post

Jebel Shams to Muscat

February 21, 2015 – Saturday – Jebel Shams to Muscat

JoeTourist: Jebel Akhdar &emdash; Beehive tombs on the ridgeline

Beehive tombs on the ridgeline at Al Ayn

After driving down the steep roads from Jebel Shams, we visit the beehive tombs at Al Ayn.These tombs are about 5,000 years old, although not much is known about them. This means the necropolises were built in the same era as the Egyptian pyramids. The tombs are fascinating and quite photogenic, however as we descend from the ridge to return to our 4x4s, the wind picks up and a sand storm blasts everyone as we hurry to get back inside our vehicles.

Next stop is Jabrin Castle, which was built by the Yaruba dynasty Imam Bil’arab bin Sultan, who ruled from 1679 to 1692. This is without a doubt the most impressive castle or fortification we have visited in Oman. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is beautifully restored, and is surrounded by groves of palm trees in a lush valley. The castle has impressive wooden painted ceilings in some rooms.

After driving back along the highway to Muscat, we say goodbye to our driver Ali, who drops us off at our hotel, the City Seasons Hotel. He has been an excellent driver; taking us over sand dunes at Sharqiya Sands, along back roads to Bedouin camps, and zooming up and down expressways and mountain roads. It has been a wonderful driving adventure in our 4x4s over the last five days. Tomorrow, we drive from Muscat back to Dubai (in a bus) for our final day in Arabia before returning home.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

post

Sharqiya Sands

February 17, 2015 – Tuesday – Muscat to Sharqiya Sands

After driving from Muscat to Desert Nights Camp, we quickly get settled and then go out on a dune ride to see the sun set over the sand dunes.

February 18, 2015 – Wednesday – Sharqiya Sands

We drive out of the desert camp and take the highway to Ibra, where we wander around the Wednesday Woman’s Souq being held in Ibra. On the way back, we see the 400 year old town and fortifications of al-Mudayrib, where the buildings are made out of mud.

We travel across the dunes once again to a Bedouin camp, where we see some of their handicrafts (some people buy), and have a traditional lunch under the shade inside their reed houses. A couple of our group have a ride on a camel. It’s very hot by this time, so we are all glad to climb back into our air-conditioned vehicles for the ride back to our air conditioned rooms and nice showers at our luxurious desert camp!

Our tour leader Michele organizes a group photo in front of the sand dunes late this afternoon. We manage to find a camel to stand behind, and it behaves itself very nicely while we pose in the afternoon heat. I opt out of this evening’s 4×4 drive to the sand dunes at sunset, since I need some down time.

Map of our 4x4 drives in Oman,

Map of our 4×4 drives in Oman,

post

Musandam Peninsula

February 14, 2015 – Saturday – Musandam Peninsula, Oman

This morning we board a traditional Omani dhow for a half-day cruise into the Musandam Peninsula’s nearby fiords, or khawrs. Dolphins play in the wake of the boat as we travel along the tranquil waters. We arrive at Telegraph Island, which was a repeater station built in 1864 by the British to connect Bombay with Britain via an underwater and overland telegraph cable. The boat is anchored and I am the first one in to have a swim. The water is a bit cloudy, but it feels great, and floating is no problem in the very salty water.

We see the famous Sherry fish marinated and grilled for our hot buffet lunch, which is served aboard the dhow, and then we return the same way back to Khasab harbour. There are numerous fishing villages along the shoreline. Some have power, water and communications, while others don’t. As we return to Khasab harbour, we see Shinas, the fastest catamaran ferry in the world docked. It travels between Khasab and Muscat down the coast in about five hours.

This dhow cruise is one of the highlights of the tour for me!

In the afternoon, we take a 4×4 drive, climbing up into the mountains along steep gravel roads to Jebel Harim (1,800 metres or 5,900′ elevation), where we see a beautiful oasis and some petroglyphs. There are century-old villages built into the rocks on the sides of the wadis, including Bait ai-Qufl with its old stone houses, and the lush nature of Al Khalidiyyah Park with its many acacia trees, and interesting clam and oyster fossils.

The gravel roads throughout this mountainous region are very impressive, since they are very well engineered and maintained.

February 15, 2015 – Sunday – Khasab to Muscat, Oman

We visit the Khasab Castle, originally built by the Portuguese in the 17th century, but now a museum to showcase Omani history and culture. Traditional boats and other historical artifacts unique to the Musandam region are featured. After withdrawing some Omani Riyals from a bank machine, I take a few photos of Kasab’s lovely Friday Mosque: As Sultan Qaboos Mosque. There is a small souq in the town square, with mostly livestock, fodder, and a few food items for sale under the tents. Next, we drive to the nearby Oudah village, located in Wadi Oudah. There are some petroglyphs in the rocks at Tawi village at end of road.

We drive to Khasab airport and take an Omani Air mid-day flight to Muscat, Oman’s capital city. We meet our Omani guide Yacoob and our driver, who take us to our hotel, where we have the afternoon to ourselves.

