Tuesday, February 26, 2008

18 October: Cochem, Burg Eltz and Schloss Petershagen

After a simple breakfast in the Alte Thorschenke’s quaint dining room, we decided to walk up to the 1,000-year-old Reichsburg, Cochem’s imperial fortress (photo, right), before leaving town. We strolled along the pretty riverside promenade before heading uphill. It was a bit overcast but the sun was starting to break through the clouds as we wound up through the town and vineyards and arrived about twenty minutes later at the imposing stone gatehouse. From the ramparts we were treated to an absolutely breathtaking panorama over Cochem and the Mosel Valley, complete with barge chugging down the river. After a few minutes the sun broke through the clouds and washed the golden-leaved vineyards in warm morning sunlight; it was a postcard-perfect scene and produced one of my favorite photos from our entire time in Germany (below).

Unfortunately we didn’t have time to tour the castle itself, but we took our fill of photos and then wandered back through town. We decided to stop at a wine cellar that was advertising an Eisweinprob (ice wine tasting). We had never tried Eiswein but we knew it was a local specialty, and although it is now made in other areas of the world (notably Canada), it originated in the Mosel region. We walked into a cool, dark, barrel-vaulted chamber lined with wine cases and asked for a sample. We were assisted by a very nice young man who obliged us by carrying out the whole transaction in German. He explained that Eiswein is made from Riesling grapes that have been left on the vine until overnight temperatures drop to a minimum of −7 °C (19 °F), which means that the grapes must remain on the vine for up to several months after the regular harvest. (He also mentioned something about harvesting the grapes in the middle of the night – I guess to ensure that they remain frozen.) There is a lot of risk involved because if the freeze does not come quickly enough, the grapes may rot and the whole crop will be lost. The water in the grapes freezes but the sugars do not, resulting in a sweet, intensely-flavored dessert wine. We ended up buying four bottles of Eiswein and three local Rieslings. An older gentleman rang us up and didn’t charge us for the tasting, I presume because we made a purchase. He packaged everything up nicely for us and, thus loaded down, we continued back to the hotel by way of Cochem’s charming Marktplatz. I waited outside with our bags while John retrieved our car and then we set out for Burg Eltz.

We drove to the castle by the same zig-zagging country roads that I had taken with my parents last year. The parking lot was quite full when we arrived, but it was, after all, a gorgeous fall day. On our walk down we were treated to terrific views of the castle perched on its little rocky promontory, embraced by the sparkling waters of the River Elz. The sun was still difficult for photography purposes but I managed to get some better shots this time. There was quite a line for tickets and we decided to take the German tour so we wouldn’t have to wait for an English one. We had a nice young woman for our guide and I really enjoyed seeing the castle again. I think John liked it too but it’s hard to tell with him – I think he is suffering from castle burnout. (Unglaublich, I know!) In case you missed it the first time around, here’s an excerpt from my journal about my first visit to Burg Eltz:

Burg Eltz is a tall, skinny, fairytale sort of castle that looks like the culmination of a dozen or so different architects slowly adding on bits and pieces to it over the centuries (which is a pretty accurate description). Its rather odd floorplan stems from the rocky crag it sits on, as the builders simply used the rock as a foundation and built straight up. The castle may seem isolated in its narrow valley now, but at the times of its construction it was well-situated on an important trade route. It is still owned by a branch of the same family that began construction of the castle in the 12th century – 33 generations ago! Over the centuries, the family split into three branches (Rübenach, Rodendorf, and Kempenich), but they all retained ownership of a part of the property and slowly constructed their own separate family houses – an arrangement known as a Ganerbenburg (castle of joint heirs). The castle was built as a well-fortified residence rather than a fortress, and, as it never came under direct attack except for a brief 14th-century regional feud, it survives today more or less in its original condition.

Various Eltz family members were important figures in regional politics, including several who served as Prince Electors of Mainz and Trier. During the Palatinate wars of succession in the 17th century, the castle was saved from destruction (a fate dealt to many of the Rhine castles) by a member of the Eltz family who held high rank in the French army. By 1815, Graf Hugo Phillip of the Rübenach family was the sole owner of the castle – the Rodendorfs had died out in the late 1700s and the Kempenichs had moved on to other properties. Major restoration was undertaken in the late 19th century, but fortunately the overall look of the castle remained unchanged. Today the castle is owned by one Dr. Karl Graf von und zu Eltz, who retains private apartments in the Rübenach house.

You begin your tour in the castle courtyard, where you are surrounded on all sides by up to ten stories of ancient stone walls interrupted here and there by red-shuttered windows, half-timbered bits, and various chimneys, spires, and cupolas. Each of the three family houses has its own door, with the name carved over the top.

No picture-taking is allowed inside (this seems to be the norm in privately-owned castles, probably to ensure the sale of souvenir books to support the upkeep of the structures), but suffice it to say that the interior is spectacular – immaculately-preserved and fully furnished, looking as if the lord of the castle could settle in for a feast or a glass of grog by the fireplace at any moment. We started in the entry hall of the Rübenach house – the oldest portion of the castle – which today contains the armory collection, and proceeded into the Lower Hall, with gigantic oak beams, Flemish tapestries, and a clock that has been in the Eltz family since the year 1500. The Upper Hall was at some point converted into a master bedroom and contains a magnificent curtained 16th-century bed set on a wooden pedestal. A huge fireplace surely kept this room cozy in the winter. Colorful, well-preserved decorative painting covers the ceiling, which had been whitewashed (and thus protected) in the 16th century and was not uncovered for 300 years. We also got a peek at the wood-paneled toilet closet, one of twenty in the castle, which dates to the 15th century. The toilets were flushed by rainwater out to the river – pretty advanced plumbing for the time. (Our informative English handout also says that they used cabbage leaves and hay for toilet “paper.”)

We proceeded via a staircase into the Rodendorf house, which took its name from the family’s land holdings in Lorraine. The Elector’s Room contains portraits of the Eltz family who held the title of Prince Elector, along with a lovely set of Rococo chairs and another Flemish tapestry. Next we passed through the Great Hall, the family’s council room and the largest chamber in the castle. This room is decorated with weaponry, including three fine suits of armor, as well as beautiful biblical paintings with mother-of-pearl inlay and several money chests with intricate locks. Next came what is supposed to have been a children’s room, with a wonderful 16th-century bed thought to be the oldest Renaissance bed in Germany. A tiny staircase leads up to a second bedroom perhaps for a nurse, and the window is outfitted with a miniature ledge for small children. The breastplate and battle axe mounted on the wall are said to belong to Agnes, the castle’s resident ghost, who died defending the castle – and her honor – from an unwanted suitor.

