We’ve decided to stick to our plans however – I’m hoping to steer clear of tomatoes, cucumbers and other raw greens.

Right now I’m on flight SQ325 from Singapore Changi Terminal 3 to Frankfurt Rhein Main International Airport Terminal 1. We took off almost half an hour later than the designated 1355. I’m wondering if we’ll be on time to arrive in Frankfurt at 2040.

The economy class of the flight looks almost empty. I estimate at most 10% occupancy in the Economy class. There’s plenty of space for passengers to lie astride the three seats in each section of the Boeing 777-300ER.

Empty because it's a weekday flight or due to the E Coli?

Empty seats on the SQ 326 from Singapore to Frankfurt

I asked the cabin crew whether this flight was always this empty or was it due to the outbreak in Germany. She replied that it wasn’t due to the outbreak and that weekday flights during the day tend to be less full than evening flight – because vacationers prefer to take the night flight to save one day’s accomodation upon arrival.

Made sense – we too used to take night flights and start the vacation upon arrival. But the kids usually stayed awake throughout the flight playing games and watching shows and wifey couldn’t sleep well on board. So we’d decided to try the day flight, sleep on arrival and start fresh on a new day.

The business class looks 75% full. Guess there is less impetus for these passengers to save money for their companies.

Anyway, the movie selection seems really boring even thoough there’re more than 150 shows on offer. There seems to be a dirth of good flicks during this period.

This is the first time I’m typing on a laptop during a flight. The abundance of space makes it less painful to set up a laptop and there’s no worry that someone is peering at what you’re typing. The next passenger is a few rows to the front and behind.

There’s no Internet access while on board so I’ll have to wait till the next time I get access to post this. The stewardess mentioned that Internet access should be available soon in the near future. Good thing there’s a power outlet on the seat handle to plug in the laptops though.