Thursday, January 23, 2014

Chapter 38: Chillin' am Bodensee

Last Thursday we moved out of our Spesbach apartment and into base guest housing, dreary quarters to be sure. It's reasonably spacious with three rooms and the bed is comfortable enough, but the layout is crazy. Bathroom sinks are in different rooms from the rest of the bathrooms. To wash your hands, you have to hurry to another room to find a towel. The television is all in English, and instead of product commercials, the programs are interrupted with military news and, well, propaganda. The wi fi is erratic and always dead slow. It's hard to send emails home to tell loved ones what our plans are. Martin Luther King weekend seemed like a good time to escape the base and have a last hit of European fun.

We hopped into the car with a change of clothes and sped off down the autobahn to Konstanz am Bodensee, a resort city on a huge lake that straddles the German/Swiss border. Konstanz is situated right next to Switzerland; in fact, from our hotel we could easily walk from one country to the other. Switzerland has some lovely towns around the lake, too, but Swiss prices are high. Konstanz is a favorite resort area for many Germans with lots of boating and biking during the spring and summer. We visited during the off season, so I found a really good price on a hotel that I'm sure would have been outrageous during the summer peak. The Halm is a refurbished turn of the century hotel that looks pretty grand from the outside. The rooms are roomy and attractively furnished, and the restaurant looks like the inside of the Alhambra. It's also located directly across from the train station. After seeing the easy access by train travel, I kind of regretted taking the car. The car, however, was valuable later for exploring more of Switzerland and even Liechtenstein.

Hotel Halm

Train station across from the Halm

As I said, this was the off season: dreary, chilly gray German weather. I'm sure that Konstanz must be gorgeous in the spring when the water is blue, the trees are green and the flower boxes are out in the windows. Still, even in winter there is plenty to do. We saw some people dressed in silly costumes, about to load onto a yacht for a lake party. Plenty of people walked and cycled through the cobblestone streets, stopping with friends at restaurants and cafes. Like in so many European cities, there is a historic town center with old houses and interesting churches.

dressed up for a costume party on the Stuttgart

family scene
wall art

inside the Konstanz Münster

Münster tower at night

streets of Konstanz
After a forgettable breakfast at a next door McDonalds (budgeting for the trip home!), we took the car on a trip along the lakeside to St Gallen in Switzerland, situated at the far opposite end of the Bodensee. The weather in Konstanz had been overcast, but into Switzerland we passed through thick fog that obscured the landscape around us as well as much of the road ahead. On clear days, the Alps are visible from the lake, but, of course, we could not see them that morning. We finally made it along easily navigable Swiss roads to the scenic town of St Gallen, where my goal was to see the famed St Gall Abbey Library. After making a wrong turn onto a pedestrian zone and being hailed down by a suspicious Swiss police officer who spoke no English, I tried with my best German to explain that we were looking for the St Gall library. She sympathetically explained that we were pretty much there, but could not park in the city square. She directed me to an underground parking garage (typical of European cities). Because of the off season, the fact that it was Sunday and the dreary weather, the scenic mittestadt  of St Gallen was almost empty. Parking was easy and free. As usual, I took pictures of key landmarks with my phone as we left the garage so that we wouldn't get lost (yet sometimes we do), True, the medieval city was gray and dreary, but the thick fog made everything look ghostly and fascinating. The church and library were open, and we spent quite a bit of time at both sites. Unfortunately, the curators of the library do not allow photographs, but I have included a picture from the web (thanks Wikipedia!). The abbey dates back to early medieval times, though its present form is architecturally baroque. The abbey's museum includes models of earlier versions of the church and library, along with samples from illuminated manuscripts created there. St Gall was one of Europe's premier scriptoriums, and the library collection contains many priceless books, including several illuminated Bibles, a Gutenberg Bible and a high quality edition of the Niebelungenlied bound together with Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival and Willehalm, two of the greatest German romances of the middle ages.

St Gall Abbey Cathedral

Entry to St Gall Library

St Gall Library
Inside the magnificent St Gall Cathedral

St Gallen rising in the mist
After catching a quick, light lunch at the St Gall museum bistro, we bought a few things at the gift shop, made our way back to the car and then drove further into Switzerland, bearing east toward the tiny, mountainous country of Liechtenstein that lies between Switzerland and Austria. Switzerland is a small country; Liechtenstein is much smaller: 24.8 km long and 12.4 km wide. It's more like a very scenic neighborhood. Switzerland, at least the part we were in, was still obscured with fog, but as we neared the inconspicuous, totally open border of Liechtenstein, the Alps began to appear through the mist. They slowly emerged around us in their immensity, and the effect was magical. Usually when I have seen mountains, I have approached them gradually, traveling many miles to reach them. These just rose out of the clouds around us, and soon we were surrounded by snow draped peaks wreathed in mist.

