We Stormed The Kastell – Vaxholms Kastell Fortress

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For centuries, Vaxholm Fortress (Vaxholms Kastell) guarded a crucial entry route into Stockholm’s harbor.    King Gustav Vasa (yep, the same one who commissioned that famous ship) built a fortress here and filled in other waterways to ensure that this channel was the only way into and out of Stockholm.  He had good reason to strengthen his defenses.  In 1612, Christian IV of Denmark tried to invade.  Czar Peter the Great of Russia tried to invade in 1719.

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In the mid 19th century, they upgraded, well sort of.  Sweden tore down the old defenses and built a giant new granite fortress there.  Unfortunately for them, the technology of warfare advanced between the time the new fortress was designed and when it was completed some 30 years later.  In its first test, a shell (instead of the old technology of cannonballs) tore a hole in the wall.  The fortresses high guns couldn’t really reach the new style of lower design boats.  Oops.

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Since it couldn’t really serve as a bastion of defense, Vaxholm Fortress was used as a prison.  I don’t think I would have liked to be incarcerated here.  The citadel seemed a little cold and wet.  The uniform didn’t look particularly warm either.  Can you imagine spending a Swedish winter like that?

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In addition to covering pre-20th century history, the museum contains exhibits on its more recent uses.  During World War II, Sweden remained neutral but heightened its military preparedness by strengthening its defenses and drafting conscripts.  The Swedes placed mines in the nearby Sea of Åland.   Polish ORP RyśORP Żbik, and ORP Sęp submarine crews were detained in Vaxholm’s Citadel.

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The end of the Second World War in 1945 signaled the beginning of “Cold War.” Swedish military was  on high alert.  The USSR was as close as nearby Estonia and the Russians had come sniffing their way before.  The archipelago became important because it was a gateway into the country.   Vaxholm’s Kastell Fortress monitored the area.  The military stopped occupying it in 1993 and in 2000, the absence of an external enemy meant all stationary batteries were deactivated in Sweden.  Today, its museum has artifacts thoroughout its history, from royal times to the mines and radar.  The incredible setting makes it all the more interesting and it’s well worth a visit.

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One of the coolest things about it today is that in addition to functioning as a park, it contains a hotel.  The best part is that nothing is closed.  If you stay, you can wander around, picnic, sit on the ramparts with drink, enjoy the quiet and watch boats go by.  Since the rooms have no radio, TV, or internet, you might not have much else to do.

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We Rocked The Boat – The Second Part Of Our Trip Up The Rhine 2

Castle Pfalz (Die Pfalz or Pfalzgrafenstein) sits on the island of Falkenau in the middle of the Rhine.  Not surprisingly, it was a toll castle built for the sole purpose of generating revenue.  The Baron would raise and lower chains across the river controlling traffic.  It worked in concert with Gutenfels Castle (Burg Gutenfels) and the fortified town of Kaub on the other side of the river.  They kept those who refused to pay in the dungeon, a wooden float in the well, until they were paid.

Apparently it has an impressive view from which you can watch ships travel on both sides (take the ferry from Kaub).  As it was never conquered, destroyed, it is in good shape even though it doesn’t have electricity or a privy.  The little extension was the outhouse; it uses gravity and rainwater.

Kaub is known as the spot where Field Marshal Gebhard Leberecht von Blücher  crossed the Rhine with the Prussian and Russian armies, on New Years eve 1813-1814, in pursuit of Napoleon.  During the war against the French, Blücher moved 50,000 troops across a Russian-built pontoon bridge. It was an extraordinary achievement.  It was also an important step toward the final defeat of Napoleon…well, until Waterloo.

Oberwesel is a pictoresque town.  He thought that it’s church, the  Gothic Church of Our Lady (Pfarrkirche Liebfrauen), looked like a larger version of the church built by German immigrants in his hometown.  The Günderrode House is famous in Germany because it featured in TV Series “Heimat.”

Schönburg, also known as Schloss Schönburg (beautiful fortress in German), is another impressive castle.