Our travels in Oman

Our travels in Oman

post

Austrian Tyrol

September 5, 2014 – Friday – Rothenburg, Germany to Routte, Austria

We spend two nights in Routte, Austria at the Alpenhotel Ernberg hotel, but don’t see much of the country. Some of our group hike up to Ehrenberg Castle ruins, which are on top a hill near our hotel. We have our own dining room for the group dinner in the hotel each evening. Jennifer is a chef, and so is always on the lookout for regional food treats to share with the group. After one of our dinners, she serves Apple and Cheese Strudel for dessert.

We drive back into Germany on Saturday the 6th to see the Bavarian Castles.

September 7, 2014 – Sunday – Austria to Venice, Italy

We are listening to the Sound of Music on the bus audio system as we drive through the Austrian Tyrol on our way to Italy. The first hour reminds me of our mountain highways in British Columbia, Canada – winding, rocky, and steep hills. We descend into a long valley and take the Autobahn to the outskirts of Innsbruck.

We turn south and drive over the Brenner Pass, crossing the Alps into Italy. Border crossings in Europe are non-events, since all the countries except Switzerland and Sweden are in the European Union. Jennifer tells us we are following the original Roman road Via Claudia the whole way today. That road ends up in Rome, although our next stop is Venice.

post

Bavarian Castles

September 6, 2014 – Saturday – Castle Day – Bavaria, Germany

We drive back into Germany from our Austrian hotel this morning to see two famous Bavarian castles both near Füssen in Bavaria.

King Ludwig II’s Neuschwahstein Castle is probably the most famous, since Disney’s Fantasyland castles are modeled after this spectacular castle located on a hillside overlooking a beautiful green valley and lake. The crowds here are very bad, especially on Mary’s Bridge, which is above the castle, giving a picture postcard view of the castle with the valley behind. This castle was built in the 1800s, and poor Ludwig only got to enjoy his castle for a few months before he died. When Ludwig was king, his ministers plotted to depose him in 1866 because he was homosexual. He committed suicide in the nearby lake along with his doctor (who had just declared him mad – later disproved).

Heohen-Schwangau Castle is a beautiful castle located beside The Alpsee, a glacial lake. This is where Ludwig’s parents lived, and is where he was raised. His father, the king loved the night sky, and had his bedroom equipped with stars in the ceiling and a Moon, which could have the phase changed as required.

Jennifer and Sylvain have a picnic lunch all ready for us when we return to the parking lot, so we spread out near the Alpsee lake and enjoy ourselves. After getting clear of Neuschwahstein Castle, we take a group photo in the nearby valley, posing with the castle behind us on the hill.

Joe, Greta and Paul on the luge

Joe, Greta and Paul on the luge

Next stop is a luge – individual carts run through a metal tube down the hill, slalom-style. Everyone in the group tries it – some go faster, and others take is slowly. The luge is one of the reasons I finally decided to book this Rick Steves tour. I reasoned that any tour operator who includes a ride on a luge as part of the stated itinerary must have something going for them!

post

Rothenburg

September 4, 2014 – Thursday – Bacharach to Rothenburg, Germany

Lavazza coffee bar at an Autobahn rest stop

Lavazza coffee bar at an Autobahn rest stop

After breakfast in our hotel in Bacharach, we schlep our bags across the street to where the bus is parked. Our bus really hustles along the German Autobahn, passing the ultra-modern Frankfurt airport before arriving at our morning rest stop.

This rest area facility is very deluxe: a nice gift shop with high end stuff for sale, German pastries, Lavazza coffee bar, deli smorgasbord, and wonderful toilets and showers! There is a 0.70 Euro charge to use the toilets, but they give back a 0.50 Euro coupon for merchandise purchases. There is even an adjacent, small hotel for overnight rest stops. Our bus driver tells me he has used the hotel on winter ski trips, and says the rooms are very nice, and quite inexpensive.

Ornate signs on Schmiedgasse in Rothenburg

Ornate signs on Schmiedgasse in Rothenburg

We arrive at Rothenburg ob der Tauber around noon, and after some lunch on our own, Jennifer walks us through the main street to familiarize us with this medieval city. It is obviously what Disney uses to pattern their Fantasyland theme parks after. Rothenburg has an impressive wall, towers and gates around the old city, cobblestone streets, quaint shops with eclectic merchandise, and beautiful vistas of the valley below.

As I wander the streets, there is much to see and experience: German confections in a bakery window; castle gates; giant bird’s nests on rooftops; clock towers; churches with flying buttresses; pretty half-timbered houses; endless window boxes sporting Geraniums and other flowers; cobblestone streets; ornate metal signs above all the businesses; huge numbers of hotels, drinking and eating establishments; Christmas shops and other specialty shops.

Then there is the Medieval Kriminal Museum, which I decide to visit. It is filled with masks of shame, executioners costumes, racks and torture chairs, bludgeons, and describes medieval justice in great detail (not all of it gory). The Meistertrunk town clock is very special, since two mechanical figures appear out of two doors beside the clock face once in awhile, and do an elaborate ritual before retreating back inside. I would say, there is something for everyone in Rothenburg.