The Fahnensaal (Banner Hall) was used for banqueting and has gorgeous vaulted ceilings and a brick tile floor dating from 1490. Finally, we toured the large, comfortable kitchen, which has been outfitted to look like it did some five hundred years ago, including all sorts of wooden utensils, huge iron pots, a tufa-stone bread oven, and an enormous 15th-century flour chest.

After our tour, John and I walked down to the river and crossed a footbridge to get a view of the castle from below. We had a tasty lunch of sausages, potato salad, and glühwein from the castle’s small snack bar before walking back up the hill to the car.

It was getting on in the afternoon and we still had at least a three-hour drive ahead of us to get to our destination for the night, Romantik Hotel Schloss Petershagen near Minden. Our route took us along the Mosel to its terminus at the Rhine, giving us lovely views of the steep vine-covered hillsides just beginning to display their autumn colors (photo, right). At one point the road took us directly through a castle – I have since determined that this was Schloss von der Leyen in the town of Kobern-Gondorf. Apparently they had no choice but to build the road through the castle’s courtyard! I had little luck finding a nice hotel in Minden, which is really not a big tourist destination, but fortunately Beth had found this place for me on the internet. I couldn’t find any reviews for it but it looked pretty fabulous in the pictures at least. Their website is only in German and I think it is known more as a local getaway and conference facility. We were originally planning to stop in Minden and find someplace for dinner, but we ran into a lot of traffic and more bad weather along the way, so we knew we were going to be too late to have any time in town. I called the hotel and made dinner reservations there instead. We started getting excited when we saw the first signs on the Autobahn for Berlin and Hannover – now we were really headed north! We didn’t have any trouble finding the castle itself but it was difficult to see the hotel entrance in the dark, so we accidentally went into the conference area first. Fortunately a man waiting for someone outside was able to direct us to the main entrance. It was pitch black by the time we arrived, around 8 pm, so we could see nothing of the castle except for the vague outline of a grand courtyard. We walked up a spiraling stone staircase to the reception area on the first floor and were greeted quite warmly, although I’m sure the appearance of a couple of Americans with a German name on a dark October night was a bit unusual. We asked for a few minutes to settle in before coming down to dinner and went up another flight of stairs to our very nice double room, done in pink and gold with antique furnishings and a pretty coral-and-white bathroom.

There were only two other parties in the formal yellow-and-white dining room when we arrived. We had the taste of the chef, a tiny vegetable terrine, and then we both had the three-course menue of chicken liver mousse with calvados gelée, mixed salad with smoked ham vinaigrette, and medallions of wild boar wrapped in bacon, served on a bed of herbed mashed potatoes with wild mushrooms, creamy gravy, and Brussels sprouts. To accompany this delicious feast we had a Württemberg Weinsberg Spätburgunder. Dessert was the icing on the cake: John had spiced coffee mousse with red wine-soaked pear and I had chocolate ravioli with poppyseed butter, mango cream sauce, and rose oil ice cream. This was perhaps one of the most inventive desserts I’ve ever come across in my European travels! The rose oil ice cream was particularly interesting and inspired the quote of the day: “This tastes like a frozen bath product!” But I meant it in a good way, really.

More photos from today:

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

17 October: Into the North

The time has come for our farewell voyage – a sentimental journey into the north of Germany. Our itinerary will take us first to the Mosel Valley, where I will finally show John one of my favorite castles (Burg Eltz), then up to Minden, where we will search for John’s forebears in the countryside, followed by two days in Hamburg, a day on the former East German island of Rügen, and a day in Lübeck, ending up with a night in a castle on the Rhine.

I spent a good part of the day shuttling the pets to their various kennels and finishing my packing. We didn’t actually leave the house until 7 pm, after John had a little “discussion” with the Dörrs about the price of our kitchen. He didn’t have much luck negotiating with them (they pulled the typically Schwäbisch “we don’t have a lot of money” argument), although he did counter that we have had to maintain our home in Michigan this entire time, so we aren’t exactly profiting off of the experience. I told John to accept their offer of 1000 Euro if it came down to that; we couldn’t very well haggle with them since we don’t have any other options for disposing of our kitchen other than leaving it out on the street, and I really didn’t want to spend our last two months in Germany on bad terms with our neighbors and landlords.

I drove the three hours to Cochem in the E-Class. We ran into quite a bit of traffic and some rain early on, but managed to make up a little time as we got further north. John called our hotel en route and told them we wouldn’t arrive until after 10 pm. We drove in the pitchest black of night down a crazy winding road into the Mosel Valley. John swears he saw an albino deer by the side of the road but I was focused on the road, so you’ll have to take his word for it. We found our hotel, the Alte Thorschenke (which means "old gate," referring to the ancient city gate that abuts the hotel), in the lively town of Cochem with no trouble (it is, after all the “most photographed” building in town). A friendly older gentleman greeted us, showed us up an incredibly rickety spiral staircase to our room on the third floor, and told us where to park our car (in a structure just down the street; he gave us a permit that cost 6 Euro per day). The hotel dates back to the 14th century and there isn’t a right angle in the place! Our room was what I would describe as “aged”, with creaky floors and the world’s springiest bed, but we were tired and just needed a place to lay our heads for the night, so it fit the bill perfectly.

16 October: Mercedes Museum, Kitchen Negotiations, and an African Dinner

I had plans to meet Stefanie at the Mercedes Museum this afternoon, where I had promised to be her personal tour guide and show her the video of John talking about car design. It’s hard to believe how fast the time is flying by – it has been over a month since our last German lesson. I thought that I knew how to get to the Mercedes Museum, but I brought my Stuttgart atlas along just in case. I left a little late but would have been okay if I had found the museum quickly. Instead I got a little confused driving around the giant Mercedes complex in Untertürkheim and ended up having to ask for directions at the entrance to a Mercedes parking garage. I finally found the museum garage and made my way to the entrance. Only after leaving my car did I realize that I had left Stefanie’s handy number behind, so I couldn’t call her to tell her I was on my way. I wandered around the entrance for a while and finally found Stefanie, who I’m sure had arrived ten minutes early!