The Loreley Bend, before modern navigation systems many ships sank here.  Immediately around the bend sits Loreley Rock, a infamous, steep rock 132 meters high.  Legend has it that a pretty, naked blond woman sat on the rock singing and brushing her hair.  She distracted the boatmen from their work and caused ships to crash (described in a well-known folk song).  Today, a statue of a woman sits on top of the rock.

If you look hard, you can see the statue in front of the red train car.

A likelier explanation for the large number of accidents is the narrowness of the riverbed and many rocks around a sharp curve in the river. Even with modern navigation systems, that section of the remains dangerous.   When the water level is low, treacherous reefs appear here (if you believe the fable, they are seven hard-hearted virgins who were turned into rocks).

When we told some Germans where we were headed, they said “oh, the dangerous section.”  Just last year a ship transporting sulfhuric acid overturned there.  Luckily they were able to right it and get it under control before it leaked.  Unfortunately, two crew members were swept overboard and drowned.

Founded in the 6th century, the village of St. Goar is the former capital of the area and the most heavily fortified town on the Rhine.  It is a vibrant town in a picturesque setting, which isn’t surprising given their economies are based on tourism and wine.

In Rheinfels Castle’s heyday, it was the most powerful fortress in the area.   The Baron who built it arbitrarily increased the duties and 27 towns formed an alliance (with 1000 knights and 50 ships) to stop him.  The fortress withstood the siege and they gave up after about 16 months.

The scene of numerous bloody sieges, it has a storied history filled with violent changes of ownership. Napoleon took unchallenged control of the castle in 1796 and promptly blew a good chunk of it up.   Today, it’s only a fraction of its original size.  It’s still one of the coolest of the Rhine castles to tour.

Burg Katz, across the river from St. Goar above the town of St. Goarshausen, was bombarded in 1806 by Napoleon and rebuilt in the late 19th century.  Don’t think about hiking up there.  Some rich guy (or gal) owns it and it’s not open to the public.

O-Kayersberg

Kayersburg has experienced countless conflicts.  Kayersberg (in Alsace, France near Colmar) was badly damaged during the second world war.  Wandering through the streets today, you’d never suspect the previous damage and turmoil.  Like Eguisheim, it is one of the prettiest towns in France (Les Plus Beau Villages de la France).

Located on the famous wine route, this beautifully preserved village is packed with history and traditions.  Kaysersberg‘s half-timbered buildings, rivers (the Sambach and the Bogenbach) and wonderful flowers make it one of the prettiest towns in France.  It’s location in a valley surrounded by vineyards doesn’t hurt either.

We strolled through the streets.  After eating our 600th pretzel of the trip, he checked out the church Saint-Croix ( and the neighboring Chapelle Saint-Michel).  I walked around the exterior, admiring the architecture.  I saw a sign that said “Ossuarie” (ossuary in English, a chest, building, well, or site made to serve as the final resting place of human skeletal remains) and was intrigued.   Although it was locked, you could clearly see inside.  For us, it was a foreign, unfamiliar sight.  Bones were piled meters high all around the  building.

The quote translates from German to “that’s it because the master is enslaving by his 1463.” The rest has been lost.

The ossuary was built in 1514.   The bones are from the old cemetery which was moved outside the town walls in 1511.  The full German inscription on the ossuary has been lost.   It is believed to say someone about the master resting next to the servant.

We climbed up to ruins of a medieval castle.  Our eyes were immediately drawn down to the town and the tower of its 12th century church.  The surrounding countryside and vineyards were stunning.

Like the rest of Alsace, Kayersberg has a Christmas Market.  Theirs is reputed to be one of the most traditional and authentically Alsatian.  In a setting like this, would you expect anything less?

Bellinzona’s Strategic Location

Bellinzona has been a fortress since Roman times due to its strategic location.  It is located on the valley floor at the base of the great alpine passes of the St. Gotthard, San Bernardino and Lucomagno (Lukmanier).

Romans built fortifications on the spot where Castelgrande now sits.   The nearby town of Bellinzona is named not for the Italian bella (“beautiful”), but for the Latin bellum (“war”), and this truly was a medieval war zone. Several castles in Bellinzona recall a pivotal Swiss victory in 1513. With this success, the Swiss gained a toehold in Ticino.

The Duke of Milan (the Visconti family) purchased Bellinzona in 1242.  They built a new castle atop the town.  Later, their allies, the Rusconi family of Como, built Montebello up the hill.

