Quintessential Black Forest towns and hiking between them

Being outdoor people, we knew that we also wanted to do hiking in the Black Forest.  Located in the southwest corner of Germany, consisting of 2,320 sq. miles or roughly the size of Delaware.  The Black Forest encompasses many small German towns scattered throughout, all of which are connected with well defined and marked hiking trails. 

To begin our visit, we flew into the town of Basel, Switzerland which is located where Switzerland, Germany and France all come together.  It is also one of the largest cities surrounding the Black Forest so since we were flying in, we were able to save some money but choosing it as our destination.  After exploring the city and staying the night, we hopped on the first train we could towards the Black Forest.  Having purchased a Eurorail pass for all of Germany, which also included trips leaving Basel, we were able to take any train we wanted and did not have to worry about buying a ticket.  As long as there was an open seat, we could take the train.  Over the 5 days we spent taking a train around Germany, we were never on a full train.

Our first stop in the Black Forest was the small lake side town of Titisee.  There is a pedestrian only area along the lake where there are multiple shops and restaurants to find souvenirs or eat some authentic German food.  As it isn’t much of a tourist city and more a resort town, it still has a lot of its charm.  After stopping in the visitor center to figure out where we were going to hike, we walked past the lake and right out of town.  From there we walked right into the foothills of the Black Forest and started our ascent of a nearby hill.  Once we were in the darkness caused by the all the trees, it cooled off dramatically so it would be a nice place to well into summer. Along there way up and then at the top we got some amazing views of the German countryside.  Once at the top, we were able to pay one Euro to climb a metal tower above the trees to get 360 degree views of the surrounding area. 

Instead of hiking down the same way we came, we were able to follow the hiking signs to the next town with a train stop, Neustadt.  While not as picturesque as Titisee, it was still a nice small town.  From there we hopped onto the train to Triberg, the location of the tallest waterfall in Germany.  It doesn’t drop the total 535 feet all at once like your typical waterfall.  That height is spread between the 7 major drops, making the valley amazing to hike up.  After walking up through the town from the train station, we paid the 3.50 euro to enter the park with the waterfalls.  There is a paved trail that switchbacks up the valley but it still gets fairly steep at points.  There are also 2 bridges that cross over the top of the falls!

Where is your favorite park or hiking trail?

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Hiking the Beautiful Italian Coast of the Cinque Terre

Along the west coast of Italy there is an area called CinqueTerreMapthe Cinque Terre, Italian for “five lands”, which consists of five towns built into the mountainside and are all connected by hiking trails.  Each of the five towns have something different to offer and visiting them all over a weekend would be a great addition to any European adventure.  Taking the train is the easiest way to get there as the roads in the area are very narrow as they twist up and down the mountains.


Views of Manarola and Vernazza

After flying into Pisa, Italy to see the Leaning Tower for the afternoon, we took the short hour train ride up to La Spezia.  While not one of the five towns in the Cinque Terre, it is the largest city in the area and is only about 10 minutes by train to the first city and just 25 minutes to get the last of the five towns.  With the bigger city comes more options for accommodations, restaurants and nightlife, all at more reasonable prices.  Though if you willing to spend more there are a few options in the towns themselves.


Hiking up through the Vineyards and Olive trees from Manarola to Corniglia

At the La Spezia train station, we were able to purchase Cinque Terre Cards for both days  we would be spending in the area.  The card gave us unlimited use of the trains from La Spezia, in the south, all the way to Levanto, the next big city north of the five Cinque Terre towns.  Also included in the card was the ability to hike some of the trails between the towns so if that is something that interests you, make sure to purchase a card. The more treacherous trails that go up the mountains are free, while the card is a necessity in order to use the trails down along the coast.  Unfortunately while we were visiting in May 2013, some of these coastal trails had been closed due to many landslides that happened in 2011.  Reconstruction of the trails is currently under way so check online before you visit to see if they are completed.