The city is jammed with day-trippers during the afternoon, however by evening they all leave on the buses they came in, and the streets return to normal. Some of us go to a Greek restaurant across the street from our hotel for dinner. I then grab my camera and take advantage of the beautiful pastel-coloured light as the Sun is setting. The whole city looks magical as I walk along a section of the city wall during “the golden hour”.

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg In front of the Franciscan Church

The Night Watchman of Rothenburg In front of the Franciscan Church

Later, I meet up with the tour group in the main square at dusk. We follow the Night Watchman, which is a guy in medieval costume carrying a scepter and lantern. He delivers a humorous historical talk as we wander from place to place through the city. He explains the function of the night watchmen in medieval times: ensuring doors are locked and people are not on the streets as night falls. He describes the city gate system, and how people had to make their way inside the security of the walled city an hour before dark. He does two walks/talks – one in English and one in German.

September 5, 2014 – Friday – Rothenburg, Germany to Routte, Austria

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus

The breakfast buffet at Hotel Gerberhaus this morning is very impressive and quite delicious. The coffee is also the best we have had on the trip so far, despite it being filter coffee. There are all sorts of cheeses, cold meat, pastries, fruit, cereal, and sweets, including chocolate!

We then schlepp our bags out the back door, down the alley and through the doorway in the city wall to our bus waiting for us in the parking lot.

post

Bacharach & St. Goar

September 2, 2014 – Tuesday – Haarlem, Netherlands to Bacharach, Germany

Our group having pre-dinner drinks on the patio few metres from the train tracks at Hotel Kranenturm

Our group having pre-dinner drinks on the patio few metres from the train tracks at Hotel Kranenturm

We arrive in the small town of Bacharach located on the Rhine River after driving the whole day from The Netherlands. We are staying in Hotel Kranenturm, a 700 year old structure which was one of the towers along the wall around the town. It was part of the city’s original rampart wall, and is just a few metres from the train tracks. Kurt and Fatima run the place. Fatima decorated the hotel, and Kurt is the chef.

I draw the room at the top of the tower (Prince’s Room #18), which means I have the most stairs to climb, but end up with one of the funkiest rooms with the best view of the river and the town and hills. Our group have drinks on the patio while the trains scream past us, and we also have dinner together in the hotel dining room.

September 3, 2014 -Wednesday – Bacharach & St. Goar

JoeTourist: Bacharach &emdash; Herr Jung show us a map of the old town and its fortifications

Herr Jung show us a map of the old town and its fortifications

After breakfast in the hotel, we go on a walking tour of Bacharach with Herr Jung, an 83-year-old ex-schoolmaster with a great sense of humour. He takes us through the dark history of WWII from a German boy’s perspective (he was born in 1931). He was quite emotional at times, and everyone was very receptive to his message. He also led us on a walking tour of the town, highlighting the wine growing (which the region is famous for), the historic wall around the town, and interesting anecdotes about his personal friends and acquaintances.

After our walking tour, Sylvain drives us to St. Goar, a nearby town along the river where we do a walking tour of the Rheinfels Castle. This huge, historic castle was originally built in 1245, and withstood multiple sieges. The French invaders finally took over the castle without a fight and promptly destroyed most of it in 1797 during the French Revolution. Although the castle is considered to be in ruins, it is still very impressive as it sits on a hillside overlooking the Rhine River. A hotel is part of the castle.

Before we take a KD Rhine boat from St. Goar down the river to Bacharach, Jennifer leads us into playing “the name game” in the town square. We go around the group round-robin style, adding our names to the list of names, which everyone then has to recite (as a group). Of course, the list keeps getting longer, but the repetition helps us all remember each other’s names. The people in the square not in our group are amused by our antics!

The cruise down the river is great, since it gives us all time to rest our weary feet, and see the Rhine Valley and all the little towns, vineyards and numerous castles from a fresh perspective. We see: Loreley Rock (remember the old song “Sweet Loreley”?), Gutenfels and Schonburg castles, Liebfrauenkirche church, Burg Pfalzgrafenstein (a castle in the middle of the Rhine River), and the Oberwesel tower.

We arrive back in Bacharach late in the late afternoon. I go out with some of the group to a little restaurant on the main street only a block from our hotel and have a nice Jagerschnitzel, some Rhineland white wine, and a cappuccino to finish. Germans seem to serve cappuccino with a dollop of crème on top, so I have to ask for “plain, no crème”. Our all-American group is a lot of fun to be with, and this evening is no exception!

September 4, 2014 – Thursday – Bacharach to Rothenburg

After breakfast in our hotel in Bacharach, we schlep our bags across the street to where the bus is parked, and we are off down the highway to Bavaria.

The advice from Rick Steves to pack light is a valuable lesson to be learned by travellers taking his tours, since there is no porterage and the hotels often have no elevators! Rick Steves tours do not issue name tags…you are expected to make an effort to remember everyone’s name.