Aside: A first in Germany – the angry pedestrian. As I was driving down a major street through Stuttgart on the way to the museum, a woman standing on the sidewalk leaned out and spat on my windshield. I don’t think I would have realized what happened except that I immediately looked in my rearview mirror and saw her spit on the Audi behind me as well. I suppose she was really disgruntled about something, or just plain crazy.

We only had a couple of hours to spend together so we did a relatively quick walk-through of the museum. It was fun to show Stefanie around and she was immensely pleased to see John’s video. We stopped for Kaffee und Kuchen in the museum café afterwards and had a very nice chat. Unfortunately our time was cut short because Stefanie had to make it to her next class earlier than she had anticipated, but I told her that we wanted to have her over for dinner before we left and would be in touch again soon.

This afternoon I had the regrettable task of going over to the Dörrs and discussing the issue of the price of our kitchen. They had offered to purchase our kitchen from us, which was to our advantage because selling a kitchen is not an easy thing to do. You see, in Germany, people take everything with them when they move – yes, including the kitchen sink, along with every single light fixture, curtain rod, cabinet, and appliance. This sounds insane, especially when you consider that every kitchen is different and it must be a real pain to try to make your old kitchen fit into a new space, but I suppose it’s a cultural thing – waste nothing, and once you’ve bought something, it’s yours for the long haul.

John had talked to some people at work and we had come up with the price of 1800 Euro for our 4-year-old kitchen, which we thought was quite a bargain. When I rang the Dörrs’ bell, no one answered, but Herr Dörr came to the window on my way back to our house. I told him that I wanted to discuss our kitchen and suggested our price. He immediately shook his head and said, “Nein, zu viel, zu viel.” (No, too much, too much.) Dismayed, I asked him what he thought a good price would be. He launched into a lengthy explanation about how much the Grays (the previous tenants) had paid to install the kitchen, and that we had paid one-third of that price, and that DaimlerChrysler had actually paid for our things so whatever we made off of the kitchen was basically “free money” for us. I was more than a bit annoyed that they knew all of these details about our personal finances. Finally he said that they were willing to pay us one-third of what we had paid the Grays. I was not about to try to point out the irrationality of this logic (by which our kitchen would soon be worth nothing at all), but asked instead what he thought a good price would be. He suggested something between 800 and 1000 Euro. At this point Frau Dörr appeared in the window and Herr Dörr explained the matter to her. She didn’t say much; I think she felt a little awkward about the whole thing and obviously didn’t want to get into a fight with me. Frustrated, I said that I would have to talk to mein Mann and left it at that.

This evening was the IWC’s monthly dinner, this time at an African restaurant called Ambiente in Stuttgart-Mitte. I decided to take the U-Bahn since I had long ago learned my lesson not to park in unfamiliar neighborhoods of downtown Stuttgart, particularly at night. I headed to Charlottenplatz on the U4, where I needed to change to the 15 line and go a few stops to Eugensplatz. I knew there was something special about the 15 because it is the only train that doesn’t have the “U” in front of the number. It turns out to be the last “old” train running in Stuttgart, and will soon be replaced by the brand spanking new U15. The old 15’s cars are much lower to the ground than the new cars, so it even has its own special lowered platform at the very end of the Charlottenplatz station. When the train arrived, I boarded and found myself standing in the “hinge” between two cars; the floor beneath my feet was actually designed to rotate as the train went around corners. I got off at Eugensplatz and found myself on a dark residential street, completely disoriented. Fortunately there was a bus stop nearby with a small map showing the street layout in the immediate vicinity, so I was able to reorient myself. I was actually a block above Werastraße, where I needed to be, and the fastest way to get there was through a dark and deserted park built into the hillside. I walked quickly down a steep concrete path and was surprised to find a waterfall cascading over a very cool Art Nouveau-style fountain. It was beautiful and if there had been enough light, I would have taken a picture. I finally came out on Werastraße and went in search of building number 1, which seemed like it should be straightforward enough, but anyone who has spent some time in European cities knows that the street numbering systems are anything but straightforward. I eventually found the entrance to Ambiente, but it wasn’t even on Werastraße!

Inside, a huge group of IWC ladies was already gathered in Ambiente’s “sand room”, where you sit on pillows on the floor and the floor is, indeed, covered with sand. Rich silk curtains shroud the walls and ceilings, warm amber lamps hang low over the tables, and you definitely get the feeling of being in a rich Bedouin tent out in the middle of the desert. Several of us shared a huge sampler platter with all sorts of interesting meat and vegetable curries, served on a delicious pancake-like flatbread. I spent most of the evening talking with a new British club member and Annette K., the woman I met at Shannon’s sushi night who spent six years in Texas and speaks English with only a hint of an accent. (It took us a while to remember where we had met before, and I was thrown off because once again I assumed that she was American!) Fortunately I was able to hitch a ride home with Brenda, so I didn’t have to repeat my long train ride. It was yet another lovely evening with the IWC, and I couldn’t help thinking that I only have one more IWC dinner left before we leave Stuttgart for good.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

15 October: My Own Personal Pilgrimage to Burg Hohenzollern

I got up this morning thinking that the days are getting shorter, the clock is ticking away towards December, and I’ve only got so many more opportunities to take the SLK for a drive, so why not return to Hohenzollern today and take a walk on that trail that looked so enticing? Armed with my camera, Baden-Württemberg atlas, some cookies, and a bottle of Gatorade, I set out after lunch, this time taking a slightly more direct route to the castle than we had yesterday.

