When you cross from the Netherlands to Germany along the northern border, you hardly notice you’re in a different country. License plates change, but the scenery stays the same: flat pasture lands dotted with grazing cows and sheep and scattered stands of trees.
Architecture in both countries is also similar: tidy homes and barns surrounded by gardens abloom with colorful flowers. Homeowners in Northern Europe take pride in their residences, and since people don’t move as often, they create their own mini-paradises inside and out.
Many Germans rent out apartments in their homes to tourists, and Peter and I have booked an Airbnb in Ditzum, a cozy German village by the Ems River. We’re a few days into my brother and his wife’s two-week European vacation—their first-ever visit, and we’re excited to show Tom and Patty a bit of German culture. My brother loves beer, so cafés serving delicious cold German beer are always on the itinerary.
Enjoy Thermal Baths at Bad Nieuweschans
Learn How Cruise Ships Are Built at Meyer Werft
One day we visit a thermal bath back across the border in NL. Peter and I happened to live in the town, Bad Nieuweschans, back in the 80s, so it’s fun to show Tom and Patty our old apartment overlooking a park. Next we change into our suits at the thermal bath resort, and soon we’re relaxing in silky, warm water. Peter and I love going to thermal baths and have soaked in numerous baths from Greece to Spain.
We’re not the only ones who love it. Ancient Romans also relished taking the waters, and remnants of Roman baths can still be found across Europe. Today in some countries health insurance covers admission to thermal resorts, which is already reasonable at $10-20 for 2-3 hours. The mineral-rich water comes from deep underground and has therapeutic benefits for everything from skin issues to respiratory diseases. Besides the health benefits, it’s fun to sit in an outdoor pool filled with warm water especially when there’s a chill in the air, as there often is in early summer in Europe.
We’ve visited this thermal bath resort before and take Tom and Patty around to the different pools, showing them where to enjoy a jetted massage, a steam bath, and the bubble chairs (my favorite!). Afterwards at a cozy snack bar, we feast on French fries and satay.
Another excursion we’ve planned is visiting Meyer Werft, a shipyard in Papenburg, Germany, that builds cruise ships for Disney, Norwegian, and others. The company was founded in 1795, and today is run by the seventh generation of the Meyer family. What’s unique about this shipyard is its location, which is 20 miles inland from the North Sea. When a ship is launched, crowds gather to watch it carefully navigate through a canal to the Ems River and cruise through bridge lifts with barely inches to spare.
Our visit doesn’t coincide with one of the launches, but we enjoy learning about the company in the visitor’s center, where you can watch movies about the shipbuilding process and see models of ships they’ve built. The big thrill is observing an actual cruise ship being built in the building docks. Meyer Werft is home to the largest covered building dock in the world—about five football fields in length and one football field wide. It takes three years and more than 3400 employees to build a cruise ship. Turns out they build the ships in small sections and then put it together like a 3-D puzzle.
Our last evening in Germany we spend in the city of Leer, where we walk along the Ems River and watch youngsters crewing on the water. Tom has been anxious to try authentic schnitzel, but here in Germany’s northwest, it’s all about fish. Finally, we find a place that offers schnitzel and a view of the river. We drink tasty German beer and feel almost like we belong here in this foreign country—because it’s not really where you are as much as it’s who you’re with that makes you feel comfortable, right?
I ask my brother what he thinks about Europe, and he says he has trouble getting used to how different everything is: the language, the currency, the street signs. But it’s exciting, he says, and kind of shakes up his perception of things. Tom and Patty are homebodies at heart, so I’m not sure they’re loving Europe as much as I do. Luckily, our next stop is our big brother’s farmstead in Sweden, where I know Tom will feel at home.
Don’t Miss Ales Stenar, or Ale’s Stones, Near Ystad
Sanct Hans Bonfires Celebrate Summer in Denmark
Every time I drive down my brother’s long driveway in Southern Sweden, I feel like I’m coming home. This visit is extra special since Tom and Patty are seeing for the first time where Dick and his wife Nilla have lived and raised their family since the 1980s. After a day’s drive from Germany, Dick and Nilla welcome us with hugs. They recently built a lovely guesthouse that sleeps four adjacent to their house, so we have lots of room.
The week goes by in a blur with visits to see our niece in Malmo and nephew in Lund and their recently born babies. We explore Ystad, the town closest to Dick, ride bikes down to the Baltic, take walks on forest trails, and enjoy bonfires in Dick’s yard in the evenings. Nilla is an amazing cook, so dinners are always special. Afterwards we sit on the covered porch and watch the twilight linger until nearly midnight. One evening a light rain falls followed by a beautiful rainbow.
