Bergpark Wilhemshöhe in Kassel, Germany

The very first trip that we took while staying in Germany was to the city of Kassel where we spent most of our time at the incredible Bergpark Wilhemshöhe. There are so many wonderful sights to see on the grounds of the largest European hillside park. Due to it’s size of 590 acres as well as the fact that it sprawls across a steep hill makes it a strenuous day of walking, but the views and historic sites are well worth the effort. The park is made up of four major points of interest, Schloss Wilhemshöhe, Lowenburg Castle, Hercules Statue, and the fountain and water feature that cascades down the hillside.

Schloss Wilhelmshöhe
Entrance to Lowenburg Castle
Hercules Statue

As you enter the sprawling estate, Schloss Wilhemshöhe looms large across the landscape as the prominent feature for anyone who enters the park. As the one-time summer home of Kaiser Wilhem II in the early 1900’s, this magnificent palace was originally built in the 12th century as a monastery and used as a castle for centuries before becoming the summer home of the aristocratic elite. There is no doubt as to the reason that this site with it’s beautiful gardens is still the site of many fairytale weddings, which was also the case on the day that we visited.

Part of the Palace
Pond Behind the Palace
Front of the Palace

For us, the Lowenburg Castle was one of the highlights of our visit to Bergpark Wilhemshöhe. First of all, it was the first true castle that we visited while staying in Germany. It has all of the typical features that one would expect of a castle such as the turrets and fortress walls. In order to reach the castle, you have to walk through a relatively dense forest, which certainly fosters the images of the stories of the Brother’s Grimm who came from the area and whose museum can also be found in Kassel. Walking the grounds of the castle certainly provided all of the images that we had imagined when we envisioned ourselves travelling to Germany.

View of the Castle
Castle Turret
View of the Castle from the Trail

Hercules Statue is certainly a site that cannot be missed. Mostly due to it’s prominent location at the top of the hill and presiding above the cascading fountain, it can be seen from throughout the park. To reach the statue itself, you must scale a long series of stairs the climb steeply up the hill. We chose not to go all of the way to the top, mostly due to the fact that we had a single day in Kassel and we were quite exhausted at this point with all of the walking that we had done through the park. It was certainly an impressive sight to see.

The View from the Bottom
Under Construction
Palace Grounds

Unfortunately for us, the cascading fountain was not running at the time that we visited, but it was still wonderful to see and we could imagine how impressive it must be when it is running. The thought that the statue and the cascading fountain were created in the early 1700’s is something truly hard to imagine. We can only imagine what it must have been like for the elite of Germany society to visit to walk along the grounds and see such an amazing sight.

Bottom of the Falls
Water Cascades Down from the Statue
Pond on the Property

Kassel was definitely a worthwhile location for our first exploration of Germany outside of Frankfurt. Specifically Bergpark Wilhemshöhe was truly incredible to see with everything that is located inside of this incredible UNESCO Heritage site.

Fascinating Church Fortifications in Romania

If you get the opportunity to visit Transylvania in Romania, there is much more to see than the supposed castle of Dracula. Set in the hills of the Carpathian mountains, there are several peasant church fortifications as well as the Fortress in Rasnov.  We took a day tour out of Brasov and were able to visit these locations, although we weren’t able to get inside of the fortress in Rasnov. Seeing the churches that are surrounded by walls with rooms for the villagers to live in during a siege was truly quite fascinating and different than anything else that we saw in other parts of Europe.

Church in the Fortification in Prejmer
Fortification in Harman
Three Stories of Rooms

The first location that we visited was the fortified church in Prejmer, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the strongest church fortification in Transylvania. Apparently it was attacked about 50 times during its history, but only ever conquered a single time in 1611. Not only has it withstood the ravages of battle, it has also withstood the ravages of time as it is still looks the same today as it did hundreds of years ago dating back to when it was first built back in the early 13th century. If you are willing to walk the old wooden stairs and walkways, there are rooms showing what life would have been like for the peasants who took refuge there.

Prejmer Church
Room Replica
Inside of Prejmer Church

Our second stop was to the fortified church of Harman, which also dates back to the 13th century. It was, however, reinforced over the centuries, making it another resilient stronghold. Although time has taken its toll on the frescos of the church, enough remains to allow you to imagine what it must have been like during the days of its usage. There are also seven towers around the fortress walls, making it quite striking to see from the outside. We were there in the heart of winter and it was extremely cold, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying our time in the fortifications and churches. You can also climb to the top of the bell tower if you would like, but be sure to pay attention to the time as the bells still ring at the top of the hour.