We stopped at the capital, Vaduz, which is a moderately sized city spread across a flat valley surrounded by towering ranges of mountains. The hereditary constitutional monarch, H.S.H Prince Hans-Adam II, lives with his family in a castle overlooking the city from a cliff. We parked our car in a public space next to Vaduz's main shopping area, walked around the small area, and then discovered a trail up to the castle. It's a steep climb at first, then levels out to a comfortable hike. Since it was Sunday, the visitors' area of the castle was not open, but the hike did offer us a spectacular view of Vaduz and the mountains. After we hiked back down, we ate dinner, served by a young woman from the area who spoke excellent English and told us a bit about living in tiny Liechtenstein. A tourist shop was still open, and I bought a picture book of the area with Swiss francs, the currency they share with their neighbor. The dimensions of the place are just fascinating. The wide plain and mountains give a sense of immensity to the surroundings, yet the Prince could easily stroll down from his castle and walk to the main government offices that are located a short distance from the shopping district, next to Liechtenstein's most historic church. I imagine that most native Liechtensteiners know one another. It really is that small!

Alps appearing

Prince Hans-Adam's castle

Vaduz, Liechtenstein from the Prince's castle
The sun was beginning to sink, and although the fiery reflection on the mountainsides was stunning, I didn't want to wait too late to drive back to our hotel in Konstanz, especially if the southeast lake was still so thick with fog. The mountains were so beautiful, I hated to go, but we hopped back into the car and started the hour long drive to Konstanz. The night fell rapidly, but the good Swiss roads made travel comfortable. Germany has a great road system, but I think Switzerland tops them, and I hear that their train system is equally impressive. For such a bumpy country, it's easy to get around.

Once back at the hotel, Lawna and I went to the bar for a nightcap, talked for a few hours and watched passengers come and go through the train station, then went to our room to get some sleep before our last day of the weekend.

On our last day, we woke up early, caught the classy breakfast buffet at the hotel dining room (the Alhambra looking room), then ventured out for a morning walk along the lake. We hadn't really seen much water yet. We crossed an elevated pedestrian bridge over the railroad yard into a public park that crossed directly into Switzerland. The national border is only about a quarter mile from the hotel. Again, the weather was gray and chilly, but we enjoyed the park and climbed a lookout tower, the interior of which was covered with German and English language graffiti. The lakeside birds were gathered in great flocks and squawked and prattled in the cold water and on the pier. After our lengthy walk, we crossed through a shopping mall near the hotel, whose back loading area directly abuts Switzerland, and I tried to spend the last of my Swiss franc coins at a coffee shop. Oddly, many Swiss establishments accept euros, but give change in francs. In Germany, however, even directly next to the border, restaurants take only euros. So, I have some souvenir francs to take home.

Lawna astride two nations.
Crossing into Switzerland was much easier for us
than for Steve McQueen in the Great Escape.

Lookout tower (in Switzerland)

Konstanz, Germany from Switzerland

My little boat (I wish!)

We left the Bodensee after noon, and the drive back to Ramstein seemed particularly long. The weather remained damp and misty, but at times created spectacular effects. As we drove through the Black Forest, we spiraled down a narrow, two lane road that made its way obscurely between towering cliffs populated with giant, shaggy tall-growth pines, standing like ghostly sentinels, their tops vanishing into a swirling mist. The stereotype of German forests and castles in the mist is true. During the winter, one sees plenty of that. In a way it's dreary, but also stunning.

Back to the base. We're out of our apartment, our goods are in shipment, and we are lodged in temporary housing. Given a choice between our home in Spesbach and San Antonio, I'm actually torn. I have absolutely loved our stay. But given a choice between Ramstein and San Antonio, the choice is clear. I can't wait to get out of here. Tonight, however, we did visit our favorite Turkish-owned pizza and döner shop across from the Landstuhl train station and then drove back to the base through Hütschenhausen and Spesbach, and I began to tear up a bit. Germany is a beautiful country, and the people I've met have been wonderful. There is plenty that they do right that we do wrong. Germany is environmentally and socially conscious to a degree that the U.S. does not begin to match. Our violent crime rate is much higher than theirs. It's a prosperous nation, the economic leader of the European Union, yet the kind of blatant greed and money corruption that so dominates our governent and politics simply isn't tolerated by Germans. German and French people hit the streets and demand honesty much more vociferously than do complacent Americans. Europe has its problems, but Europeans also remember recent times of far greater suffering and troubles. They stood behind us right after 9-11, because they too have suffered bombings, but distanced themselves when we used the disaster as an excuse to invade a country that had not participated in the terrorist plot. Germans remember how Hitler invaded Poland for trumped up reasons of chauvenistic national pride and began the disasterous second world war. Jews suffered, Poles suffered, and many others who were victimized by the Nazis, but the Germans suffered because of the Nazis, too. It's a facinating and complicated period of history, and an age when the whole western world (and much of Asia)  just seemed to go totally nuts. The "civilized" world was laid waste, except for North America, for obvious geographical reasons. Germans remember, and are still rebuilding and sometimes digging out live shells, after almost every city in the country was decimated by Allied bombs. The enormity of their tragedy and defeat puts our horror of 9-11 into some perspective.  Everywhere you go in France and Germany (and all over central Europe) history speaks to you. Some of it is glorious and some of it is horrifying. Ancient buildings stand with modern ones, sublime monasteries and cathedrals stand near concentration camps, and Europe, so thoroughly modern culturally, always lives and acts with those reminders all around. I met several retired guys in our village who remembered living through bombings when they were children. Most everyone of that age group was touched by the mass destruction in some way. Germans know the dark side of patriotism and the dangers of unbridled nationalism, and their leaders can't get away so easily with just empty flag-waving campaigns. That's reserved for soccer. Chancellor Angela Merkl is a cautious, level headed physicist. Can you imagine a physicist becoming President of the United States?

