Castles in the Air

May 9, 2020

Castles in the Air


“Look at all those brochures for graduate school in Europe – Vienna, Prague, wow! I would love to go,” I said dreamily.

“What are you doing, Betty, looking at places in Europe? Poor girls don’t travel.”

I heard those words and my stomach sank. Would I never travel? Would I always be stuck in the Bronx? I wanted to see the world. The words kept echoing in my head, “Poor girls don’t travel.”


“Grandma, how many countries have you been to?” “I don’t know Charlie, let’s count them.”

“Have you ever been to Australia and New Zealand, Grandma?”

“No, Charlie, maybe one day you and I will go together.

“Grandma, tell me again about the most exciting trip, the one with the castle.”

“Alright, here goes. Are you ready?”

It was 1959 and Grandpa Franklin and I were living in England where we were doing our Waldorf teacher training. We were only twenty-one years old. I was so happy because even though people told me I wouldn’t travel because I was poor, I proved them wrong. We received full scholarships for Waldorf teacher training and we had saved enough money from our wedding to buy a car during our winter holiday break. In those days, 1959, the car only cost $1,000. You can’t imagine how excited we were to pick up our little turquoise Renault in France and start driving to Holland and Germany.

“Tell about the castle! Tell about the castle!” Six-year old Charlie said impatiently.

“It was a cold wintry December day, and we had been driving all day and were very tired. We were looking for signs to the youth hostel, in German, Jugendherberge, so we could have a good night’s sleep. Finally, we saw a sign with an arrow pointing up. We parked the car because you couldn’t drive to a hostel. Hostels were really for people traveling by train or hiking from place to place. We started walking and walking. It was dark and cold and steep, and we kept walking. I pulled my brown wool winter coat tight around my body to keep the wind out. We kept walking up and up and up. You know, Charlie, I have asthma sometimes, so I began to wheeze and we had to slow down. We could see the forms of tall trees around us, casting long shadows by the light of the sliver moon. “

“Franklin, do you think this is the right way? I haven’t seen another sign.” I asked.

After what seemed like an hour, we saw up ahead the outline of a castle. I had never seen a castle before.

“Franklin, what is this. Where are we? I feel like we are inside a fairy tale.”

“Just keep walking, Betty, we’re getting closer. I don’t know what we’ll find. This is eerie, but don’t worry.” We clung to each other as we took small steps, not sure what was next.

We came to a moat, then crossed a rickety bridge into a long tunnel. An electric bulb hung from the ceiling, bats were flying around. We could hear a dog barking in the distance.

“I’m scared.  I don’t like the feel of this. When does this tunnel end?” I snuggled close to him.

We walked and walked further. Luckily, it was level so I didn’t have trouble breathing. When we came to the end of the tunnel we looked out over a large field and castle walls all around us. In the distance, we saw light in one room. Everything else was dark. We walked carefully, until we came to a large wooden door with an iron handle and knocker. Grandpa Franklin rapped the knocker on the door over and over until we could hear the shuffling of footsteps.

An old man carefully opened the door and looked at us questioningly. “What are you doing here? The castle is geschlossen in December.

Geschlossen. Doesn’t that mean closed? I asked very quietly to Grandpa Franklin. We walked all this way in the cold and dark, and it’s closed.

“Ja,” the old man replied. “In summer, people come up here by sesselbahn. No one walks up the mountain. But come in and warm yourselves by the fire.”

Relieved, we walked into the large living room with soft seats in front of a large fireplace. The heat felt wonderful, and the old man brought us hot tea. He looked at us for a long time. Then he said, “Come with me.” And we walked through one hall after another, past closed doors, until we came to just the right one. “You stay here.” he said to me. He continued on with Grandpa to show him where the bathroom was. When Grandpa Franklin returned, we walked past dozens of doors until we came to a huge bathroom where we  brushed our teeth and got ready for the night. When we closed the door of our room, it squeaked. It probably hadn’t been oiled in hundreds of years. We wondered if we would be able to open it in the morning.

Grandpa Franklin and I looked at this small room with stone walls. There were three double bunk beds with piles of blankets at the foot of each one. There were icicles on the small window which had no glass, and the wind was blowing in. I was shaking. We put on all the clothes we had with us, our winter coats, our warm boots, our hats and gloves, and took the blankets from all the beds and piled them on top of us. We snuggled together to get warm and settled down to sleep.

When we woke in the morning, light was shining through the window onto our bed. We got up, stretched our legs, and folded the blankets. We plodded through the halls to the living room where the fireplace was still blazing. The old man came out to greet us. He told us that we were in a fort called Ehrenbreitstein, almost 2,000 years old.  The fortress had held the relic of the holy tunic, a robe that legend said was worn by Jesus Christ before his death on the cross.  “That is not here anymore.” He said. “Now, In the summer, this hostel is filled with young people who take the tram up from the bottom of the mountain. They dance and sing and have a wonderful time. There are 1100 rooms. You are the only ones who have walked up. “

We glanced back at the tall stone walls and towers as we walked together to the end of the large field and looked down on two rivers which met together below us. “This is the Deutsche Ecke. The two rivers are the Rhine and the Mosel. Well, young people, I will leave you now. Be careful walking down. The path is very steep. Auf wiedersehn.”

Grandpa Franklin and I walked through the tunnel, across the moat, and carefully made our way down the mountain. It was much easier this time, but we were giggling with excitement with each step we took. When we finally saw our little car just where we had left it, we got in and started the engine.


“Yes,” I said, “poor girls don’t travel,” And that was just the beginning.

I smile as I think about that day when I heard those words. In the sixty years since then, I have become a serious traveler. In some cases, I’ve led groups of high school students to Egypt, Israel, Greece, and Western Europe. I’ve led adults and students twice to Russia and Central Asia. I’ve done research in Kenya, Tanzania, and Morocco for my book on Africa. I’ve done a month’s lecture tour in Japan organized by my Japanese college students. I’ve taken tours to China and Tibet, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand, and to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. I’ve lived in England and eastern Europe, done research in Spain, visited friends in Mexico and Latvia. And I’ve visited Dubai and India.

So, poor girls don’t travel. But travel makes poor girls rich with memories and experiences.