Sunday, August 18, 2013

Chapter 28: A pair again and places near

I drove Michael and Victoria to Amsterdam a few weeks ago where they would stay with a friend. It's about a five hour drive (according to Google Maps, a four hour drive, but that doesn't account for inevitable bathroom breaks and road construction). It rained the whole way. Crossing into Belgium, the roads become noticeably patchier and in need of good German-style maintenance, but the forested countryside is as beautiful as Germany's. Then the highway begins to spiral down into the low country, and by the time you reach the Netherlands border, the landscape is perfectly flat all the way to Amsterdam. Additionally, the main highway (often up to eight lanes across) runs almost absolutely straight past flat farms and occasional nuclear power plants. It's a boring drive, especially in gray, rainy weather. We did see a couple of old time windmills.

Amsterdam is a larger city than I had expected, and the inner section is so populated by young people, that I was sure we were in a university area. However, I was told by two different people that the area where we parked was an old residential section with no university close by. Downtown Amsterdam has simply been taken over by young people.

Flat, straight city streets
 We stopped to eat at a sandwich shop where the young women who took our orders spoke pefect English, then sat down at a table with an older lady who turned out to be from New Zealand, visiting Amsterdam in her retirement to soak in the arts and culture. I heard very little Dutch during my brief stay downtown. It's a very international city. Like the highway that leads to it, the streets tend to extend in long straight lines. Amsterdam is flat
Taken by our New Zealand  acquaintance

I said my goodbyes to Michael and Victoria after they safely made their connection, and then drove around briefly to find the Amsterdam Concertgebouw, just to see it. I got caught in rush hour traffic, which in Amsterdam is a crush of cars, bicyclists and pedestrians, mostly young and fearless. One bicyclist cut in front of me, riding with a spare bicycle wheel in one hand and an open umbrella in the other. Many were pedaling adroitly, holding umbrellas in the rain. I needed to start heading back to Spesbach, so I eventually gave up on my quest to locate the Concertgebouw. Maybe later, when both Lawna and I visit, and then take in a concert. I finally navigated through the busy, rainy streets to the freeway, then made my way to the long, straight ribbon of cars that extended back toward Belgium. It rained all the way back to Germany, severely through part of Belgium. When I reached the German border, though, the sun suddenly appeared and, once past the border check that looks for those drugs that are legal in the Netherlands, I was on my way on clear, well-maintained German autobahn roads, with unlimited, perfectly legal speed to get home as fast as possible.

Since then, Lawna and I haven't wandered far. The government furloughs have taken a bite out of our finances, so our excursions have been close by. After living here for six months, we still had not visited two cities close to us, Zweibrücken and Saarbrücken, so on alternate days we did so. Saarbrücken is the furthest, and it's only a half hour away on the French border.

Zweibrücken used to be the site of a major US military installation, employing many local Germans. When our government decided to cut back and in 1990 closed the base, the closure devastated the local economy. To compensate for the loss, Zweibrücken spruced up its downtown section with a pedestrian network of shops and restaurants intermingled with restored historic buildings. The investment paid off, populating the inner city with tourists and shoppers and bringing new jobs to the city. It became an urban model that has been replicated all over Europe. Most cities have a refurbished, historic old town, pedestrian and retail oriented.
Shops of Zweibrücken

Palatinate Ducal Palace

Zweibrücken is a small city with a population of about 33,000, and its history is not so well known to draw a lot of visitors from afar, but it is a pleasant and friendly town with some 18th century government buildings that were once palaces. Zweibrücken also sports an airfield that is larger than one would expect for a smaller city, thanks to the departure of the Americans.

Saarbrücken, located along the German/French border (Saarbroucken on French road signs), is larger than Zweibrücken, with a population of about 178,000. A major coal mining center since the middle ages, Saarbrücken was a major target of bombing during World War II and sustained considerable damage. Of course, this region has passed between German and French hands frequently throughout the centuries, and the Saarland region for which this city is capital and the neighboring Alsace-Lorraine region of France have endured a history of incredible violence and misfortune until modern times. Fortunately, the regions are at peace today with thriving economies and progressive democracies. Saarbrücken certainly does not look like a bombed out city today. It is clean and mostly modern, with an impressive network of baroque buildings designed by the 18th century architect Friedrich Joachim Stengel. Despite wartime bombing, much of his work has been meticulously restored along a broad, royal promenade along the Saarbrücken cliffs overlooking the Saar River. A wide pedestrian bridge links downtown, with its many shops, restaurants and business buildings, to the historic promenade. The day we visited, the river bank was polulated with market vendors. It seemed to be a massive flea market. A walk up some cobblestone streets to the higher level promenade brings one to the Schlossplatz (Palace Square). The main palace is today a  museum and cultural center. The main palace building features a massive modern glass entrance, which may not be to everyone's taste. It is functional, but not exactly in tune with the rest of the neo-classical design.
Schlossplatz with a modern entrance

One of the most notable Stengel structures in the area is the baroque Protestant Ludwigskirche (Ludwig church). It's not as elaborate as many Catholic baroque churches, since Protestants tended to be a bit iconoclastic, but, though the walls are plain white, there is plenty of baroque decorative design and gold. A wedding was about to take place when we arrived, so we ducked out after taking a few pictures. Certainly a beautiful setting in which to tie the knot!
Exterior of Ludwigskirche

Plain white Protestant walls. A Catholic king would have splashed some color around with floating, beatific kings and saints and fawning cupids.

Ready to wed.
From the Schlossplatz, we wandered back down across the Saar into the downtown district, most of which is modern, though there are a few smaller baroque churches and a particularly striking Rathaus (city council) exterior. Inside, the building looks pretty drab and municiple, but the medieval façade with its gargoyles and St George and the dragon motif is great fun.

Tokyo has Godzilla; Saarbrücken has this fierce reptile!

Still keeps time
The last few weeks have been quiet, tooling around just the local area, and I now finally have a job. I've been hired on by the University of Maryland in Europe and will be teaching introductory writing to mostly military students on the base (in an air hanger, in fact). I begin on Tuesday. It will be good to have classes again. I have missed teaching. The furloughs (compulsory unpaid days off) are supposed to be ending for Lawna, although with this Congress, who knows? We should be getting a bit more money that we can sock away for some longer trips. I'll try to keep you informed.

I hope you enjoy the new music video. The first scenes are from a late afternoon visit to the Palatinate forest with Michael and Victoria before they left, and the rest of the scenes are from Saarbrücken, accompanied by an old German folk melody, "Ich Hab die Nacht Geträumet." (I Had a Dream Last Night)

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