The Swiss, invigorated by their victory over the Hapsburgs at the Battle of Sempach and wanting to protect their newly won independence decided that possessing strategic Bellinzona on the other side of the Alps would reinforce their defenses.  They began their campaign in the 1420’s.  In response, Milan’s current rulers, the powerful Sforza family, reinforced the castles and built Sasso Corbaro even further up the hill.  They also built a massive chain of fortifications that extended across the valley.

It took the Swiss about 100 years, but they won.  In 1516, Bellinzona became part of the Swiss Federation.  The Swiss did their best to ensure that they kept it.   For the next 300 years, Swiss overlords oppressed and controlled the local population.

The three castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their accompanying fortifications are a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

We Had Fun Storming Bellinzona’s Castles

From Lugano, we took a day trip to Bellinzona.  Bellinzona’s three medieval castles (Castelgrande, Castello di Montebello and Castello di Sasso Corbaro) and their fortifications are among the most important examples of medieval defensive architecture in the Alps. These fortifications are also a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Living in Switzerland, we have castle fatigue.  Poor us.  We happily forego an opportunity to see castles if they aren’t great.  My buddy Rick Steves’ has a list of Europe’s 10 best castles.  I’ve been lucky enough to see a fair number of them and some others, like Windsor Castle, that didn’t make his list.  You can’t swing a dead cat in Switzerland without hitting a castle or the ruins of one (sometimes they’re cooler than the ones still standing).   As a UNESCO World Heritage site, Bellinzona’s castles were supposed to be pretty good and they were definitely worth the trip.

Castelgrande is Bellinzona’s oldest and largest castle.  It overlooks the Old Town. They have built an ingenious elevator/stair system that allows to visitors access the castle from the rock underneath, from inside.  It beats the old school method of scaling the walls.  Castelgrande has a little museum with a cool video that documents Bellinzona’s history and the history of its castles.

Wear whatever you want, but I’d imagine that it is hard to climb the ramparts in these bad boys.

The castles of Montebello and Sasso Cobaro are up the hill above the town.  Although floods destroyed a large part of the medieval fortifications, large chunks of the immense wall remain.   You can see them the photo above.

If you were to ask an eight year-old to draw a castle, they would draw Montebello.  It looks like your stereotypical castle. We climbed the ramparts, posed on the drawbridge and enjoyed the wonderful views.  Montebello’s interior buildings contain a museum with archaeological discoveries and artifacts from Bellinzona that date back to Roman times.

Montebello’s museum also had weaponry.  I had to get a picture with the gun that was about my size.  Who in the heck was large enough to fire this thing?

Magglio, the Luger and Sneaky Pete, got disbelieving looks and thumbs up from people when we told them we hiked up to Castello di Sasso Corbaro.  It was a beautiful day and the views were even better.  From there, you could easily see the mountain passes come together just north of Bellinzona and why it was so strategically important (click here for a panoramic view).

 

Too Much Can Get You Alsauced, Alsace’s Wine Route (Route du Vin)

When we traveled to Burgundy, we learned that hundreds of thousands of years ago it  was seaside.  The limestone deposited during that time (and complex soil from subsequent fracturing from land shifts) make their wines unique.

Like Burgundy, Alsace sits on a geological fault line and its soil varies extensively.  Also like Burgundy, it is one of the most prominent wine regions of France.  The best vineyards of Alsace are along a geological fault zone that stretches from south to north along the Voges granitic mountain range.  It is 120 km (74.5 miles) long but only a few kilometres wide.  This is the Alsace Wine Route/Route du Vin, a scenic journey to enjoy the French wines, countryside, architecture and food.

The vineyards are located in the foothills of Les Voges mountain range around villages from the middle ages.  Ruined hilltop castles from the middle ages overlook the towns.  Many of the towns have fortified ramparts and cobblestoned streets.  They are postcard pretty with flower-decked streets, historic churches, timbered buildings and gurgling fountains.  In addition to the usual assortment of delightful shops, cafes, restaurants, wine tasting rooms (winstubs) which serve wine from many local vineyards fill the towns.  Ooh la la.