Left: Vegetable Bruschetta Right: Sardine and Oil Pasta

A trip to Italy would not be complete without talking about the food and wine!   Throughout the weekend, we found many small eateries to stop at in order to get something to eat while we explored each of the five towns.  The many pizza, pasta and seafood dishes were all amazing.  Our best find was the last thing we did.  We just happened to stumble upon Buranco Winery on a secluded street just outside of Monterosso.  After exploring the gorgeous property, that overlooks the town, lemon trees and vineyards, we sat down for a tasting.  There are multiple tasting packages ranging in number of glasses and the types of wine in the tasting.  Then with each package comes a plate of hors d’evours.  With the full glasses you get in each package, one is all you need for 2-3 people. One is also able to buy by the glass or bottle and they also have a service to ship bottles to anywhere in the world.


Left: Entrance along Buranco Way Right: Wine Tasting Package

Would you spend more time exploring the towns of the Cinque Terre or hiking the trails?

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Chicago – A View From Above

Two more options on the Go Chicago card were entrances to the observation decks at both the Willis Tower and the John Hancock building.  My mom and I took full advantage of this and visited both!  After spending a half a day at the Navy Pier, we took the short ride on bus #66 over to Water Tower Place.  It is a large mall located at north end of Michigan Ave., if you’re interested in shopping.  Taking the Red Line to the Chicago station would also be an easy way to get there from elsewhere around the city.

John Hancock Observatory

John Hancock Observatory

Our wait to get onto the elevator, up to the John Hancock Observatory, was about 20 minutes on a Sunday afternoon.  As we got off the elevator at the top, we were handed an iPod and headphones.  On it there were little audio files accessed by typing in a number. As you move around the observation floor, there are numbers placed onto the window. When you get to one, just type in the number and you’ll listen to a brief description of what can be seen, along with a few additional pictures on the iPod. There is even a section of the observation floor where you are able to walk outside and feel the wind that whips against the building.

Don't Look Down!

Willis Tower SkyDeck

Getting to Willis Tower was pretty easy, the closest ‘L’ stop is only two blocks away, at the Quincy station.  While there, our wait to get on the elevator was a little faster then at the John Hancock building due to our visit being on a Wednesday morning.  Although once we got to the top it was crawling with people.  The main attraction has to be the four glass cubes that are sticking out the side of the observation deck.  This allows you to walk out into them and see straight to the ground. Even though there are four cubes, there had to have been 10 people trying to get in each so it was hard to get a picture. It would have been nice if there was some type of system to give each person a chance alone in the cube for pictures and to view the city.

All in all, both observation decks offered amazing views of Lake Michigan and many famous spots around the city. I enjoyed the views of the beach, Navy Pier and the Willis Tower, from the John Hancock Tower. While from the Willis Tower, one can see the Chicago River, Millennium Park and downtown Chicago from the middle of it all!

What city has your favorite observation deck? What building is it in?

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Busing Between Cities

To get to Chicago, I decided to use Megabus for the first time.  I have also used Greyhound on my travels around the US. There are many benefits and disadvantages of using either but if you play your cards right, you can get a great deal and be able to spend more in whatever city you are traveling too.

First off, each bus company has a different way of doing their pricing. Greyhound allows you book your trip well in advance but the prices are like that of airlines. The prices are fairly consistent week to week and you will only get a discount if you book two or more weeks in advance. You also have the option of paying more in order to get a fully refundable ticket. On the other hand, Megabus only allows you to book just few months in advance. Once a date becomes available for booking, prices can start as low as $1. As there is more demand, the prices will start to increase. In my case, I was able to book a round trip from Nashville to Chicago for $21.

Next thing to consider is that Greyhound has buildings as their bus stations in major cities soif you are ever stranded, the weather won’t be an issue. The stations have ticket counters that are usually staffed by Greyhound employees that will be able to answer questions. These stations aren’t always in the best part of town so that is something to contend with but at least you will be warm and dry doing so. Megabus doesn’t have any physical bus stations, you are just picked up and dropped off on the side of the road.

