We often say that "we are not on vacation. We are just living our daily lives in other peoples homes around the world." But daily life also includes the occasional break from routine so, in the past four years of travel, we have taken time out each year to do something different. One year we spent a week on a Gullet, a sort of Turkish pirate ship, cruising the coastlines of Croatia and Montenegro. One year we drove along the coast of France visiting WWII sites, last year we drove around the island of Sicily touring Roman ruins, and these past six months included three weeks of safari in South Africa and Tanzania. Maybe it was during one of those hot nights in a tent under a mosquito net that Michael dreamed of a two-week road trip winding through the pristine air in the Alps for this year's summer break.
But first, we had some travel through the Middle East and Central Asia to get through. I've covered those adventures in recent blogs, so this story starts when we left Astana, Kazakhstan for the beginning of a much-anticipated return to Europe starting in Munich, Germany.
Unfortunately, we didn't get around to booking an Airbnb in Munich until the last minute and we just couldn't find anything we liked. So we decided to change it up and stay in a hotel. We’ve only stayed in hotels a handful of times - mostly for convenience, like catching a pre-dawn flight, so in Munich we wanted something special, but still affordable. We chose an off-beat boutique hotel called The Cocoon. It was perfect. The kitschy decor was meant to mimic a mid-century ski lodge. Even the elevator looked like the inside of a gondola with video running in “the windows” so you felt you were riding up the side of a mountain and jumping off on the 5th floor.
It was in a great to be back in the land of clean streets, a currency we were familiar with, banks that worked, buses that ran on time, and, best of all, familiar food. You may not know this about me, but I am a carnivore through and through, and Germany easily became my "happy place”. Give me a knobby pork knuckle cloaked in crackling skin, juicy bratwursts fresh off the grill or a platter-sized serving of wiener schnitzel and I am in heaven. Add beer, pretzels, and strudel with ice cream, and Michael is right there with me.
Munich is a centuries old city with a complex history. We decided to catch the highlights on a lengthy walking tour. It was hot. And the more people we saw hoisting frosty mugs of beer, the less interested we became in Mad King Ludwig II. As soon as the tour was over we bee-lined for the sprawling outdoor market for lunch in one of the many communal beer gardens. Three rules apply: Grab some food, grab some beer and do your best to grab some seats.
Three days later we headed to Stuttgart for a week and we were back to our Airbnb lifestyle. The apartment we found had everything we look for in a listing. It had personal touches that made it feel like a home, a big table, a nice kitchen, a washing machine and a comfortable bed. It was also in a neighborhood where we could walk to the local bakery, have dinner at the corner Bierstube, do some grocery shopping, and even get an eye exam and shop for new glasses for Michael at the local optometrist.
The center of the city was either a pleasant half-hour walk or a quick tram ride away. We visited a great art museum, strolled the markets, enjoyed a choral concert in a four hundred-year-old church, and once again, took a free walking tour. And of course, there were more carnivorous capers as well as a forage through the annual Fischmarkt where you could sample seafood of every kind sitting in the beer garden, of course. It was also Stuttgart's famous Jazz Festival week and the performances could be heard from the huge outdoor stage as you wandered the city.
But here's what really sets Stuttgart apart. It is headquarters for both Mercedes Benz and Porsche and their presence permeates the city and its culture. Racing and cars are in Michael's DNA. His all-time favorite car is a Porsche, so he planned way ahead and got us reservations to take a tour of the factory.
A fact you may not know about Michael is that he is also a car-ni-vore. In that he loves cars. Okay, that's a stretch. But cars and car racing have been a life long passion for him. He began racing cars himself while still in college. In 1968 he was crowned the SCCA Formula C National Champion and then raced his Formula 3 over some of the most famous courses in Europe including Monte Carlo.
He has owned his share of Porches over the years so he was particularly excited about taking the Porsche Factory tour and visiting their museum. We also took a tour of the incredible Mercedes-Benz Museum, which was not just about their famous cars - we also learned a great deal about 20th Century European history including an unvarnished look at Mercedes-Benz involvement in WWI and WWII.
The Porsche Factory tour will go down as one of our most memorable experiences. Michael arranged for the tickets well in advance so we were all set with a date and time. We arrived and joined a group of 10 other guests. The two-hour tour takes you right on to the factory floor so they keep the groups small and spaced apart by about 15 minutes. Our tour guide led us through several areas of the plant including the logistics area, where all the parts come in and are sent to the assembly line; the dashboard and interior installation line, the engine assembly line - don't forget wheels and tires, and the final assembly area where the two halves come together in a dance of precision. Maybe the most impressive thing we witnessed was most of the work being done by hand! Robots came into play in the engine assembly and windshield installation, but otherwise, an impressive number of humans were involved in every stage. It was also impressive that the single assembly line had the capacity to build different models at the same time, based on when the order was placed, so any team could be working on up to six different models. Over 250 shiny new toys are produced here every day.
At the end of the week it was time to move toward the start line of the Great Alpine Road Trip - Strasbourg, France. We knew we would be spending our 1,000th night in an Airbnb during this time and we anticipated some press coverage, so we wanted to stay somewhere special, but still staying close to our budget. Several people had suggested we visit Strasbourg, so that’s where we put the map pin. It took some serious searching, and even a little pleading, to be able to spend a week in what is now one of our all-time favorite listings. Everything about it was perfect. And our host, Esteban was gracious and helpful in so many ways - including adjusting his calendar to fit our schedule and even taking the picture of us that was used in several of the media outlets that covered the story.
For us Strasbourg was love at first sight, starting with our home and our neighborhood. In a nutshell, Strasbourg is Paris with a healthy dose of German sensibility and some of Amsterdam's canals. It has beautiful turn of the century architecture along side meandering medieval lanes. Lush gardens, a canal dotted with swans and livery boats, historic landmarks including a magnificent cathedral, a brilliant metro system, endless shopping, fresh markets, lively cafes and cultural events around the clock. It is as bike-friendly as Amsterdam and, it is very clean. This is one of those cities where we looked at each other and emphatically agreed "we could live here!"
This is also the city where we rented a car for just the 5th time in four years. I would like to take a moment to offer my admiration to those of you who land in foreign countries and boldly rent cars. It is not something we do lightly.
I’m going to leave it there for now because two weeks of antics on the road deserves its own blog. Thanks as always for following along!
Debbie and Michael
The Senior Nomads