SharkTums wrote:I've been waiting for this report! Great start!
I've been waiting also, if only to compare and contrast the drama of driving solo in Belgium for three days versus my drama and riding by rail for three days. I remember opening the Trip Board on my first day in Belgium to express the drama of my travels (where my BnB check-in was a nightmare) only to read about your car troubles. I didn't realize that your transportation delays were balanced out by the hotel check-in. That check-in sounds super efficient.
It always seems that one time you really need to speak to someone in English in Europe is the one time you can't find anyone.
As usual, my analysis is free of charge! Original enough to not steal someone else's quote as a signature
Great TR. That happened to me and my motorcycle back in the early 90's. I'd picked up a horseshoe nail in the back tire on the way down, and miraculously, it didn't cause any air leakage, until I was coming back up thru Oregon, coast side. Got it fixed easy, and cheap too (thank you!) but what a panic I went thru at the time.
x2isawesome wrote:I'm doing a couple days myself in Amsterdam in October and just wanted to ask how tough was it renting a car over there compared to here and are audis a standard rental car or did you request one.
Second question first -- I booked a car in the compact class, but didn't request a specific make/model. I don't think that Audi is one of the regular base-level options, though -- they made it sound like they were out of compact cars from lower-end makes, and that I was being upgraded for free just because the Audi is what they had available in the size I requested.
The rental process is definitely a little bit different, so I'll try to explain how I went about doing it.
In the US, I always book directly through the rental agencies, and usually with discounts I find through a website called AutoSlash. I don't buy any of the insurance, because I'm covered through a combination of my regular auto insurance and my credit card -- as most people in the US would be.
In Europe, I found it more complicated to try to book directly through the rental companies, so I used a third party (AutoEurope) that simplified the process. AutoEurope is an aggregator, sort of like Priceline, but specialized for the European car rental market. They aren't the only one, but they're the one I used. From what I could tell, their prices were just as good (if not better) than booking directly.
Since my insurance does not cover European car rentals or any damage that might occur, I opted to buy full coverage in advance through AutoEurope. Both of my rentals on this trip were 5 days long, and I think the full coverage added about $100-$150 US to the price. This helped me avoid the stress of getting a hard up-sell at the rental desk, and also helped me avoid the stress of worrying about them finding a tiny nick or bump on the car. In Europe, they were very thorough checking the car over after return -- much more so than in the states. But if they'd found anything, I wouldn't have been liable for it.
If you are planning to drive across a national boundary, you have to declare that in advance -- preferrably at the time of booking. There will likely be a small extra fee for it, but that way you'll be covered if something goes wrong while you're outside of the country you rented the car in. My story is proof that these things occur!
Oh, and this seems obvious, but unless you can drive a stick you'd better make sure you book an automatic -- and they are indeed more expensive.
I'll get more into my experience driving around Europe later on, but I'll say that many of the things I was worried about -- narrow roads, difficulty finding parking, challenges of driving in cities -- were nowhere near as bad as I'd expected. With that said, the one place I wouldn't have wanted to drive in is central Amsterdam. Not only is it insanely busy, but there's no need for a car there. I did visit Amsterdam, but during the TPR portion of the trip, after I'd returned the car.
larrygator wrote:I've been waiting also, if only to compare and contrast the drama of driving solo in Belgium for three days versus my drama and riding by rail for three days. I remember opening the Trip Board on my first day in Belgium to express the drama of my travels (where my BnB check-in was a nightmare) only to read about your car troubles. I didn't realize that your transportation delays were balanced out by the hotel check-in. That check-in sounds super efficient.
I have yet to experience the "getting around by train" version of Europe, but the way I travel really needs a car to make it work. To be honest, the drama of trying to make sure you get to trains on time is drama I'd prefer not to have to worry about!
As for the hotel, yeah, I loved it! I seriously wish there were more places like that. I had one other hotel later in the trip with self-service check-in, but it was a drawn-out process on a computer screen, and no better than just dealing with a desk clerk.
Saturday, July 13, 2019 Day 2: Luxembourg from Top to Bottom
My first thought upon waking up in Europe for the first time on the trip was something like "wait, did yesterday actually happen?" My second thought, as I exited the Berliner Hof hotel and walked out to my car, was "gee, I hope the tire is still inflated."