Roof of Church in Harman
Bell Tower
Fortress Tower

The final stop on our tour was the Rasnov Fortress. This was meant to be the highlight of the day as it is a large fortress on top the hillside that remains in excellent condition. We should have known something was up when we arrived and the area where tourists had to park was mostly empty. We were told that we could take a little trolley up the steep hillside, but we decided to go ahead and walk. When we arrived at the top, we found that the ticket office was closed, but there was a security guard nearby, so we asked where we could get tickets. We were told that the fortress was closed as they were filming an “American movie” on the grounds and we weren’t even allowed to go any further than the entrance gate. We took a couple of photos and began walking down the hillside. As we walked the road, several large black SUV’s with tinted windows passed us as well as trucks filled with scaffolding and filming materials. We never did find out what movie was being shot or whether there might have been movie stars in those vehicles, but perhaps we will see the movie one day.

Rasnov Fortress
Rooms in the Harman Fortification
Exterior of the Prejmer Fortification

Despite the cold and the disappointment of not seeing Rasnov Fortress, it really was a very interesting day. The countryside of Transylvania has many different things to see, including the town of Brasov, which have a more tangible connection with real history rather than the myth of a vampire.

Another Room in Prejmer
Another Tower in Harman
Church Entrance in Prejmer

Halong Bay Tour in Vietnam

One of the most popular tours to take when visiting Hanoi, Vietnam is to go to Halong Bay. It is certainly one of the most recognizable places in all of Vietnam with the mountains jutting up from the bay, which according to myth is the result of a dragons descending to earth. Halong Bay actually means “descending dragon” and even though the mountains are the result of natural forces over centuries of time, the result is still incredibly beautiful. Halong Bay was recently named one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World and was designated a World Heritage Site in 1994.

Upper Deck of the Cruise Ship

Absolutely Beautiful Views of Halong Bay

Although it is possible to visit Halong Bay in a single day, we’d recommend taking an overnight cruise to make the most of your time in this wonderous location. There are many different caves, beaches, and mountains that you can visit depending on your tour company. With so many cruise ships on Halong Bay, no matter which caves you explore or places that you stop, you can expect there to be large crowds joining you. We traveled to Vietnam in November, which is the offseason, and even then we were among hundreds of other visitors.

Ships Around Bo Hon Island

Sunset on Halong Bay

Based upon our research prior to visiting Halong Bay, the tour that we took is pretty typical of an overnight cruise on the turquoise waters. We thoroughly enjoyed our time in Halong Bay and it was one of our favorite memories of our time in Vietnam. Thanks to the new highway, it was only about an hour and a half to two hours from Hanoi to the docks where hundreds of cruise ships sit ready to take tourists out onto Halong Bay. Our tour consisted of the following highlights:

Hazy Scenery

Standing on the Observation Deck

  1. Titop Island – After enjoying lunch on our cruise ship as we made our way out into the heart of Halong Bay, we took a small boat to visit Titop Island. There is a beach where you can swim in the water to get a break from the heat, but the main reason for visiting Titop Island is for the incredible views of Halong Bay from the observation deck at the top of the mountain. It is certainly worth climbing the approximately 400 stairs in order to get to the covered deck at the summit. You may have to take turns to get to the rails, but you get views of the bay in all directions.

    Mystical Landscapes

    Relaxing on the Ship
  2.  Overnight on the Cruise Ship – Upon returning to the cruise ship, we went to the top deck where we watched the sun set and enjoyed cocktails and snacks during the ships happy hour. Prior to dinner, guests on the ship could enjoy a cooking demonstration, but having done an actual cooking class in Hanoi, we chose to stay on the upper deck and enjoy the incredible views. Since it was the offseason, our ship wasn’t full, but there were about 14 other guests with us on our tour. For those that wanted to, you could fish for squid at night before going to bed to get up early the next morning to do Tai Chi. We chose to skip both of those in order to get a good night sleep as we still had to be in the dining room by 7:00 am to eat breakfast while we watched the sun rise over the mountains. We had a busy day ahead of us.

    The Second Chamber, “Serene Castle”

    Inside of the First Chamber
  3.  Surprise Cave (Sung Sot Cave) – After finishing breakfast, we went to visit Surprise Cave as early as possible. Our guides told us that the later that you arrived at the island, the larger the crowds became. Surprise Cave is a large cavern in the mountain that has been carved out by water over hundreds of years. We saw many different caves during our time in Vietnam, but this was probably the most unique of all of the caves that we saw. With huge stalactites and stalagmites and other rock formations inside of the limestone mountain, it was truly spectacular.

    Monkey on the Rocks

    Luan Cave
  4.  Luan Cave – Whether you took a kayak or let a guide take you on a row boat, going through Luan Cave and going around the inlet with its beautiful water is amazing. There are monkeys that come down to the shore at different times of the day that are as fascinated with the tourists as we were with them. After touring the cave and getting up close to the cliffs, we returned to our cruise ship where we enjoyed lunch and then went back to the upper deck to enjoy the views as we headed back to the dock.

    Halong Bay

    Enjoying Our Time

It is a full, two-day tour that starts by being picked up at your hotel in Hanoi at 8:00 in the morning and drops you back at around 18:00 the following day. Without a doubt, a tour of Halong Bay should be on your itinerary when traveling to Hanoi. The sights and memories of our tour is definitely something that we will always treasure.