I approached Hohenzollern from the south on the B-27 and, as the fortress came into view to the right of the highway, I decided to get off one exit earlier, at the tiny town of Wessingen, to see if I might get a good view of the castle’s south-facing flank. I made my way through the village, keeping one eye on the castle as it loomed high on the hill to my left, but there was no good place to stop, so I headed out of town, across an expanse of rolling green fields. I pulled off the road at a trailhead on the outskirts of the village of Thanheim and used my car as a tripod to get some very nice shots of the castle, framed by fall foliage. I then headed back the way I had come and decided to take a side street up into a neighborhood above Wessingen, on the off chance that I might be able to stop somewhere for a picture. I found myself, surprisingly enough, in a new residential development hugging the steep slopes directly below the castle. The street meandered up the hill and I wound up at a dead-end, with a new house going up at the end of the road. Some men were working on the house and looked at my car as I drove up, but I turned around and stopped far enough away that they would have no reason to bother me. I got out of the car and took some pictures looking up at the castle. I wondered what it would be like to live in the shadow of such a landmark; just think, every day as you drive home from work you look up at this magnificent fortress, surrounded by the gorgeous scenery of the Schwäbische
Alb. Not a bad life, if you ask me.

I got back on the highway and off again at the next exit. This time I drove part-way up the main road to the castle and stopped to take a few more pictures, not far from several older couples who were picnicking by the side of the road. The light wasn’t great because the south face of the castle was now in shadow, so I went back down the road and retraced our steps from yesterday, heading up towards the chapel in the woods. I stopped at a little pull-off surrounded by apple and pear trees laden with fruit, just to soak up the magnificent views of the countryside. Then I headed up the road to the chapel parking lot, but instead of hiking up the steep trail to the church, I took a lower trail that cut through the woods in the direction I wanted to go.

I arrived at the trail crossroads and decided to head away from the castle – if I got any closer, I figured the view would continue to be blocked by trees. I reached a point where the main trail diverged into two, but neither seemed to be heading much in the way of up, which was the direction I desired. I decided to take the slightly higher trail, but paused to turn around first and was greeted by a magnificent view of the castle peeking out between some bare tree limbs. I was lucky that fall had arrived so early in Hohenzollernland, because only with the leaves gone would the castle be completely visible from this vantage point. I quickly changed lenses and snapped away. I walked a short ways further up the trail, but this only took me further into the woods. The path here was shaded by several huge beech trees, their foliage just beginning to turn a lemony yellow, but the trail beneath my feet was already scattered with crumbling orange leaves. I turned around and headed back downhill again, then noticed a narrow footpath leading off to the right. Since it was headed in a generally upward direction, I decided to pursue it. The trail led along the side of a steep hill but didn’t make much vertical headway. It petered out in a small clearing marked by a rickety old hunter’s seat. What remained of the trail made a hairpin turn here and continued upwards, so I followed it, but it soon turned into not much more than a deer path.

I hadn’t seen anyone since the crossroads, and I didn’t especially want to get lost in the woods late on a weekday afternoon, so I decided this was a good place to stop. I could see the castle through the trees, tantalizingly majestic; if only I could just get further up – like in the treetops themselves! I actually scrabbled my way up the hillside for a short ways, grabbing at bushes and roots for purchase in the slippery grass, but after a few minutes of this I realized that my view simply wasn’t going to get any better. It was a bit harder coming down again; this would not be a good time to fall and twist an ankle. I decided that I should be quite satisfied with the pictures I had gotten today and enjoyed the rest of my stroll through the woods back to my car.

It was getting late in the afternoon and I knew that I should really be heading home (it was so late, in fact, that it had grown quite cool and I wasn’t even going to be able to drive home with the top down), but there was one more thing I wanted to do. I had, on a whim, brought my laptop along with the latest version of my novel. When I got back to my car I pulled it up the hill to the overlook where John and I had taken our self-portrait yesterday. A picnic table sits here, in the shade of a large tree, from which one can take in the fabulous view of Burg Hohenzollern and the surrounding country. I opened up my laptop and, for a half hour or so, worked on my novel within view of one of the places that has inspired my book.

Around 5:30 I called the house, hoping that John would be home from work already. He was, and I told him what I was doing. I promised that I would leave soon, but I had to ask him to walk Cody for me because I would barely make it home before dark. Perhaps he knew that this was a special moment and a special place for me to be, because he accepted my request without much complaint.

A few minutes later I reluctantly packed up my things and said my final farewell to Burg Hohenzollern. I am lucky to have toured the castle on three occasions, driven by it more times than I can count, and now photographed it from just about every imaginable angle, but I couldn’t help feeling sad as I drove away for the last time. Of course there might be a next time, but it won’t be the same as living an hour’s drive from this stunning location.

14 October: A Brilliant Day in the Schwäbische Alb

It was a perfect sunny autumn day so we decided to take a meandering scenic drive out towards Burg Hohenzollern, which I had wanted to revisit for some time now – particularly to try to get some better pictures of the castle from afar. Along the way we saw signs for Schloss Haigerloch, so on a whim we decided to stop and have a look around. We followed the signs through the small town of Haigerloch, nestled in a limestone-walled valley of the River Eyach, without ever catching a glimpse of the castle, then the road wound upwards onto an open plain above the town. We finally realized that we must be approaching the castle from above, and ended up leaving the car in a nearly-empty parking lot and walking down a paved path towards the castle.

Schloss Haigerloch was owned by the Hohenzollern family until recently and is now a hotel and conference center. There was no entrance gate; we simply walked beneath an arch topped by a magnificent clock tower and were free to wander the grounds (photo, above). All was quiet, with a few cars parked in the courtyard and several other visitors walking around. The main structures of the castle are laid out in an L-shape, with the hotel building with its cheerful blue-and-white striped shutters on one side and another large building housing an art exhibition and conference rooms on the other. A narrow cobbled path led us through an archway (photo, right) and down a long stone stairway, past the 17th-century Schlosskirche, which has a splendid Baroque interior.

Haigerloch is also known as the cradle of atomic research, as it was here, within the cliffs beneath the Schlosskirche, that Professor Werner Karl Heisenberg and his colleagues constructed Germany’s first nuclear reactor in the final months of World War II. We saw signs for the Atomkeller-Museum, which documents the construction of the reactor, but it must have been located further down in the main part of town. We walked back up the staircase and returned to the castle grounds, where we headed to the cliff’s edge and peered over the low stone wall for a lovely view of the town below and the rushing River Eyach. We took a narrow footpath further up the hill to the Kapf, but the anticipated view was mostly blocked by trees.