The car was fine, and I made my way out for another long day of travel -- this time focused in the small nation of Luxembourg. I have to be honest -- this was, by far, my toughest day of the trip in terms of time management. In other words, I planned it out like an idiot, and had too much on the agenda that had to be cut out. This day also involved quite a bit of driving, as I'd head south along basically the entire eastern border of Luxembourg, before ending the night by driving all the way back north into the Netherlands. I skipped some smaller destinations without much heartache, but I had hoped to spend a couple hours in Dinant, a remarkable Belgian city with a citadel high on a cliff. Dinant got cut out entirely, which is disappointing. After this day of the trip, I learned to adjust my timing and planning, and managed it a bit better from that point forward.
Part of arranging this kind of trip is figuring out where I'm staying the night, and at the end of this TR segment I'll get a little more into how I went about picking hotels!
Oh, and while I said there'd be no theme park content for a while, this segment does actually include a ride!
But first, the geography nerdity continues...
Nope, the car isn't broken down again. I'm parked roadside along the German border, about as far east as you can go in Belgium, once again in the middle of nowhere.
Why? Because this forested area (a flat hill known as Iverst) is the second highest point in the country. Actually, between this and the highest point, it's almost too close to call -- at least until a modern air-based survey is completed.
And if you think that's really nerdy, please consider I'd soon be traveling with a group of people who'd find themselves riding a powered dragon kiddie coaster for imaginary internet points.
From there, I headed south and picked up Country Credit #4 on the trip -- Luxembourg!
Why did I want to visit Luxembourg? I think it all goes back to some time in grade school, when I first learned that Luxembourg existed. I was fascinated by how small it was, and by its funny-sounding name. Who knew that one day I'd actually visit?
Could it be -- more high-pointing?
Yes indeed, this hill -- known as Kneiff -- is the highest point in Luxembourg. Two national high points in two days.
Kneiff is in the far northern portion of Luxembourg, very close to the border with Belgium. Here's the view. Isn't it exciting?
Things sprouting up from the ground in Luxembourg.
More things sprouting up from the ground in Luxembourg.
...and just because it was nearby, another "second place" high point. This is called Buurgplaatz, and unfortunately, the tower is closed.
A cool sign at Buurgplaatz, explaining how the US Infantry liberated both the highest and lowest points in Luxembourg within a few days of each other during WWII. That's not just a neat piece of history, it's also a spoiler for later in this post.
A sign that indicates -- erroneously -- that Buurgplaatz is the highest point in Luxembourg. Oh well.
Installed by Luxembourg's Administration de la Gestion de l'Eau / Service Hydrométrie, this is the official Buurgplaatz weather station. Great for checking in on conditions at such lofty altitudes.
The view from Buurgplaatz. Again, terribly exciting.
My next destination was a low spot in northeast Luxembourg, near the Our River. This is the Europadenkmal, a monument commemorating the goals for a unified Europe.
Along the Our River is another national triple-point -- this time, between Germany, Belgium, and Luxembourg.
There's even a bridge that goes right across it, and connects to a larger trail system.
Can't actually stand right at the the triple point unless you feel like getting wet...
...and I did not, so here's the view looking right down at it. It's where this tiny stream comes into the river from the right (west). You can even see two of the boundary markers in this picture.
As I headed further south through Luxembourg, I stopped at this overlook tower just northwest of Vianden.
The tower is built into the side of a large dam, which stands pretty high above the surrounding landscape.
A view over the Bassins Supérieurs reservoir.
I presume this reservoir is a big part of the water supply for this area of Luxembourg.
Looking back down at the parking lot, with a small cafe just across the street.
And now, coming into Vianden for the highlight of the first part of the day...
(Yes, it looks like Hogwarts, let's just get that out there now...)
Vianden Castle dates back to the 10th century, though it's been heavily restored -- to some extent in the 1800s but primarily in the last 50 years.
One of the bigger casualties to my poor time management was that I didn't actually have time to go /inside/ of Vianden Castle. I think getting to see it from the outside was worth it, so I'm glad I visited, but paying to go in and tour the inside would have taken a couple hours that I just didn't have available.
