That was the worst flight I’ve ever been on in my miserable life. I’m  shocked, because Cathay Pacific has a very good reputation and were directly responsible for my introduction to business class last trip – but a twelve-hour flight in economy on CP was far worse than the 16-hour flight in economy on United.

I thought it was just me, but as we deplaned and I began pulling the party together, Amanda was giving me the thousand-yard stare and Nitin looked more like death than I’ve ever seen. The whole group was intensely miserable until we left the airport.

The drive from Frankfurt to Neu-Isenburg was beautiful, a drive through deep forest denuded of leaves by winter and thick mist roiling at waist-level. Pete handed me the fear and loathing line: “This is werewolf country,” which becomes a watchword throughout the day.

Once at the Mercure Hotel, our spirits lift higher. We can shower, we can eat, we have German coffee, and the young lady at the front desk doesn’t stop smiling once. Her spirit’s infectious and her English is impeccable, and over cold cuts and coffee the group turns to me for directions.

I’ve loved, loved, loved being in charge of the decisions. Everyone trusts me to know where I’m going and what I’m doing, and when a turnaround is necessary we’ve all got a sense of humor about it. They want me to lead them on this mission, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to let anyone down. Heidelburg it is, for castles, cathedrals and shopping.

I’ll tell you this: Exhausted and demoralized men who are suddenly given German engineered cars and a speed limit above 100 mph make for a videogame experience as developed by tweakers. I fell asleep out of terror for my life as Norb and Pete raced each other through the mountainous countryside, waking only at the moment we enter Heidelburg along the river.

The city’s modern, of course; most of Germany is out of necessity. The era they rebuilt in is one of clean lines and curves, of bright lights and form following function. To go from that the the altstadt (old town), where we drive over cobblestones and peer at buildings older than our homeland but in impeccable shape, is a special visual experience for anyone who enjoys architecture.

The castle awaits. Heidelburg Castle is a beast of two eras and two minds: We enter up a cobbled slope rimed with ice and slush, knowing how difficult this trip would have been on foot, in armor, under fire and racing to storm the gates. Into the original fortress, built in the 12th century and made of thick slabs of rust-red stones, looking out over the valley and town to survey what once was some Lord’s domain.

From there we enter the barogue portion of the castle, rebuilt and expanded in the 16th-17th century. It’s brilliant, high arches and statuary in every nook, carved poems extolling the geneology of kings, emperors and palatines, wide avenues lined with trees and lit now with lanterns designed to resemble gaslamps. The courtyard area is immense and still lovely: a single tree twisting around the deep temple of the well, a working clock bigger than the sun from our vantage point, stonework that can’t be estimated or extolled highly enough. Nitin nods to me: we’ve left two of his partners in Hong Kong for two extra days which he was aslo supposed to enjoy, with a wink he tells me “This is better than the casinos in Macao would be.”

We descend the steep medieval stairs, past chalets on the hillside in which people clearly live. It must be like being in a fairytale, to come home after a day’s work to cling to the skirts of history, the beloved earth looming above you, protected by the memories of your ancestors and their generations which lie behind you.

In the altsadt we find ourselves in the old Corn Market and church squares, thick with university students and tourists like ourselves. The shops are souvenier quality stuff but the beerhall we duck into for lunch is comfortable and warm, with thick curtains across the door acting as an airlock against the chill. It’s still warmer than it is back home, so none of us are complaining, especially after a pilsner toast to our new travels and new successes.

Returning home, we break for a nap; after which members of the smarter gender admit they’re too exhausted to go anywhere for dinner. The men set out on a twenty-minute hike along the main street to the Frankfurter Haus and are rewarded for it well – the platonic ideal of a weinerschnitzel, breaded to perfection with the mint sauce created at a consistency I’ve never known. We share more beer, of course; as we try to sample the local offerings and color.

After that, it’s O’Ryans and our first law of travel: Wherever you are in the world, some idiot will slap an Irish name across a board and turn it into a bar. Soccer’s on the television and Guinness is in our hands for a good hour or so before a short political … discussion … ensues between myself and my manager.

This leads to our first addendum to the first law: Wherever you are in the world, drunken Americans will argue loudly in your local Irish bar.

In the end, we drop it and head back home, which means an apology nightcap to ensure no hard feelings in the hotel bar before drifting off to my best sleep of the entire trip. I’m writing this at 6:45 AM local time, and though I’m already showered and ready to go it’s still the longest I’ve slept consecutively since leaving Illinois, a full six hours of peaceful, dreamless slumber.

Now all I need to do is plan the day’s itinerary.