Turckheim, RibeauvilleRiquewihr and Kayersberg are the most popular towns on the Alsace Wine Road and are regularly visited by tour busses and the crowds they bring. Other nice towns include: ObernaiBarrMittelbergheinAndlauDambach-la-VilleSelestatBergheinHunawihr and Eguisheim (which we visited).   Alsace is a popular destination for vacations/holidays.  While we saw other tourists, we were lucky (and surprised) we didn’t see any crowds.

Alsace wine tasting at Paul Schneider

Alsace is well-known for its crisp white wines.  Alsation wines use seven varieties of grapes: Sylvaner, Pinot BlancPinot Noir, Riesling, MuscatPinot Gris and Gewürztraminer.  It has Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) designation.  There are countless opportunities to taste these in roadside wine cellars (caves in French).  Everyone recommends advance appointments (particularly during busy times like harvest).  Not all wines are created equal and not all wineries are created equal.  The quality can vary drastically from winery to winery.  As a result, if you want to taste the best, research them in advance.

Eichberg and Pfersigberg are two of the other well-respected Grand Crus

One of the best surprises was the Cremant D’ Alsace, a lively and delicate sparkling wine made by the traditional method of fermentation in the bottle.  It’s kind of like Champagne.  What’s not to love?

Although you can drive the Alsace Wine Route, there are many well-marked hiking trails (sentiers viticoles) and bike routes if you get Alsauced.

Everyone Loves St.-Paul-de-Vence

St.-Paul-de-Vence has been discovered.  Around 2.5 million people visit the tiny, 16th century medieval hilltop village each year.  It is filled with art galleries, boutiques and cafes.  The picturesque walk along the Rue Grande (aka Main Street) from Vence Gate to the Nice Gate, is way more beautiful and much more enjoyable than any shopping mall. Tourists love to photograph magnificent old medieval and baroque facades for good reason.  It is beautiful.   Scenic and charming, it is hard to take a bad picture here (unless other tourists photo-bomb you).

We found ourselves ducking into side streets and back alleys to avoid the hoards of tour bus passengers and students on field trips gushing down the streets like a lava stream.  St.-Paul-de-Vence is quaint and its backstreets are enchanting.  These who only shop the main drag are missing out.

I loved the potted plants outside doors, vine-covered stone walls, weathered squares, trickling fountains, narrow alleys, statues tucked into nooks, wrought iron gates, intricate door knockers and delicately worked wrought-iron shop signs .  It seemed as though there were adorable details everywhere I looked.  For example, the sidewalk stones are laid in patterns.  I’m just lucky to keep my floor relatively clean, forget about tiling flowers into it.

St.-Paul-de-Vence is built on a natural defensible spot, a rock outcropping in the Alps Maritimes on the Cote d’Azur.  French king Francis 1st made it a stronghold and ordered the construction of massive defensive walls.  Good call Frankie.  I wouldn’t want to lose this town to the enemy either.  Paul’s medieval fortress walls surround the town and are some of the most intact in the region.  We walked the perimeter taking in the breathtaking views of mountains and sea.

Yep. That’s the Mediterranean in the distance

The cemetery is just outside the city walls on the Mediterranean side.  The painter, Mark Chagall, is buried in the Saint Paul-de-Vence cemetery. His simple white tomb has small stones on top.  They are added by visitors as tributes pursuant to both Russian and Jewish tradition.

In case you were wondering, St.-Paul-de-Vence is also known as St. Paul.  Since there are a lot of other towns named St. Paul in France, it is typically referred to as the one by Vence.

Neuchâtel, As Cute As Any French Town…But Swiss

Last weekend, we stopped for a peak at Neuchâtel.  I’d heard it was cute, so we had to check it out.  From the French influenced architecture to the cafes that spill out onto squares, it looks and feels more French than the rest of Switzerland.

People have lived there since about 13,000 B.C., but a castle was built on the site in 1011.  From the name Neuchâtel, it’s assumed that it replaced an older one on the site (In French, Neuf = New and Chateau = Castle).  A town soon followed.  Needless to say, it’s been around long enough to develop some cool, quirky features.

