Last October, my husband, Don, and I took advantage of an Anchorage travel agency's Permanent Fund Dividend fares to one of 36 European cities and chose to go to Dusseldorf, Germany.
(The same company now offers fares from Juneau to one of 37 cities on the continent; look for ads in the Juneau Empire.)
But our adventure didn't stop in Dusseldorf. It included time among the walls of historic Rothenburg and a visit to a pair of Bavarian castles built by a father and son - one of which was believed to have lost his sanity.
After spending two days in Dusseldorf and three in the Rhine River Valley, we took the train to the walled city of Rothenburg.
When we stepped off the train a middle-aged woman approached Don and told him she had a "zimmer frei," or room to let. The room was basic but cheerful as was breakfast the next morning. Two families sat at the long table and one of the little boys sang several songs.
Where we stayed was just a 10-minute walk from the old town. We entered the city through the Gallows Gate and spent the next day on the walls of the city and in the museums along the walls.
In the Reichsstadt Museum, we admired old church sculptures, communion pieces and a medieval altar. Don was astounded by the weapons collection that included items from the Stone Age to the 19th century. The collection is one of the largest of its kind in the world.
The museum was originally a convent consecrated in 1259. The basement kitchen is one of the oldest and best-preserved kitchens in Germany. The centuries-old kitchen is surprisingly large and convenient.
We saw the legendary Meistertrunk, a tankard. In 1631, the Catholic army captured the Protestant town of Rothenburg. The mayor saved the town by "betting" that he could drink the 3-liter tankard of wine in one gulp. The town was saved. The mayor reportedly slept for three days.
After lunch in the Meistertrunk Hotel, we continued our wall walk. Gates, fortified towers, churches and private homes are built close to or are a part of the walls.
On the last portion of our walk, we admired two huge ground-level buildings. One of the buildings was a stable for the horses that turned a mill. The massive brick and stone mill is at least six stories high with a steeply pitched red tile roof with four rows of eyebrow windows that reach down to the second story. The mill is now a youth hostel.
From the stables and mill we strolled along the walkway at the same height as the roofs of the houses. We enjoyed a wonderful view of the red, tiled roofs, church steeples, clock towers, and a tiny village down in the river valley. The village dates from the 900s and is older than the walled city of Rothenburg.
St. Jacobs Church is famous for its altarpieces. At the main altar is a beautiful gilded triptych of Jesus and the saints. The church was originally Catholic but has been Lutheran since the Reformation. The Holy Blood Altar holds a medieval relic, a drop of Christ's blood.
Early the next morning, we traveled to Fussen, Bavaria, to see the castle of Mad King Ludwig. We stayed at the Hotel Hirsch. Our third-floor room was furnished with Bavarian painted furniture. The oldest piece in our room was a 1769, painted wood canopy bed. The halls of the hotel are used as display galleries for more Bavarian furniture. The hotel's restaurant serves gourmet meals.
After lunch, we headed for the city of Fussen's castle, the High Palace. The faux-painted exterior of the castle is stunning. We enjoyed the picture galleries and the green and gilded coffered ceiling in the Knights Hall. The highly decorated door hinges are works of art.
The 1700s gilded- and pink-marble baroque interior of St. Mang's Abbey takes one's breath away. Most of Fussen's old buildings are decorated in the baroque style, including the city museum where we learned that Fussen is famous for lute and violin making.
The next morning, a 10-minute bus ride took us to the village that is the trailhead for both Mad King Lugwig's and his father's (Maximilian II) castles. We picked up our reserved tickets - a must for English tours. The castles were shrouded in fog.
Our tour guide told us that Maximilian's glitzy castle, Hohenschwangau, was only used a couple weeks each year because royalty moved from palace to palace the year round. The king and queen had separate floors in the castle. Paintings and murals reflecting myths, sagas and religion hung everywhere. Silver and gold underscored the king's riches.
Most of us have seen photos or posters of Lugwig's castle, Neuschwanstein. It is the quintessential castle. From the bus stop, Lugwig's castle was another 10-minute walk up the mountain on a paved trail. The fog began to lift. I was surprised that the castle looked so new. The castle was built between 1869 and 1886 and the interior is unfinished. Neuschwanstein is the epitome of Romanticism.
While we waited for our English tour, the fog lifted and we could see the highly recommended Mary's Bridge that in my estimation is much too high over the falls in the deep gorge. I mentally crossed Mary's Bridge off my list of things to experience.
Lugwig's finished rooms are magnificent. The throne room glitters with incredible amounts of gilding and columns of marble and lapis lazuli. Mosaics cover the floor, walls and the interior arches. There is no throne in the throne room because Ludwig did not live long enough to be enthroned there.
Ludwig's bedroom is paneled in carved, dark wood. Some of the panels were actually cleverly disguised doors. Between the lower wall panels and the beamed- and inlaid-wood ceiling are murals that reflect medieval sagas and legends that were the basis for Richard Wagner's operas.
Actually, Ludwig's castle is the embodiment of Wagner's music, especially in the Festival Hall with its perfect acoustics. The inlaid floor, the murals, the decorative mosaics, the large standing and hanging gold plated candle chandeliers and the stage in Festival Hall are breathtaking. To this day, concerts and operas are performed in the hall.
Unfortunately, poor Ludwig only lived 172 days in his castle before he and his doctor were found drowned in a lake in another part of Germany, soon after being declared mad. The double drowning remains a mystery.