We find a ruined castle, a fine little hotel with good food, and a surprisingly fascinating birds-of-prey show in an unpretentious town near Coburg. A large double room with bath is about $40.

By Andy Bestor

If bombastic college basketball TV commentator, Dick Vitale, were a travel writer he would likely exclaim, "Altenstein is an awesome bargain baby! With a capital B!"

Located about 20 minutes west of Coburg and its impressive Veste, this tiny town's rural setting is enhanced by an enormous panoramic view, an interesting ruined castle and a small hotel that is a super bargain. Gasthof-Pension Hofmann, just below Burg Altenstein, overlooks rolling green pastures and a pine forest.

The Castle

Said to date from 1225, Burg Altenstein's crumbling towers are now part of the landscape, its arches and walls blend seamlessly into the hillside. We visited its remains in the evening, just before sunset, snapping photos as the light from the setting sun cast long shadows on the emerald earth. We used the ruins as a jungle-gym for grown-ups, climbing everywhere to give it a complete exploration. To be allowed to touch and wander as we pleased was a treat. Old castles don't exist in California and if they did visitors would probably have to view them from a distant observation platform through one of those quarter-per-look telescopes.

The Hotel

Our simple room at the Hofmann had a small couch, a table with chairs, a modern little bathroom with toilet and shower, and a balcony with spectacular view. A huge bargain at $42 per night. A week's stay for two persons, including breakfasts and dinners, is only 666 DM ($308)

The hotel's restaurant is another good reason to visit this small Franconian town. That night there was just one other couple in the pleasant dining room. The owner himself greeted us and first offered a choice of soups. We picked cream of tomato and potato leek and he disappeared into the kitchen, returning 15 minutes later with hot bowls of what was obviously freshly made soup.

Earlier in the day, our host had touted us on his steaks. We took the hint. They came with a crisp mixed salad and roasted potatoes. Delectable, as advertised.

After the meal we complimented the proprietor/chef and inquired about the origins of the beef. He pointed to a man at the bar who raises 'em, feeds 'em, slaughters 'em and delivers 'em. What we ate probably had a name. Cool.

• Daily Rates: Singles 55 DM ($25), doubles 80 to 90 DM ($37 to $42). Seven-night special with breakfast and dinner 666 DM ($308) for two persons.
Contact: Gasthof-Pension Hofmann, Altenstein, 96126 Maroldsweisach, tel. +49/09535 391, fax 1441. Proprietor: Family Trejgis.
Rating: Quality 12/20, Value 19/20

Birds of Prey

Next day, halfway between Altenstein and Coburg, we found the town of Tambach and its castle, Schloss Tambach. The castle itself is not extraordinary, but the falconry show on the castle grounds is worth a detour, especially for those who, as we do, have some interest in birds. When hiking in Northern California, if we happen to spot a falcon, hawk or eagle, we take time to observe. At the Bayerischer Jagdfalkenhof we were able to view, "up close and personal," some of the world's largest, most lethal raptors.

The audience for this demonstration, 80 to 100 persons, assembles on bleacher-type seats. The show is narrated in German and begins with the flight of a single falcon. A trainer, positioned in a field in front of the bleachers, signals the bird which appears from behind the audience and lands on his protected hand. Another handler then takes his place on the top row of bleachers. The bird is then signaled by the second trainer and comes swooping overhead to him. The trainers then send the bird back and forth so that each section of bleachers gets a close-up view.

The demonstration continues with bald eagles, other falcons and an assortment of condors. The sight of a condor coming directly at you with its landing gear down is exhilarating to say the least. The oohs and aahs continue as the show crescendos like a 4th of July fireworks display, with diving falcons, soaring eagles and the big condors all sharing airspace.

The show runs daily at 11am and 3pm between March and October. The price of admission (about $5.50 for adults and about $2.50 for kids) includes entrance to Schloss Tambach and its hunting museum, plus admission to the wild animal park.

There is much to be said for Europe's big, historic cities, but the German countryside offers a unique kind of comfort and hospitality. Perhaps it's the slower pace that feels more like a vacation. Though Altenstein is not much different from thousands of similar German country towns, it does have advantages: a charming castle ruins, close proximity to a pair of fascinating cities - Coburg and Bamberg, and the friendliness and food at the Gasthof-Pension Hofmann.

March 2001