Anyway, this will probably be my last blog entry from Europe. It was a trip I have always dreamed of making, and I will treasure the people I met and friends I made, and only regret that I did not have more time to become more fluent in German, and French. I've enjoyed maintaining this series, so, as soon as we return, I'll be trying to dream up some other excuse to write.

Lawna and I have missed our boys, our family and, yes, our dogs and cat. It will be good to get back to our familiar home and our friendly next door neighbors. I'm looking forward to warmer weather, back yard barbecuing, air conditioning during the summer and hitting the bike trails once my bike arrives. I have some schnitzel fat to burn off. I'm also looking very much forward to teaching again. I've missed it, and I feel renewed and ready to resume with new perspectives. Traveling is good for that. See you soon. Until then,


Saturday, January 4, 2014

Chapter 37: A New Year and, for me, a new decade commemorated in Alsace

As my 60th birthday approached, I knew I wanted to go somewhere interesting to celebrate. It took a while to find out exactly which days Lawna could take off for the holidays, so travel plans were kind of last minute for a popular holiday weekend. Since we are returning to the U.S. soon, we didn't want to do anything too lavish; it would have to be fairly close by. I have been wanting to visit Colmar in the beautiful Alsace region of France, about a three hour drive from our home, so I booked a room online on Kayak and we took off from Spesbach on Tuesday morning.

The drive was mostly foggy through farmlands, mostly on country roads punctuated at regular intervals by lazy traffic circles. Not the quick, direct route afforded by the autobahn. Once we passed through Strasbourg and entered the Alsatian wine region, the sky began to clear and we finally arrived at Colmar in the late morning sunshine, in time for lunch. Check in wasn't until 2:00, but we had use of the hotel parking, which is a valuable commodity in European cities that are tighter on parking spaces than in American cities. Out hotel was rated with just two stars, but the price was insanely reasonable. At least I had found a last minute room in a popular tourist town on New Years Eve! We parked the car, left our bags inside and set off for a twenty minute walk to the historic center of town.

Colmar has been called the most beautiful city in the world (mostly by Alsatian promoters). It's a high compliment to live up to, but it is quite beautiful and, of course, touristy. The Christmas markets were still up and running, serving vin chaud, which is just French for glühwein, a heady mix of sometimes rum, wine and sweeteners like sugar, honey or apple cider. It's sort of a Yuletime hot toddy. The recipes vary by the vendors. Each booth competes to create the most interesting concoctions. It is definitely an alcoholic beverage and keeps Christmas strollers warm inside and giddily conversational. We lunched on French hotdogs, Alsatian sausage links on crunchy bagettes smeared with Dijon mustard, and a bowl of Alsatian scalloped potatoes. All those warm carbs and vin chaud make good chilly weather fare.

airing the bedding

Christmas market, Alsatian style

Colmar's downtown area is a splendidly preserved old town, filled with narrow cobblestone streets and old half-timbered houses. It makes a perfect setting for a Christmas market, and this was to be the last day. We wandered along the narrow streets for a few hours, enjoying the food and occasional street musicians, visited another beautiful French cathedral, but missed a few important sites because nearly everything was closed for the New Years holiday. I was expecting places to be closed on New Years day, but thought that museums would be open on the 31st. Even most of the cafés and pâtisseries were closed. EU countries take holidays seriously! Some downtown hotels had New Year celebrations planned, but reservations had to be made far in advance. Basically, over the New Years holiday there would be no places to eat. I felt suddenly in desperate fear of starvation!