Nashville Outdoor Bus Stop
Copyright Google Street View 2012

In Chicago, the stop is right near Union station which can be used as shelter if needed. Only problem is there is no way to know when the bus arrives so you have to either stay at the stop or have someone at the stop call you when the bus shows up.

Not only does Greyhound have main bus stations, they also have more stops for you to get on and off the bus. Where Megabus just travels from major city to major city, Greyhound has small cities and towns that it will stop at in between those major cities. For example from Nashville, TN to Chattanooga, you can be picked up or dropped off in Murfreesboro or Manchester. Also Greyhound has a network that extends all across the US while Megabus is slowly expanding their routes across the US. Currently they have an extensive network on the east coast but routes only extend west to Minnesota south to Texas and there are a few routes out in California and Nevada.

Since Megabus isn’t that extensive yet, when booking you can only buy tickets for specific routes at one time. For example if you wanted to go from Orlando to Minneapolis, you would have to buy a ticket from Orlando to Atlanta, then Atlanta to Chicago, then Chicago to Minneapolis. With Greyhound you would just select these two cities and you will be returned all the possible routes, start times, length and layovers.

Do you have any experiences or insight about taking a bus around the US?

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Chicago – Free Walking Tour

One of my best finds for my trip to Chicago was a Free Walking Tour that my mom and I took. It was through the Chicago Greeter Program, where anyone staying in a Chicago Hotel is able to submit a request with your preferences for what to see and do around the city. Then a native Chicago volunteer is selected based on your preferences and then they will tailor a two – four hour walking tour around the city. Since you will also receive a one-day unlimited metro card to use on the tour, your guide can take you to multiple locations around the city.

Tiffany Dome Ceiling in the Chicago Cultural Center.

Our tour started in the Chicago Cultural Center at 77 E. Randolph Street which is downtown, just across the street from the Northwest corner of Millennium Park. This building alone is a spectacular place to begin with. It has been almost completely restored back to the grandeur it had when it was constructed in 1897. There are multiple halls and staircases covered with marble tile mosaics and stained glass dome ceilings.  One of which is claimed as the Largest Tiffany Glass Dome in the World!  Even if it isn’t, it is still massive and beautiful with the sun shinning through it.  It is such a shame that this building was almost torn down during the 1970’s.  Makes you wonder how many buildings like this that have been torn down in the past and are lost forever.

Top Left: Artwork of the Grand Staircase – Bottom Left: Grand Staircase covered in mosaic tiles.
Right: View up Grand Staircase towards Tiffany Glass Dome

Tiffany mosaic tile ceiling in Macy’s.

Another stop on our tour was a Macy’s Department Store. You may be wondering, just like I was, what that has to do with history or architecture.  The building that Macy’s now has as one of their flagship stores was once a Marshall Fields Department Store before being bought out by Macy’s in 2005.  It was built in 1892 and is the second largest store in the world only trailing Macy’s New York City.  Something not to miss when walking around the store is the Tiffany mosaic tile, barrel vaulted ceiling. As we walked around the store we could see many customers never even noticing what they were walking under.  Throughout the tour, our guide took us into many buildings that we would never have thought of walking through.  It was well worth the 3 hours we spent walking around with her.

Some of the other stops included:

Top Left: Illinois Department of Revenue Atrium – Top Right: Chicago City Hall Main Floor
Bottom Left: Palmer House Hotel Second Floor – Bottom Right: The Rookery

What would your choices be for what to see on a talking tour? Architecture? Sports? History? Food? Nature? All of the above?