I did have enough time, though, to hike this trail up a nearby hillside...
...to get up high above the commune of Vianden...
...and enjoy some views from /above/ the castle!
Vianden is somewhat of a tourist town, and looks like a place that wouldn't be bad to spend a day. Like many municipalities in this area of Europe, it's a very narrow settlement, built within a river valley.
Here's a bridge over the Our river in Vianden. It's the same river I crossed at the Germany/Belgium/Luxembourg triple point just a couple hours prior, but it's bigger here!
A closer look at Vianden Castle.
...and passageways and stairways along the outside. Now I'm getting kind of mad that I didn't have time to explore it.
The hill I hiked up has a restaurant up at the top, which is a pretty common thing in Europe -- even for hills and mountains where there isn't any vehicular transportation available.
This hill /sort of/ had vehicular transportation available -- you can see the chair lift in one of the previous pictures.
Continuing south from Vianden, my next stop was the town of Wasserbillig. Remember the thing about how the US liberated the highest and lowest points in Luxembourg? Well, here's the lowest point in the country. This is where the Sauer River (left) flows into the Moselle River (right). All the land across both rivers is in Germany, but the little point here is Luxembourg's lowest spot.
A view along the Moselle, standing at the lowest (dry) point in Luxembourg.
Luxembourg is the only country I've visited both the highest and lowest point of.
An international car ferry on the Moselle, traversing from Wasserbillig, Luxembourg...
...to Oberbillig, Germany.
Not sure why, but Wasserbillig has this giant map of Luxembourg along the riverfront, and I thought it looked cool.
I continued south some more, following the Moselle River on the Luxembourg border. This area is very scenic, with high hills on the side of the river, vineyards all over the place, and several other small pseudo-resort cities and towns.
After a little more driving, I arrived at the furthest southeast commune in Luxembourg -- Schengen!
You may have heard of Schengen, and there's a big reason for that.
Here's a sign I found with a bit of history on the role of Luxembourg and Schengen in multi-national cooperation across Europe. Of course, the biggest thing to come out of Schengen is the Schengen Agreement, which was signed here in this small town.
If you enjoy being able to travel through Europe without border checks, as I greatly do, you've got Schengen to thank for it! They even have a museum to help document and preserve the importance of the agreement.
Outside the museum is Place de Etoiles -- a plaza with flags of all the Schengen countries.
I saw people posing for pictures by certain flags, so I do think this place gets visitors from all over Europe.
I guess this is Schengen art.
Nearby in Schengen -- a couple pieces of the Berlin Wall. It's kind of an interesting commemoration, since the Schengen Agreement and the Berlin Wall are basically antithetical.
Another Schengen scene -- a dam on the Moselle below the hilly terrain.
I left Schengen and drove across the Moselle River, which put me in Germany. From there, I drove not even a mile south, arriving at a turn-off next to this small replica of the Eiffel Tower.
It's ... not as tall as the real thing.
But, with my arrival in Apach, France, I claimed my fifth country of the trip.
The actual triple point between France/Luxembourg/Germany is out in the middle of the Moselle River, so there's no way to get near it outside of using a boat. This marker commemorates the spot -- though it's about 1,000 feet away in reality.
Also commemorating the triple point? A tri-national mini library.
Based upon my GPS track, and assuming Google Earth has the border placed correctly, I spent all of 10 minutes in France -- never more than about 80 feet from the border. Hey, it counts.
The first half of the day was a whole bunch of small destinations. The second half of the day would focus on just one place -- a 3-hour 15-minute walking tour of Luxembourg City. I found easy parking in an underground garage just west of the city center, and then made my way into the capital.
Here's the Pont Adolphe (Adolphe Bridge) -- one of the city's more recognizable landmarks.
Across the bridge -- Luxembourg's Musée de la Banque (bank museum) is a cool old building.
Road construction gets in the way of this shot, but this picture introduces how much parts of Luxembourg's street scene kind of look like Paris. Very similar architecture.
I did come away thinking of Luxembourg like a mini-Paris, but with more terrain, and some old fortifications that are an integral part of the landscape of the city.
Also, there are elephants. And this one seems to be into green energy.
OK, I promised you a ride, and you're gonna get a ride! This is the City Skyliner, set up right in central Luxembourg.
