After Bruges, we headed on over to Essen, Germany where we picked up our friend Christopher at the Villa Hugel. This is the amazing mansion of the German Industrial/Steel Magnate, Alfred Krupp.
Then he took us to the Essen Grugapark, where the kids could run free for a bit. This is the coolest park I have ever seen in my life. It is huge beyond belief and we only saw a fraction of it.
There were zip lines for the kids, castle forts on hills with slides and underground tunnels, pyramids, playsets, animals in a mini zoo, a train, a big lake, ducks, ice-cream stands (which of course Christopher had to get some for the kids), rope bridges, kid mazes and forts, and so much more. After the park he took us to dinner at this local restaurant Gebrandenhof, where we had a great local/regional meal. I had the pork tenderloin and it was delish! We stayed the night with him at his bachelor pad before heading to his parents house in Stadtoldendorf. Essen is where Berlin developed her first crush. She was smitten with Christopher and soon had him wrapped around her little finger.
The next day we were off to his parents house. Christopher came with us since he was on short break from University. When we got to his parents house, Klaus and Sigi had signed us up for a military off-roading experience. Here we are jeepin' thru the German countryside. This used to be an old military base where tanks, jeeps, and trucks full of soldiers would train for battle. Now, a Dutchman owns the land and uses the old trails for off-roading adventures. It was a blast and the perfect way to spend a drizzly Sunday afternoon. All the rocky bumps, water holes, and steep hills put Berlin right to sleep while sitting up in the back seat.
Klaus (above) .... Christopher (below)
On Monday we headed out to the Autostadt (the VW Wolfsburg Factory) for a tour. Because they are expanding the plant, they only do tours for foreign visitors. We felt so lucky! And it's pretty top secret. The only way to get to the factory for visitors is by boat. And no cameras allowed once you're off the boat.
Then you board a bus-train and they drive you thru the factory. We got to see the Golf factory line and it was very interesting. The factory is so large that employees ride their bikes inside to get around. Cool. Seeing them build the cars makes me want to buy a VW car. Not a Golf, but I wouldn't mind a Touareg.
After the tour we got to take the kids to the VW Auto City. This is where the kids learned how to drive, got a driver's license, drove pedal cars, and well, just had fun. They loved it.
Then we went upstairs to the car museum and saw some pretty sweet rides. I of course prefer the old cars versus the newer ones. Here's my favorite....
Wish they still made these cause I'd be all over it in a heartbeat. That's a van I'd be proud to drive.
Some other fun cars that we saw...
The kids got a kick out of pretending to drive the cars.
Posing with our French car - the Renault Scenic. License plates over there are usually white and sometimes yellow. We never saw another red one the entire month we were abroad. Apparently the locals had never seen a red license plate either because EVERYONE stared at the car whenever we drove by. We got teased a lot about having a French car. Go figure :)
The coolest car ever. It only has 2 seats in it and the roof is entirely glass. We look like clowns in a circus car.
Standing in front of the car towers. This is where they store all the cars that customers buy direct from the factory. When you pick it up the automated robot finds it in the tower and brings it down. It's pretty cool.
On Tuesday we went to the Harz region (up in the mountains) with Klaus and Christopher. We had a long, steep hike up the mountain but the kids were awesome. Well, I should say Finley was awesome and he booked it most of the way. Berlin was awesome at begging rides on Ryan and Christopher's shoulders. The mountain we climbed is the one of the highest mountains in Germany and it's a really popular area with mountain bikers and hikers. I can see why.
The view at the top was amazing. And it was windy and cold so we went into the museum to warm up a bit. In this region of Germany it's good luck to put a witch in your house (like in the kitchen or hanging in a window). In the museum you could sit on the witches broom.
This was just a cute little display (above). And below, the distance to Berlin from where we were on the top of the mountain. Berlin had fun seeing her name everywhere on the trip.
The great reward: taking an old steam train back down the mountain.
Wednesday was our last full day with the Berndt's. First, they took us to the Ashenputter's Castle - Cinderella's Castle in Polle, Germany (the Brother's Grimm Cinderella Castle on Fairy Tale road, not Neuschwanstein aka the Disney castle). The castle is in ruins, but Berlin was in heaven, even in shackles.
The happiest prisoners you'll ever see. They loved this little dungeon.
Next up, the nature park. Wild horses were running free in the pasture as we walked up to the entrance. They were beautiful. These horses are specialty bred and meant for racing. They can be quite wild, and some were going crazy, but there were a few that loved the attention they got from Berlin and Fin. And once they got their ears scratched and noses rubbed, they were quite tame. Berlin now wants a horse.
The look of PURE JOY on her face. She was so happy. I just love this picture.
Here's Berlin crushin' on Christopher in the big horned ram pasture.
(Berlin, Klaus, Christopher, Florian, Finley, Ryan)
The goats, some deer, and big horned rams, and a few other animals are let to roam free with no fences. It was really neat to be in there with them and to feed them out of our hands. Some deer and animals (like the HUGE wart hogs, wolves, and raccoons) were behind fences, but we could still feed them.
And of course, they had a play area at the end so we let the kids run free for a bit. I even got a little crazy on the coolest trampoline ever. I hate trampolines. They are way too dangerous for my liking. But this one, man, I wish I could figure out how it was made and have one put in our backyard. It was very cool, no springs/coils and not quite as bouncy as normal trampolines.
I'm channeling my cheer-leading days. Doesn't Ryan look cute with a purse?
What's missing from the above picture? Berlin coaching Christopher on his form. She was pretty bossy and critical of his arabesque. Guess he's got some practicing to do :)
The next morning we left, but not without tears. Finley was an emotional wreck and bawled. Across the street from their house there were some long-haired brown sheep. And every morning after breakfast and every evening before dinner the kids would go blow bubbles at the sheep. One sheep in particular took a great liking to Finley. It was really sweet. He would come whenever Finley called and would stay and pop the bubbles with his nose. Thus, Finley named him Bubble-E. He was heartbroken when we had to leave him behind.
Then when we had to say goodbye to the Berndt's he cried even harder. He is my sweet and tender boy. He got in the car and said, "I can't let them see me like this. I'm a mess." So tender, it melted my heart which made me all emotional. He is definitely like me when it comes to crying. Tears are always near the surface.
Berlin saying goodbye to her man, Christopher.
We had an amazing time with our friends. They were such gracious hosts and we sure do miss them. Hopefully they will be able to make their trip to the states next Summer and we can repay their generosity.
Next up, Holstein (on the Baltic Sea) ....
Next up, Holstein (on the Baltic Sea) ....