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Chicago – Family Fun

If the Museum of Science and Industry does not sound like something you and your family would be interested in, another option would be the Navy Pier.  When my Mom arrived Sunday morning at Union Station, I met up with her and jumped onto the CTA Bus # 124. This bus route was specifically created to just go between Union Station and Navy Pier. The closest ‘L’ stop to Navy Pier is on the RED line at the GRAND station.  From there take the Free Navy Pier Trolley that runs from GRAND station directly to Navy Pier from Memorial Day to Labor Day plus during a few other special events.  If that isn’t running, you can also jump on the CTA Bus #65  and it will take you to the front of Navy Pier.

View of Ferris Wheel from 18th hole of Miniature Golf Course.

Included on the Go Chicago Card is a five attraction pass to the small amusement park on Navy Pier.  The pass has no expiration and anyone can use it. You can choose from the Ferris Wheel, the Musical Carousel, Chicago themed Miniature Golf, Old-Fashioned Swings and for the little tykes there is a small Lighthouse Drop ride. The one attraction not to miss is the Ferris Wheel as it will give you great views of Navy Pier, the Chicago skyline and Lake Michigan.  While you are at Navy Pier, there are also many shops and restaurants to stop at.  I suggest getting some Garrett Popcorn for a snack and eating dinner at the Harry Carey’s Tavern.

Another attraction located at Navy Pier that is included on the Go Chicago Card is the Chicago Children’s Museum at Navy Pier.  While I didn’t go in, just looking at their website makes me wish I was eight again and was able to run around this museum.  The current exhibit Unboxed: Adventures in Cardboard looks like a lot of fun since I have always liked to build my own creations.  I would have also been able to build whatever my imagination came up with at the Legoland Discovery Center Chicago.  Now, in my mid twenties, I still love building with Legos and would have loved to have made it to the Discovery Center.  Entrance is included on the Go Chicago Card but there is also a Lego store next door that is always free to enter.  Most importantly, in order to enter the Discovery Center, there must be a child 12 or under in your group.  To get there, take the CTA BLUE Line to the ROSEMONT Station. Transfer to the Route 606 Pace bus and exit soon after the Woodfield Mall stop but asking the bus driver which exit would be your best bet.

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Chicago – Musuem of Science and Industry

A short walk from the Robie House on the South Side of Chicago is the Museum of Science and Industry.  While I got there by taking the GREEN Metro line to the GARFIELD exit, it would be quite a long walk if you had a whole family with you.  A better option to get there from downtown would be to take the #10 Bus.  Its route goes from North Michigan Avenue, at Water Tower Place, all the way through downtown along State Street and has a last stop at the Museum.  It runs about every 30 minutes from around the time the museum opens until a little after it closes.

Not only does the Go Chicago Card give you access to the museum, you also receive one free movie in the Omnimax Theater located in the museum.  The movies rotate so you will have to see what is playing during your visit.  While inside the museum there was almost too much to do!  I was practically running around the gigantic building in order to see everything in just a few short hours.  Make sure, upon entering, to find a map in order to find the specific exhibits you would like to see and would be most interested in.  Although there was a very wide range of exhibits, all with very interesting information that I loved learning about, many of the hands on exhibits were tailored towards kids.

U-505 WWII German Submarine

The add-on exhibits intrigued me the most and having the Go Chicago Card gave me half off all the extra cost exhibits.  One of which is the tour of the interior of the  U-505 WWII German Submarine, the only German submarine in the United States.  While I didn’t spring for the tour I found it very beneficial to still walk around the massive submarine.   Reading all about its history, from the time it was built, its use in WWII and how it was put into the Museum is very interesting.

Other add-on exhibits to consider include:

  • The Coal Mine which has been a permanent exhibit since 1933 and will give you a first hand experience of what it is like for workers in a real coal mine
  • The Smart Home: Green + Wired has been recently remodeled and shows off many products and design ideas to make the house as Green as possible.
  • Rotating exhibits change throughout the year, currently there is a Charlie Brown and Christmas exhibit opening soon.  Check before visiting to see what will be available.

Would you find time to visit the Museum of Science and Industry?

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