The City Skyliner, which is made by Mondial, is 81 meters / 266 feet tall.
Pay no attention to the creepy looking storm cloud behind it.
I think this is probably the first Mondial observation tower I've been on. It ran a pretty long cycle.
The ride sign out front. They had a queue set up, but it was not overly busy, and no one was waiting for more than just the next cycle.
I enjoyed my views over Luxembourg (and the Pont Adolphe) -- in part because I lucked out and found some sunlight in the breaks through the clouds.
Across the bridge, this is the southern part of Luxembourg City, which I didn't get to explore.
To the north of the tower, this is part of the main center of Luxembourg City. There's some modern development encroaching in...
...but overall, this is the most classic and tourist-centered part of the city.
Off on the hill northeast of the city center, this is Luxembourg's newer business district, Kirchberg. A modern downtown, I suppose.
I even got to do a bit of plane-spotting from the top of the tower, picking up this CargoLux 747-8 in its natural Luxembourgish habitat.
The Cathedrale Notre Dame is Luxembourg's only cathedral, and it dates back to the 1600s.
Looking down from the tower, this plaza holds the Monument of Remembrance (Monument du Souvenir), which is also known as...
...Gëlle Fra (Golden Lady).
The monument is dedicated to soldiers from Luxembourg who were involved in WWI, WWII, and the Korean War.
Just below the monument, marking one of the many fortified parts of the city, is the Place de la Constitution.
From there, I got a quick lunch at a fast-casual build-a-bowl type place (not unlike you'd find here) and walked north into the city center...
...where I was shocked to find that in Luxembourg, Chi-Chi's still exists.
On the Place d'Armes, one of the main squares of the city, I took in this view of the Cercle Municipal. Formerly a government building, it's now a convention / function facility.
Behind me, a large municipal orchestral band played songs from famous Hollywood movies.
A street scene in central Luxembourg city. Lots of shops, including some high-end retailers.
Luxembourg's city hall (Hôtel de ville de Luxembourg) was undergoing some renovation.
A large equestrian statue of William II, who was not only King of the Netherlands, but also the Grand Duke of Luxembourg!
One thing that makes Luxembourg unique is that it's a Duchy -- and the head of state is a Grand Duke. This is the palace of the Grand Duke -- the Grand Ducal Palace (Palais grand-ducal).
The coat of arms of Luxembourg on the Grand Ducal Palace.
Luxembourg does have a democratic legislature -- the Chamber of Deputies. This is where they do their business.
Leaving the central part of the city, I walked southeast toward the Cite Judiciaire, which is a complex of judicial buildings for the city of Luxembourg.
I'm not sure what these vases are supposed to symbolize, but they are quite colorful.
The Cite Judiciaire is situated on a high, narrow plateau called the Plateau Saint Esprit, many hundreds of feet above the rivers below.
Though the Cite Judiciaire is mainly made up of modern buildings, it's built on top of an old citadel, with multiple levels and terraces -- each offering up different views.
Below the Cite Judiciaire to the east is the Grund quarter of Luxembourg City.
Looking northeast, with the Grund quarter below, and a steep cliff alongside to the left.
Another view toward Kirchberg, the modern downtown area.
One of Luxembourg's most important landmarks in Luxembourg City is the Bock casemates, which are just northeast of the Cite Judiciaire. Here's a distant view, with more to come later.
A view over the steep cliff into the city. I thought the steep terrain helped give the city its character.
I did not expect to find graffiti of one of the Toy Story squeeze toy aliens, but I did, so I'm sharing it.
Here's the view from the bottom of the cliff, on a bridge over the Alzette River. The lighting wasn't great for this shot, but it's probably one of the city's most picturesque scenes.
I am not sure what goes on in the Salon de Consommation. Perhaps it's exactly what I think it is?
So, how do you get up and down from the Grund quarter to the rest of the city high above? See the tunnel up ahead?
This tunnel -- which doubles as an art gallery -- leads to an elevator that was built into the cliffside. So no, I didn't have to walk up and down hundreds of feet of stairs.
More views over the Grund from the Chemin de la Corniche.
The Chemin de la Corniche is a road -- really, more of a walking path -- that hugs the cliffside above the Grund. It's basically like one long observation deck over the lower part of the city.