We had a great stroll, and then lost our way trying to get back to our hotel (a common habit with us). When we finally made it back, we checked in, unloaded our bags from the car and surveyed our two-star digs. The cons: it was a tiny space, just big enough for a queen size bed with narrow space along the perimeter for luggage, a tiny bathroom and shower stall that hardly allowed a person to bend down to pick up a bar of soap. It was a tiny hotel room. The pros: It was clean and the staff was helpful, even providing a bottle of wine for us to celebrate the New Year. It had a small flat screen TV so that we could watch the New Year arrive in Berlin in front of the Brandenburg Gate. Also, the hotel offered a nice breakfast the next morning. So, we spent our New Year in a very small hotel room, watching German pop stars bring in the New Year with a dazzling light show and fireworks display. Colmar did not have an official fireworks display, but once midnight struck, firework explosions erupted outside. Perhaps it is legal to shoot of fireworks within the city limits. If not, a lot of Colmarians were breaking the law.

The next morning, we ate the hotel breakfast. I had booked the room for two nights, but decided that there was not much point in staying if everything was going to be closed on New Years Day. I told the woman at the desk that we needed to leave early. She looked disappointed and a little annoyed, but checked us out. I was fully expecting to pay the full amount for two nights since I was the one breaking the booking agreement, but a few days later I received an email from them informing me that they had credited my account for the difference. That gave the hotel an extra star in my estimation. Apart from having small rooms and limited amenities, the hotel was fine for the price, and the staff was quite wonderful. I would recommend them for anyone who just wants a place to sleep (the bed was comfortable) at an affordable price.

Unterlinden Museum, site of the Issenheim altar piece

Dominican Cathedral

Since most places were closed over the New Years holiday, we missed out on some significant sites. I had been hoping to see the famous Issenheim altar piece at the Unterlinden Museum, which is located in an old Dominican monastery which once served as a hospital. Issenheim is one of the greatest works of 16th century Christian art, depicting a particularly gruesome crucifixion scene wherein Christ is covered with a plague-like skin rash, showing the patients cared for by the Dominicans that they were not alone in their suffering. Mathias Grünewald painted it, though it was long attributed to Albrecht Dürer. The incredibly poignant depiction of suffering inspired a 20th century opera by Paul Hindemith and a biographical novel by German author W.G. Sebald. We were able to go inside the Dominican sanctuary, and I've included pictures, but the museum with the three altar pieces was closed. Also closed was the birthplace and museum dedicated to Frédérick Auguste Bartholdi, who is best known in the United States as the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. The celebrated Alsatian also sculpted many other works which are scattered in public places throughout the city and housed in his museum. In fact, as we drove in and out of the city limits, one of the main traffic circles is dominated by a smaller version of our familiar Lady Liberty.

After eating our tasty breakfast at the hotel, we checked out and took off in the car with no particular plan. Colmar is situated in the Alsatian wine district, and almost any direction you turn is headed toward a picturesque vinyard town. We stopped at a large fuel and rest area, sort of a French Buccee's, near the lovely wine town of Sèlestat, gassed the car and picked up provisions for an impromptu road trip. From the sprawling parking lot, we could see a large castle on a hill. Pictures of it were also posted inside the rest area complex (restrooms/souvenir and grocery store/food court). The castle was Haut-Koenigsbourg, an enormous chateau overlooking the Rhine plain. We decided to drive up to it, even though we were sure it would be closed. The drive is scenic, winding up the Black Forest hillside (or as the French say, foret noire). Once at the 750 meter summit, we discovered lines of other holiday motorists who had parked just to walk around the grounds of the locked up keep. It is an impressive structure, and I am always awed by the capacity medieval architects had for constructing such grand edifices on such challenging terrain. We hiked around the grounds for awhile and took pictures of the castle and the fantastic view over the Black Forest and plains.


E. Leclerc, the French answer to Buccee's

Rhine plains

model of the original castle

After driving back down the mountain, we decided to just drive east toward Freiburg, which is located parallel to and near Colmar on the German side of the border. At various times in history these two cities have resided in the same country and have close cultural ties. It took less than an hour to arrive at the beautiful Black Forest university town where our son Michael spent a year studying German.We did not stop, but drove through toward the Black Forest hills, really foothills of the Alps that spread over Bavaria to the east and Switzerland to the south. We were only about a half hour away from Basel. We had a car stocked with baguette sandwiches, Alsatian pretzels and bottled water and just drove into the hills to see the scenery. The road winds up along spectacular forested cliffs and eventually crests in a popular ski area with giant ski jump structures. It had snowed, but only a dusting was left--certainly not sufficient for skiing. We did stop in one nicely blanketed area and made some snowballs. We're from warm South Texas. We regress to the childhood winter joy that we never had. 

Giddy south Texans playing in the meager snow.

Above the Black Forest

The sun was beginning to sink--evening arrives early in the winter, so, having no hotel to go back to, I turned the car around and we headed back to Spesbach, about a four hour journey on the autobahn. A great way to celebrate 60.