A favorite attraction near Ystad is Ales Stenar (or Ale’s Stones), a large stone monument in the shape of a ship whose origins aren’t known. Perhaps it dates to Viking times or even earlier. Some scientists say it might also have been built as a sun calendar to mark the sun’s movements. I love the dramatic setting of the stones high above the Baltic Sea. The day we visit there are a dozen parasailers taking advantage of the updrafts next to the steep cliffs. Ales Stenar is a magical kind of place, and I always feel energy from the stones.
Before long, we’re saying goodbye to Dick and Nilla and heading west toward the Copenhagen airport, where we drop Tom and Patty off to catch their flight back home. Peter and I are staying longer in Europe, and our next stop is Kolding, Denmark, where our former au pair, Lene, has invited us to stay in her summer house while I work on my deadline.
Denmark is a lovely country with rolling hills and miles and miles of coastlines. It’s actually comprised of over a thousand islands, 70 of which are inhabited, and the peninsula of Jutland, which is where Kolding is located. Lene’s summer house is south of Kolding in a lovely seaside village called Hejlsminde.
After deadline is finished, we are lucky to take part in an annual tradition called Sankt Hans, which is celebrated on June 23 and marks the beginning of summer. All across Denmark people gather on beaches to watch huge bonfires, built and set afire for the purpose of burning an effigy of a witch. We love witnessing the cozy celebration in Hejlsminde and linger a while as the fire smolders. Summer evenings in Scandinavia seem to last forever.
Walk in a Rainbow at AROS, Aarhus’ Modern Art Museum
Meet Grauballe Man at Moesgaard Museum
Lene has planned a special day in Aarhus, Denmark’s second largest city about an hour north of Kolding. Soon after we arrive, Peter and I realize Aarhus and its surrounding region deserve a much-longer visit than one day. This lovely city sits on the waterfront with lots of terraces, winding shopping streets, and state-of-the-art museums.
We begin our visit at AROS, one of the largest art museums in Europe. AROS is known for its rooftop art installation called Your Rainbow Panorama, a 150-meter long circular walkway ten stories above the ground. The designer Olafur Eliasson, part Danish and part Icelandic, often uses sunlight as a component of his artwork, and the effect is magical and transporting. As you walk through the colorful panels, you change color as do the views of the city. Talk about an interactive exhibit! So fun.
Another highlight of the museum is the sixteen-foot tall Boy, sculpted by Australian artist Ron Mueck. The statue is amazingly lifelike, and you can walk around Boy and view him from different angles. Even his skin is luminous. I find Boy’s eyes so riveting. From a certain viewpoint, he seems to look at you and through you at the same time. Another installation we like, called Vertigo, features hundreds of mirrors that repeat your image over and over again to infinity and beyond!
Thought-provoking art is found in the Human Nature exhibit, which includes paintings from traditional painters as well as modern artists. Each work highlights the good, the bad, and the ugly of human nature. We also enjoy the sound, light, and installation art on the bottom floor.
All this art has made us hungry, and Peter and I want to take Lene and her husband, Jørn, to a popular restaurant for lunch. Café Viggo sits beside a canal, and it’s sunny and gorgeous today, which means all the outdoor tables are full. No matter. Café Viggo’s interior is cool and cozy, and the food is divine. Lene and Jørn try the club sandwich, Peter has nachos, and I opt for the pasta dish, which is tagliatelle with chicken in a creamy curry sauce. It’s amazing.
In the afternoon we visit another fabulous attraction called Moesgaard Museum. An architectural marvel, the museum rises up out of the ground like a spaceship. Its green roof and pastoral setting, however, ensure the building blends perfectly with the surrounding nature. Inside, the museum focuses on history and storytelling, symbolized by a staircase that rises from the depths to the heavens, metaphorically, of course.
Its most famous exhibit is the Grauballe Man, an incredibly well-preserved human dating to the 3rd century BC, who was discovered in a bog in Jutland in 1952. Seeing this man who lived so long ago is eerie, especially since there’s evidence he was killed and may in fact have been sacrificed. His body has been tanned, like leather, and is black, but many of his features are intact. The exhibit tells about the bog man’s discovery and how he has fascinated the public since he was first discovered.
Another exhibit on view during our visit tells the story of Vikings that traveled east to Russia and Turkey. Called the Rus Vikings, these clever explorers sought silver, treasures, and power. The exhibit incorporates storytelling, audio, and authentic depictions of what life for the Rus Vikings was like. As you might expect, their journey included bloody battles—they were Vikings after all—but here and there are stories of hope and repentance and love.
Our time in Aarhus has ended too soon. We say goodbye to Lene and Jørn and drive into Germany to see our friends in Bremen. Having so many lovely friends to visit makes Europe feel like home.
For more information:
• Visit www.thermenbadnieuweschans.nl/
• Visit www.meyerwerft.de/en/
• Stay in my brother’s guesthouse near Ystad, Sweden: www.airbnb.com/rooms/48483312
• Learn more about visiting Aarhus at www.visitaarhus.com.
Enjoy more of Peggy’s adventures here.