We made our way back to the car and continued on to Burg Hohenzollern. I wanted to return to the tiny pilgrimage chapel nestled in the forest below the castle, from which I presumed that I should be able to get excellent pictures of the fortress. The castle was looking positively resplendent against a backdrop of brilliant blue sky as we made our way up the winding country lane, past apple trees laden with their fall bounty, to the shady parking lot below the chapel (we had made it this far with my parents a year ago, but now I was intent on climbing all the way up to the church). We headed up a very steep path, passing twelve stone boxes (Stations of the Cross, perhaps?) that must have once housed some sort of religious relics but were now mostly empty.

We arrived at the small white church, sitting at the base of a sloped clearing and surrounded by a carefully tended graveyard (photo, above - the castle is visible on the hill to the left). The chapel itself was very simple, as a pilgrimage church set high on a hill in the forest is wont to be, but the view was spectacular. Sure enough, we could see Burg Hohenzollern off in the distance but I had to use my zoom lens (which I had thoughtfully brought along) to get decent pictures. I finally got my picture of the impressive ramparts and gates leading down from this side of the castle, which are not visible from any other angle (photo, right). Although it was getting late, we decided to continue past the chapel on a wide walking trail through the forest to try to get a little closer. We kicked ourselves for not bringing Cody along, because he would have loved the romp in the woods.

As we kept walking, the castle grew ever closer, but the thick growth of forest prevented me from getting any better pictures. We finally stopped at a crossroads where one hiking path led up towards the castle (about 1.5 km away) and other trails headed off in various directions. It was a beautiful area and I would have loved to continue exploring, but we still had to get back home to walk Cody. We decided to call it a day and headed back to the car, but not before stopping for a quick self-portrait on a grassy hill opposite the castle – perhaps my single most favorite spot in all of Germany.

13 October: Oda's Volleyball Game

Oda has been dying for me to come watch one of her volleyball games, and today our mutual schedules finally worked in her favor. Evelyne picked me up around 2:00 and we went first to Aldi to pick up some snacks. I had never been in this particular bargain grocery store before, and it was a bit shocking – like something you would have expected to find in Europe 20 or 30 years ago. The selection was very limited and the whole place had a sort of cluttered-closet feel to it. We picked up some generic brand cola, cookies and gummy bears (Evelyne was shocked to hear that Gummibären translates literally into English) and then drove down the street to the gym. We had each brought a folding chair and set up camp along the sidelines. Oda’s team was warming up and she came over quickly to say hi. Evelyne was quite frank in admitting that Oda’s team is not very good – or at least, as Evelyne put it, “They have no confidence.” She also admitted that Oda had put on some weight after her knee surgery and really needed to lose a few kilos. I’m sure Oda would have been quite mortified to hear her mother discussing her weight, but that’s Evelyne for you!

What’s interesting about organized sports in Germany is that they aren’t coordinated through the school system; youth sports don’t have anywhere close to the following that they do in the States. While fitness and sports are certainly popular, they are kept entirely separate from academic life. Oda’s team is part of an amateur league with members all over the Stuttgart area. Oda actually looked to be one of the youngest members of her team, whose ages ranged from 17 to perhaps mid-40s. I thought it was all pretty cool – a nice opportunity for a teenage girl to develop friendships with women of all ages.

Oda didn’t play much in the first set, which her team lost, but they came back and won the second two sets, so they were quite thrilled. I kept saying “Nice!” when someone made a good shot or save, but I should have been saying, “Schön!” In between sets, some other spectators showed up and Evelyne chatted with them briefly, but we were the only friends or family that stuck around for the whole game. During the break we offered the team our gummy bears, which they happily gobbled up.

It was getting on in the afternoon so I called John and had him walk down to meet me with Cody, so we could walk back together through the woods. I left as the second game was starting with another team, who looked quite good during their warm-up. Evelyne didn’t have high hopes for Oda’s team, and she told me later that they ended up losing, but played well.

11 October: Der Wixxer

I went over to Evelyne’s this afternoon for coffee and showed her and Oda some pictures from Michigan, California, and Washington. They especially liked seeing our house and also some pictures of me when I was around Oda’s age. They showed me the first half-hour or so of a German comedy called Der Wixxer, which is a spoof of an Edgar Wallace horror film (the German equivalent of Edgar Allen Poe meets Sherlock Holmes). Evelyne turned on the German subtitles (they were speaking with a Saxon accent that I could barely comprehend) and I was amazed at how many of the jokes I could understand. Part of the film takes place in a mansion called Castle Blackwhite, and all of the scenes in the castle are filmed in, naturally, black & white. There’s a butler named Alfons Hatler who bears an uncanny resemblance to Hitler and he has some particularly funny lines:

Butler Alfons Hatler: I could be your Führer...

Butler Alfons Hatler: [After the Wixxer poisons himself] Rogues killing themselves, only because their plans to rule the world went down the drain…

There were also lots of funny insider German jokes:

Sir John: This is Dieter Dubinsky. He's from East Germany.
Chief Inspector Even Longer: I'm sorry to hear that.

We didn’t watch the whole thing because I had to take Cody for his afternoon walk. I really should be watching more German TV and films, but it is incredibly draining.

Friday, February 15, 2008

10 October: All About Art In Stuttgart

We had a fascinating speaker at the IWC monthly meeting this morning: Sean Rainbird, the new director of the Staatsgalerie, the state art museum in Stuttgart. He’s the first foreigner (he’s English, used to work for the Tate Gallery in London, has a German wife and speaks fluent German, which I’m sure helped get him the job) to be the curator of a major German art museum and gave us a completely open and honest look into the inner workings of the organization, including his frustrations in dealing with German beaurocracy and traditional cultural stereotypes (e.g. the different departments acting like they operate their own little fiefdoms), not to mention the difficulties in trying to expand the museum’s contemporary art collection after several decades of little to no growth. Imagine trying to grow your collection with an annual budget of as little as $100,000 when major works of art cost anywhere from a few hundred thousand to millions of dollars! The museum also poses challenges architecturally – it was designed by the renowned firm of James Stirling, Michael Wilford & Associates of London (which also designed the Clore Gallery, part of the Tate Museum), and we all got a good chuckle when Mr. Rainbird admitted that he didn’t think Stirling even liked art! I have not yet visited the gallery but now I really must go and see it for myself.