The Seyon River  used to flow through the town (where Rue Seyon is now located).  It’s flooding was devastating and a tunnel was built diverting the river a few blocs.   To mark where the river once flowed, there is a little water feature running through the street.

Footbridge across castle moat.  Pretty sweet.  The best part is that it connects to a park.  How much would you like to play capture the fort here?

Empress Josephine slept here.

The Swiss officials drained millions of cubic feet from Lake Neuchâtel, in 1870, lowering the lake level by 10 feet.  As a result, formerly lakeside chateaus  and their stone banks now sit inland.  A good amount of Neuchatel’s lakeside is now lined with elegant promenades.  The Promenade Noir was urban infill on the new lakefront property.  The buildings on one side of the street date from the 1600’s and the other side date from the 1800’s.  The building above is across the street from the building below!

Nice looking post office on new lakefront property.

Many of Neuchâtel’s older buildings are made from the local, yellow sandstone.  It’s an amazing, rich, color.

It’s even got its own cheese.  I prefer Neuchâtel to Philadelphia Cream Cheese on a bagel.  It healthier too.  Heck, it may even be healthier than Philly light.  You can blow the calories you saved on some Swiss chocolate.

Although the lakeside had a pretty view of the Alps and Jura, we like the views from our lake (Lac Leman/Lake Geneva) better.  The views get better as you get higher.  Some of the surrounding areas have stunning views.  Sorry I couldn’t get any decent ones from the car window.

Neuchâtel watchmakers made delightful little mechanical figurines that are displayed in the Musée d’Art.  We visited on a holiday morning so it was closed.  We hear it’s worth a peek if you get the chance to visit though.

 

Thun, Worth Making A Stop On The Way To Interlaken

We’d passed by Thun, before.  It’s on the way to Interlaken and we’d heard there was a castle there.  We’d just never stopped to see it.  Last weekend was a long weekend so we weren’t on as much of a schedule.  Someone at his work told him that the town merited a stop and a stroll.  They were right.

The most important things to know about Thun are:

  • It is located on the Aare River at the lower end of Lake Thun.
  • The historic Old Town and the newer cafes and restaurants on the river are pretty freaking cute.
  • Of course it has a castle because no self-respecting cute Swiss town would be could dead without one.
  • The distance between the aforementioned castle is short, but very steep.  Welcome to the Bernese Oberland.

It sounds nice, but is pretty standard for Switzerland.

We found Thun to be unique with interesting features that make it one of the better Swiss towns.

The main shopping thoroughfare boasts terraced sidewalks built on the roofs of the stores’ first floors.  You can stroll the upper level or climb down stone stairs to visit the “sunken” street-level shops.

They have a covered bridge.

He loved the old bridge over the river. Yep, they retrofitted it to generate power.

Somehow, the town seems more colorful than cities like Bern, Zurich or Geneva.

A Sunday Drive

With the exception of a visit to Evian, we’d never spent much time on the French side of Lac Leman (Lake Geneva).  Everyone had told us that there wasn’t much there.  Last Sunday, we took a drive up that side of the lake.  It’s true, there aren’t any really large towns.  There were a few places we would like to visit again.
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We started out in Hermance, the last town on the Swiss side of the border.  It is a cute, old town.  On a Sunday morning, it was very quiet.  They have a beach and a playground that could be very child-friendly in the summer.
Next, we went to Yvoire.  It was our favorite stop.  We walked around it’s historic walled town checked out the lakefront.  We will probably take a ferry there for a late afternoon meal, stroll around the town and take a boat back around sunset.
Yvoire was surprisingly busy.  It’s very steep and built into the hillside.  As a result, it’s a bit more difficult to navigate.  The beaches on the east side of town are rocky.  We stopped and picked up tons of beach glass.
Evian can be quickly seen in an hour or two.  We continued all the way to the Swiss border at Saint Gingolph.  During the drive, it became clear why the French side of the lake is so sparsely populated in comparison to the Swiss side.  It is bordered by steep mountains.  There is very little land that is suitable for building.
We need to clean our windshield, but you get the idea.
We joked that Switzerland (which needs as much farmland as it can get its hands on to feed its citizens) took all the farmable, buildable land around the lake and said to France “you can keep the mountains, we have enough of those.”