It also offers up some great views over the Bock casemates!
These outer fortifications are openly accessible, but the actual casemates -- the tunnels through the cliffside -- require a small admission fee. Unfortunately, due to time problems, I didn't actually go inside.
I did get up on the outdoor viewing platforms atop the fortifications, enjoying some more views into the Grund. This is the Église Saint-Jean-du-Grund -- Church of Saint John in Grund.
Another view of the remarkable, very-very-very old architecture.
...and another look down at the Alzette.
Yes, this stuff is historically important -- UNESCO said so.
A view atop the bridge near the fortifications, and looking back into the city.
That would finish up my tour of Luxembourg -- with a few spots I had to skip out on, but a feeling like I probably saw the best of the city.
Luxembourg City isn't anywhere near as famous a destination as Paris or Amsterdam, but I really thought it was a neat place to visit. There's easily enough to do to spend a full day here -- probably two if you're into museums (which I am generally not).
I left the casemates area, and walked back through the center of the city one more time. I got back to the parking garage to begin the long drive north, as I'd have to make it back to the Netherlands for the night.
On my way north through Belgium, I passed the exit for Wavre. No stopping at Walibi for me this time.
After a long drive, I arrived at my hotel in Ossendrecht, a city just over the Dutch border about 25 kilometers north of Antwerp. This was my spot for the night: the Grenshotel - Restaurant De Jonckheer. I neglected to take a picture of the front, so I'm borrowing this one from the hotel's website. Photo credit to them, not me.
When I travel around the US, I plan things out on a map -- devising a route to visit certain places along the way from Point A to Point B. Since I have the flexibility to arrange my itinerary in any number of ways, I often do it on a day-by-day basis, which means that I frequently end up booking hotels just one night in advance. I find that pretty easy to do in the US, where you're never all that far from a freeway exit with a Hampton Inn or a Holiday Inn Express or a Country Inn & Suites. I also do a lot of opaque pricing, which gets me some cheap rates on decent hotels.
So, I decided to try to apply the same strategy in Europe -- and it worked, but it was certainly more difficult. The biggest difference is that while chain hotels are absolutely everywhere in the US, that's not the case in Europe, especially in rural areas. It's much more common to find small, independent hotels, and that brings about some challenges. Examples: 1) Since chains are basically not a thing outside of the big cities, opaque pricing is also basically not a thing outside of the big cities. My only success with that was for a hotel in downtown Stockholm. 2) Most hotels noted that they were good with English, but I ran across a few that weren't. Some had websites and booking forms that were only in the native language. 3) A lot of the smaller hotels had designated check-in times. I found many that only allowed check-in until maybe 6PM or 8PM. That's a big concern, since I usually prefer to arrive at a hotel after I'm done with my day -- sometimes as late as 10 or 11. 4) In addition to planning out where to stay, planning out where to /park/ was also something I needed to consider. Some had free public parking nearby, including the first two here. Others, especially in cities, required figuring out the location of the nearest public garage -- or even booking a spot in the garage in advance.
Nonetheless, I made it work! The Berliner Hof in St. Vith was booked a few days ahead, but I found De Jonckheer just the night before, and most of the rest on the trip were booked just a night or two in advance. I used a combination of Google Maps and various hotel aggregator websites to make my picks.
The one thing I was very pleasantly surprised about was hotel pricing. Sure, I was fine with taking small rooms built for solo travelers (which you don't really find in the US) but I was generally paying under $100 a night with just a couple exceptions. Your average exurban Hampton in the US runs well more than that!
The last picture for this day is the view from my room at De Jonckheer. This place was a combination restaurant / hotel that really felt like a guesthouse -- my room was on the second floor directly above the restaurant. Yes, check-in was a little more traditional than the last place, but that's fine -- and the restaurant served up a pretty good free breakfast, too. Just another slightly-different experience from what I'm used to.
Loving this report Andy! Can we just skip the theme parks and Andy shares his trip to various European cities and places of interest?!?
I agree Luxembourg is pretty cool and worth checking out. The casemates were fun but walking down the Corniche and down to the bottom was fun - the bar at the bottom of the elevator was excellent! A perfect day trip.
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