Mr. Rainbird had a great sense of humor and a very relaxed style, and we were all riveted for over an hour. At the end we explored opportunities to expand the museum’s audience and discussed such issues as whether the museum should continue to charge an entrance fee. After the presentation I chatted with Katrina, Judy, Ann, Shannon and others and also saw Glenda, who had been at our very first book club meeting back in January but returned to Texas after her husband passed away last spring.

It was a lovely day and I thoroughly enjoyed my walk to and from the U-Bahn station. I concentrated on soaking in the sights, sounds, and smells of a normal workday in Stuttgart: the sidewalks full of pedestrians going about their daily business (little old ladies pulling their rolling carts full of groceries, businessmen and women in stylish suits, moms pushing strollers, teenagers sporting tattered jeans and multi-colored hair chattering on their handys)…the whoosh of the bright yellow U-Bahn cars as they passed…the fragrant smell of fresh-baked bread wafting out of a corner Bäckerai…all set against the backdrop of Stuttgart-West’s 18th- and 19th-century Altbauen (literally “old buildings”) with their pointed turrets and ornate façades.

7 October: Disappointment at the Nürburgring

Our fourth trip to the Nürburgring did not get off to an auspicious start. We thought we were being very clever when we anticipated a detour on the Autobahn that we had run into on our trip to Rallye Deutschland in August, and we got off at the appropriate exit despite the rather obscure detour signs. It was not until we were nearly to Trier that I took out the map and realized that we were going the wrong way…we were, in fact, heading almost due west towards the Mosel Valley and not north as we should have been. We should never have taken the detour, but stayed on our previous course for another hour or so. We had simply been on autopilot since we had so recently been up that way for the Rallye. Instead of backtracking, we ended up going past Trier and then cutting back northeast to get to Nürburg, which added about forty-five minutes to our trip.

We probably should have guessed what the day would be like when we arrived at the Nürburgring around 10:00 and found ourselves…stuck in traffic.
A long line of cars was backed up on the road just waiting to get into the entrance to the carpark, which could mean only one thing: the track was closed due to an accident. We parked in the already-crowded overflow grass lot and went in search of Jürgen. He was, naturally, hanging out in the parking lot checking out the hardware. He told us that he had gotten two laps in on his bike before we arrived, but that it was about as crowded as he had ever seen it. We joined the throngs of people milling around the entrance gates. Cars and motorcycles were squeezed into every available space, some just inches apart.

We bought an 8-lap ticket and I took a moment to take a photo of the “General Terms and Conditions for Driving on the Nürburgring” posted outside the ticket booth, which includes the following excerpt from the German Road Traffic Regulations, section 3, paragraph 1 (I should point out that these are the same conditions that apply when driving on the Autobahn):

Drivers are only allowed to drive at a speed where they are always in control of their vehicle. This speed must be suitable for the road, traffic, vision and weather conditions at the time of driving, as well as being within the range of the personal abilities of the driver and appropriate to the capacity of the vehicle and its load.

I wonder how many people take the time to ponder these terms before taking their shiny new BMW or Porsche out on the track for the first time.

When the announcement came that the track was reopened, we hurried back to the car and got in line once more. We hadn’t moved more than fifty feet when the track was closed again. This was starting to look bad…very bad. We went into the Grüne Hölle café for coffee; we came back out and wandered around some more. There were an astonishing number of foreign plates in the parking lot – dozens of drivers had come down from England, Sweden, the Netherlands, and as far away as former Soviet states to lay down tread on the ‘Ring this fine autumn day. We saw a group of middle-aged American guys clustered around a BMW emblazoned with www.Rent-Racecar.de. They had their helmets resting prominently on the hood and were talking and laughing amongst themselves. I thought they looked a bit fidgety.

The track finally opened again and I was able to squeeze in two laps (John was letting me drive first for once, so he could “re-familiarize” himself with the track.) Those were the two most harrowing laps I have yet made of the ‘Ring. Never before had we seen so much traffic, cars driving so close together, or so much palpable pent-up energy and frustration. It was a recipe for disaster. A cherry red Porsche actually had the nerve to pass me on the right, which is technically illegal, even though I am very good about pulling to the right to let people pass. I even use my signal, for goodness’ sake. Needless to say, it was not exactly fun. I spent more time looking in my rear-view mirror and trying to get out of the way of a never-ending series of Porsches than actually following the line and enjoying the road.

The closest John got to getting on the track himself today was when he made it nearly to the entrance gate; there were three cars in front of him when the closure announcement came over the loudspeakers. It was almost noon, so, frustrated, we pulled out of line and went off to Bike World to have lunch. It was a lovely day and we sat outside, enjoying our Schnitzel and sunshine, but on the inside we were fuming. We had driven three hours to get here, presumedly for our fourth and final trip to the ‘Ring, and our day was being ruined by a bunch of octane-crazed loonies who couldn’t drive within their limits.

At some point Jürgen managed to get in another lap while we were still parked in line, but then I got a text message from him saying that something was up and he needed to make a pit stop. We met him in the grass lot and he told us that he had been run off the track by some jerk. I didn’t believe him at first, but sure enough, his black leather suit was a bit scuffed. He had crashed, but not badly – his right turn signal was torn off and he damaged his brake lever. Completely unphased, he opened up his bag of tools, took out a spare part, and repaired his bike right then and there. He went out for one more lap, by which point it was about 3:00 in the afternoon, and then told us he was done for the day. I looked at John and said, “Maybe we should call it quits too.” We could always give our leftover laps to Jürgen, but in the back of my mind I was already figuring that we would find a way to come back for another try before winter set in. Jürgen said, “I think that is a very good idea.”

We said our farewells and then John and I stood there for a few more minutes, watching the traffic and pondering the unfairness of it all. We figured we could stick around for another hour or two, as the track wasn’t closing until 5:00, and hope that things calmed down a little bit. Then we both looked at each other and realized that without Jürgen, we would be seriously up a creek if anything happened to us out on the track. Given the way people were driving today, such an unattractive outcome was looking less and less far-fetched. John, finally resigned to the fact that he would go lapless on his fourth trip to the Nürburgring, agreed to call it a day. Disappointed, but already formulating a plan for our fifth trip, we headed for home.

Someone did manage to snatch a picture of me at some point during my two laps (photo, right). We also took a lot of photographs in all of our time wandering around while the track was closed, which I have posted on Flickr:


Monday, February 11, 2008

6 October: Apartment for Rent

Frau Dörr came by yesterday afternoon (after I got back from seeing Beth at Deli, a very cool café in downtown Stuttgart) to tell me that she had listed our apartment this week and had immediately received not one, not two, but three inquiries from interested parties, all of whom want to come see our place this weekend! I knew the housing market in Stuttgart was pretty tight, but even Frau Dörr seemed surprised by the quick response. I was somewhat annoyed at the short notice because it is going to be a little awkward for us to be here with the dog when people come to see the apartment, and I would prefer that they come when we are not at home. But I couldn’t do anything about it, because Frau Dörr had already scheduled the appointments. Two couples are coming today and one on Sunday. At least tomorrow we will be gone, since we are planning to go with Jürgen for our last visit to the Nürburgring.

We were here when the first couple arrived – a middle-aged couple with a toddler. We showed them around the place and told them that all of our furniture was also for sale if they saw anything that interested them. They just smiled and said they already had their own things. They weren’t thrilled about the narrow spiral stairs, commenting (rightfully so) that it would be tough to get up and down them with a baby in tow. I have slipped on those stairs more than once, and I certainly wouldn’t want to tackle them while carrying a squirming baby! The second couple arrived just as we were conveniently leaving to take Cody for his afternoon walk, so we said hello and went on our way. They were out in the garden with the Dörrs when we returned so we slipped back upstairs without talking to them. Frau Dörr later said that she didn’t think the first couple was interested in the place but that the second couple might be.

I guess it really hit home today, now that we have strangers walking through our house, that we are leaving soon. In just over two months, we will have spread the contents of this apartment to the four winds and will be saying farewell to Stuttgart. Now, more than ever, I have to make each day count!

Friday, February 8, 2008

2 October: I am a German Entrepreneur!

While I was at Kaufland doing my grocery shopping, a guy stopped me to ask a question. Now, whenever someone stops to ask me a question in Germany, my heart always leaps into my throat as I desperately hope that I will be able to understand them and respond in a halfway intelligent manner. (This happens all the time in Botnang – people are always stopping me while I’m walking the dog to ask for directions. Naturally they assume that someone walking their dog knows the neighborhood. Little do they know that they are talking to a silly American who can barely pronounce the name of her own street!) Anyway, this nice young man didn’t want to know the difference between leeks and green onions; no, he was holding up his cell phone and wanted to know whether he should use Ihr or dich (formal or informal “you”) if he wanted to buy something over the phone. Yes, that’s right, someone stopped me in the grocery store to ask a German grammar question! After a moment’s pause to digest his question, I responded, “Ihr.” Then, to explain my hesitation, I said, “Ich bin Amerikanerin!” He chuckled and said, “Ich bin Mexicanisch!” I said (still in German), “Your German is very good!” and he said, “So is yours!”

When I came home from Kaufland there was a black Smart forfour parked in front of our house. At first I thought it was a real Brabus like mine but I after a quick once-over I decided it only had a Brabus “appearance” package (wheels and exhaust). I immediately felt a melancholy pang as I thought fondly of my long-gone Smart, and then the entrepreneur in me kicked in and I said to myself, “Maybe they need winter tires!” The winter tires from my Smart have been sitting in our garage for the past year and a half and we really need to get our act together and sell them now that winter is right around the corner. So I went upstairs, put my groceries away, and quickly jotted down a note with my offer (a very reasonable 350 Euro) and stuck it on the car’s windshield. Lo and behold, about half an hour later, I got a phone call from the woman who owns the car! She said she didn’t have winter tires yet and was interested, but that she would need to talk to her husband and would call me back this evening. I will cross my fingers, because it would be great to check those tires off the long list of items we need to offload before we leave.

Since tomorrow is a holiday, I went to Marilena’s 7:15 jazz class this evening. I quickly discovered that a less experienced group comes to this class and Marilena teaches accordingly – everything was just a touch slower and easier. After class I asked her about it and she explained that the Wednesday class is mostly made up of students from the professional training program (I had noticed that they all go up after class to have some sort of timesheet signed) so she has to be tougher on them. I filed away this bit of information…it sounds like I might have it a bit easier if I come to the Tuesday class!

Thursday, February 7, 2008

September Postscript: The Bad German

I’m not sure how I managed to overlook writing about this incident; maybe it just upset me too much and I decided not to write it down, but I thought I should document it since it’s pretty much the most negative experience I had with a German in our entire time here.

One brisk morning in the middle of September, as I was out with Marlena and Evelyne on our daily walk, Cody and Eiko ran up ahead on the “high road” trail and disappeared over a low rise. I try to keep Cody within sight, but Eiko tends to wander way ahead on this part of the trail and Cody, being the gregarious dog that he is, tends to follow Eiko. There’s usually hardly anyone out in the mornings on this particular trail so it’s normally not a problem. This time we heard a bit of a commotion and then saw a scruffy black-and-white dog come tearing down the trail towards us, with Cody and Eiko in hot pursuit. Normally this is no cause for alarm, as Cody loves to play chase with other dogs, and they usually tire themselves out and come back. But as the three dogs rounded the corner in front of us and continued down the narrow footpath leading back to the lower trail, I recognized the strange dog as the scruffy mutt belonging to the rude man that we had encountered way back in April. We hadn’t seen him all summer and I was really hoping never to see him again.

Evelyne responded quickly by rushing down the trail after the dogs, yelling at Eiko, with me following and Marlena bringing up the tail, making her way slowly down the steep hill on her bad leg. I think Evelyne was hoping to catch up with the dogs and continue down the trail without having to deal with the man, but that effort was thwarted as the man soon caught up with us and ran ahread down the trail, yelling what I’m sure was something very rude at us as he passed. By the time we reached the lower trail, the dogs – and the man – were out of sight. I started to get a little worried – Cody had never run off like this before, but if the other dog was as unpredictable as his owner, who knows how far they might run?

I called and called for Cody, my voice seeming to echo up and down the length of the valley, but I couldn’t hear a thing – not a distant bark or a whine – in return. I ran ahead down the trail and quickly left Evelyne and Marlena behind as my panic mounted. I began to imagine all sorts of terrible scenarios: what if the guy had gotten hold of Cody and was dragging him off, to be turned in to the police as a runaway dog, or worse – what if he was going to hurt Cody? I jogged further down the trail, past the point where we normally turn to head back up to Evelyne’s street, and approached the area near the road where we had encountered the man last year. An elderly woman was walking along the trail towards me and I stopped to ask her if she had seen three dogs running past. She hadn’t seen them, but she had seen the man. She asked what had happened and I tried to explain it to her. She gently chastised me for having my dog off the leash and I tried to explain that normally it is not a problem, but she pointed out that if I couldn’t call Cody back, then I had a problem. I grudgingly agreed with her. Unfortunately I’ve gotten a bit lazy with Cody’s training and, in all honesty, when he gets going with another dog it is very difficult to distract him. The lady tried to soothe me by saying that dogs usually find their way home, at which point I stared dismally up towards the houses on the opposite hillside and imagined Cody running through the streets of Botnang, where he most certainly would get run over.

I thanked the lady and was continuing on down the trail when the man approached me, now pedaling furiously on a bicycle. He stopped to ask me if I had seen the dogs and I said no. I stumbled over my German and said, “I’m sorry, I’m American and my German is not very good,” to which he responded in a patronizing tone, “You can speak English with me.” I pointed out that it was his dog that was always running off first, so we were really both at fault. This only enraged the guy further and he proceeded to scream at me, telling me to “get my f**king dog under f**king control.” I tried to stay calm and said that he didn’t need to speak to me that way. I repeated that Cody was only trying to play. He said, “Oh, right!” and left without another word, pedaling up the trail. There was nothing I could do except turn around and walk back up the trail after him.

When I finally reached the pond, you can imagine my immense relief when I saw Marlena and Evelyne come around the bend with Eiko and Cody in tow. I yelled at Cody to come, but Evelyne yelled back that she had put him on her leash with Eiko. When we met up, Evelyne explained that they had found Cody and Eiko playing near the pond. They had been yelling for me but I didn’t hear them, nor had they heard me yelling for Cody – odd, since my voice had sounded so loud to my own ears! They had of course run into the man on his bike, and when he saw that they had collected their dogs, he proceeded to beg them to help him find his dog. Evelyne told him in no uncertain terms that she would not dream of helping him given the way he had spoken to us previously. He went off in a huff and we didn’t see him again. Evelyne and Marlena were anxious to hear about my altercation with the man. They had been terrified that he might try to hurt me, a thought that had never crossed my mind – I was only worried about him stealing or hurting Cody. They told me that the fact that the man had used such foul language with me was very bad indeed and if we ended up having to deal with the police over this matter, that I should report exactly what he had said. In the end, we didn’t have to do anything about it at all. I was just relieved to have Cody back, safe and sound.

Postcript to the postscript: We never did find out what happened to the man and his dog that day. Evelyne saw him driving around Botnang a few weeks later and was able to write down his license plate number, just in case we ever needed to identify him. I actually saw him twice more while jogging on the “Dog-o-bahn” with Cody. I already had Cody on the leash in both instances since I don’t like to run so close to the busy road with him off the leash. The man saw me coming both times and quickly put his dog on his leash (not without some trouble, might I add) and stood off to the side while we passed. One time his dog growled and barked at us as we went by. The other time the man actually said hello as I passed. Shocked, I simply said hello in return, without making eye contact, and continued on my way.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

30 September: A Sunday Stroll in Schwäbisch Hall

We haven’t really done much in the way of sight-seeing this month, so I convinced John that we should drive out to Schwäbisch Hall, a small town about an hour’s drive northeast of Stuttgart. I had heard the name mentioned more times than I can count, but I always figured it was just another quaint little German town. What a minute…have I ever gotten sick of quaint little German towns? Off we went to have a look around.

We approached the town from above, as it is nestled in a deep valley along the River Kocher. We slipped into the last available parking space in a small public lot just a short distance from the town center, then started out on a ramble through the ancient city. Schwäbisch Hall’s roots date back to the 5th century BC, and evidence of Celtic saltworks have been discovered in the northern area of the town (the name Hall refers to a “fountain of salt”). Salt was the mainstay of the local economy through the Middle Ages, and the city’s wealth is evidenced by the impressive St. Michael’s Church, dating from the 15th century.

We soon made our way to one of the most distinctive buildings in town, the massive Neubau (New Building, dating from 1527), formerly the arsenal and seat of local government, now used as a cultural center (photo, above). We followed a narrow cobblestone street towards the Renaissance-style cupola of St. Michael’s, visible above the rooftops of beautifully-restored half-timber buildings. We came out on the sloping main square, which is dinstinctive because of its large size, its ornate Baroque Rathaus (city hall) and associated buildings, and the monumental flight of steps leading up to the church (photo, right). We went inside the church, which has a typically stark Gothic interior with some beautiful woodwork. From the top of the steps we got a lovely view of the square, lined with cafés full of people enjoying an afternoon Kaffee und Kuchen.

More enchanting cobbled streets led us down the hill towards the river, where we crossed a covered wooden pedestrian bridge (the town boasts several of them) and turned a corner to feast our eyes on a magnificent sight: a string of cheerful pastel-hued half-timbered houses strung out along the river atop a solid wall of massive stone foundations, crowned by the peaked roof of the Neubau. More houses came into view as we walked along the promenade, all clustered together like pieces of an elaborate jigsaw puzzle (photo, right). A hefty arched stone bridge links the town with an island in the middle of the river, home to a lovely park where plenty of people were enjoying a lazy afternoon stroll under a canopy of leaves just starting to display autumn colors. We crossed another covered bridge to the opposite side of the river and continued our walk along the waterfront, spotting remnants of the old town defenses along the way, including sturdy towers and crumbling walls. We circled back through town and made our way slowly back to the car. All in all, Schwäbisch Hall is one of the most charming towns we have visited in Baden-Württemberg. It may be a little off the beaten path, but well worth a visit. I was sorry we hadn’t discovered it earlier but I’m so glad we made the trip.

I have posted more photos from our walk in Schwäbisch Hall on Flickr: