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Saturday, October 21, 2017

Venice!

The one thing I remember about Venice this time around is this:

Without a GPS, a compass, or even the sun, I venture outside of the apartment near Rialto Bridge on a Sunday morning. Let's try a little exercise in futility here. From the house door I start slowly and head one block toward this piazza I remember as San Benedetto. Having been to a school run by Benedictine monks, I can remember that, it stands to reason. So far, so good. From there, I scramble over a little bridge that is being used by amateur musicians, who take their sweet time in setting up their instruments. From the quizzical expressions on their faces, I'd say they are about as lost as I am. 

Now, let's retrace those steps, I am thinking with a grim laugh. Over the bridge, around the corner, to San Benedetto. Wait a minute, that doesn't check out, as there is a supermarket (actually open on a Sunday in Über-Catholic Italy!) now standing where the church is supposed to be. So it's back to the bridge and to one of the other three directions. Number one leads to a more minor canal. Number two zig zags through a narrow alleyway until I am heading toward San Marco. Number three takes me back to San Benedetto, where I now have my standard four (actually seven) choices over where to go from there. I laugh all the way back to the front door while the Venetians carry on with their Sunday routines. And so we're back in the world's largest labyrinth. 

But back to the beginning: for our trip, we decide to wing it overnight with Hambone, the name we chose for our white car when we purchased it months ago. Until the Austrian borders, everything is fairly routine. In Austria, then, Liebi is introduced to something that induces a head shaking incomprehension she has not known since learning Nepali years ago: toll roads. That's right, the privilege of paying for the use of roads that have already been built. Liebi quickly gets over this, however, and instead decides to focus on the sheer panoramic beauty of the Austrian Alps, although I need to remind her every now and then to keep her eye on the road and her hand on the wheel. 

Before the gondolas and San Marco, we still have to navigate our way through Northern Italy, its ever increasing network of roads, and yet more toll roads. Funny, how the traveler will appreciate Germany once every other European country has relieved you of dozens of dollars for using their streets. 

The heavy pollution is thrown in for free. We seriously begin to second guess our decision to drive down there, as Northern Italy is concealed in a heavy cloak of smog, topped off by hazy Venice itself. The main reason for this, one of the locals tells me, is the pollution from the cruise ships docking in their harbors daily. Years ago, it used to be one cruise a week or thereabouts. Now it's five to six per day. Supply and demand, I guess. A cruise ship is a little town on the water that, it goes without saying, has plenty of its own energy to burn. I don't handle it very well, at first, and neither do the kids, and we cough up half a lung before reaching Venice.

Finally, we park at Tronchetto (twenty bucks a day) near the train station, board a monorail ($1.50 per person) and a water bus ($7.50 per head) before the realtor takes us to our apartment near Rialto Station. Relief, and a few days off for Hambone, our trusted vehicle back at Tronchetto. Ciao, bello! We are in Venezia.   

Saturday, October 7, 2017

Oh, and about Election Day...

Detonating bombs, the latest Bayern Munich manager fired, storms ravaging the north...even I must admit that people can forget about more minor stories in Germany, like Election Day. 

The fact is, the elections themselves were as predictable as what happens to a seal swimming with sharks...except that the sharks might also end up biting each other, from the looks of things. 

A quick summary of the results, then: 32.9% for the CDU, or the Christian Democrats (party color black), still the ruling party under Chancellor Angela Merkel. This is still an almost nine percent drop from the elections of four years ago. Perennial runners up are the Social Democrats or the SPD (party color red) with 20.5% of the vote, or more than five percent less than four years ago. See a pattern here? That's a whopping fourteen percent that went to the minor parties, with SPD already refusing to enter a coalition with the conservatives. 

Stepping on the podium for the first time is the notorious AfD (party color blue), the Alternative for Germany, the new right wing party that has Germany emitting a collective gasp. AfD collected 12.9% (almost eight percent higher than 2013) of the vote, and will take their seats in the Bundestag on the opposition's side, since parties both left and right steadfastly refuse to enter any coalition with AfD. In fourth place is the libertarian FDP (party color yellow) with 10.7% of the vote, a gain of over six percent when compared to 2013.  

Rounding out the political parties that will claim their seats in Berlin are Die Linke (The Left; party color red-purple) with 9.2% and the Green Party (party color predictably green) with 8.6% of the vote, both slightly higher than four years ago. 

The winners of the election are the libertarians and the right wing AfD, while both major political parties, each centrist in outlook, took a beating. Oddly enough, this is where things get interesting, when it comes time to form a coalition. If you do the math, the choices are what you would find at a gas station: super, or super plus.

If the Social Democrats refuse to enter a grand coalition with the conservatives, and the CDU will expel the ranks of Christians from their party before even considering a union with the right wing AfD, what remains? The CDU and the Left (Die Linke) are not compatible, so that's off the table. The only viable option that remains is black-green-yellow, better known as the Jamaica coalition. Black and yellow is nothing unusual, green-yellow, on the other hand, is a combination that is as sour as it looks. 

Libertarians and Greens...yikes. On the cover of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Woche journal of the past week, an illustration depicts Merkel, Horst Seehofer (chief of the CDU's sister party, the Bavarian CSU), Chairman Christian Lindner of the FDP, and Cem Özdemir, chairman of the Greens, each sporting dreadlocks and passing a fat joint around, an amusing allusion to the upcoming Jamaica coalition. As funny as that looks, it doesn't nearly match how funny such a coalition might turn out to be once they all take their seats in Berlin.

Not to be outdone for overall drama, Frauke Petry, the face of the right wing AfD, announced her resignation from the party only a few days after the elections. Not to worry, Germans: there is plenty of slapstick guaranteed in the upcoming months and years.

And people always say Germans don't do comedy.

Wednesday, September 13, 2017

Luxembourg's Military Cemeteries

Amidst all of the hoopla of the World War II history in Europe, it's easy to forget Luxembourg's role throughout the struggle. 

Despite its initial resolution to maintain neutrality, Luxembourg was eventually annexed into the Reich in '42, following a battle that might have lasted as long as a football match two years earlier. The government itself refused any collaboration, electing to go into exile in the UK. Even so, at least 3,000 Jews were rounded up and executed by the Germans during occupation, while the same laws were applied to those who were spared, like wearing the Star of David Badge. Not many Jews survived in Luxembourg, when all was said and done.

Fast forward to The Battle of the Bulge in 1944, when the Germans desperately attempted a counter attack against the advancing American and British troops. Cities like Echternach became crucial for the combatants to hold. Despite the result of the battle, casualties were high on both sides, historians accounting for up to 300,000 killed and wounded, many of whom were buried in the military cemeteries in Luxembourg.

I decided to visit both cemeteries, the U.S. and the German. The U.S. cemetery was more elaborate, more polished, the way you would expect it from a victor nation. Here the monument, the flag waving, there the missing names listed, plus details of the battles around the Ardennes. General Patton himself had requested to be buried in Luxembourg following his accident in Germany that would prove to be fatal. As you would expect, his grave was at the front, facing the men he'd commanded during the war in Europe, where his Third Army was headquartered in nearby Luxembourg City.

By anybody's account, the cemetery is impressive. 17 acres, surrounded by 33 acres more of woodland. More than 5,000 Americans buried in all. That said, it was sad walking through those rows of soldiers, most of them cut down with an Allied victory by then all but a foregone conclusion. For an assignment and to honor the dead, I decided to write down one name from North Carolina and do some research on him.

The man I chose was William D. Thaggard, Private, U.S. Army, date of death February 11, 1945. According to the website findagrave.com, Private Haggard hailed from Elizabethtown, Bladen County. Died at age 25, left a wife and two young children, employed by a lumber company. He had been overseas for all of 25 days. RIP. 

Despite the spit and shine, I found the cemetery to be a sad place, regardless of ideology.

Not any less depressing was the German cemetery. 1944 and 1945 was a never ending quicksand for the Third Reich. By now, Hitler, desperate for troops, was scraping at the bottom of the barrel. The results could be seen right in front of us, maybe a mile from the Americans' final resting place. The German cemetery had more the air of a military cemetery. Dank, calm, reminiscent of the horrors of war, whether they'd been victorious or not. 

A disproportionate amount of soldiers were 16 or 17 years old. Most of these kids had been five years old when Hitler first took power. And they all died...for what? Only the madman and his minions, now long dead, could possibly answer that. The older soldiers buried there had probably fought five or six years before their struggle gracefully ended.  

I felt as bad for the Germans on my way home, I admit. In the end, both sides lose in war, no matter how we try to spin it. Prayers for all soldiers who fell. 

Sunday, September 3, 2017

Frankfurt: or how I learned to survive the Bomb

The recent bomb evacuation in the Westend area of Frankfurt is still receiving tons of ink throughout Germany and beyond. And why shouldn't it? In Westend, 65,000 people needed to be evacuated by 8 a.m. on Sunday, September 3, including senior, disabled, and hospitalized citizens, which alone would cause a two and a half hour delay in the proceedings. Many refused to leave their homes, which hardly helped matters. 

Just as an aside: our little family evacuated itself with time to spare. According to the authorities, this was the biggest evacuation in post WW2 German history.

So what happened? A bomb (aka an 'ordnance') was discovered on Wednesday at a construction site. This was identified as a British air mine, two tons heavy, 70% of its mass high grade explosives that could take out a city block of your choice. To make matters worse, this wasn't just any neighborhood, but Westend, where there's the Goethe Universität, one of Germany's most prominent colleges. Also, say hello to Ginni, the asparagus, aka the second highest TV tower in Germany. There's the American contingency housed in the Carl Schurz Siedlung north of the college campus. And, last but not least, let's not forget the Central Bank with some 70 billion dollars' worth of gold reserves. An evacuation was definitely in order.

That said, discovering these bombs is not front page news anymore. In fact, only the day before in nearby Koblenz, a similar evacuation was performed, only that the 45,000 people evacuated actually constituted half of that city's population. This was an American bomb and, although far lighter, supposedly the more dangerous of the two. In all, two thousand tons of bombs are discovered each year in Germany. Surprised? It shouldn't, when you consider that almost three million tons of bombs were dropped over Germany during the war. Repeat that again. Three million tons. Yikes. At 2,000 tons recovered per year and counting, that also tells me there were quite a few duds among the lot.

We decided our Sunday would not go to waste and made our way to our garden, several backpacks, gallons of water, and homework assignments in tow. Get the kids out of the house and let's pick some plums, blackberries and raspberries, shall we? Can't mow the lawn, that's a no-no in Catholic, uh, actually more Atheist Germany, come to think of it. Prune the bushes, pull some weeds, plant some seeds for the next lettuce batch. Everybody take a nap, read a paper and chill.

Eventually we'd return at ten p.m., and we were lucky to get that. The ramps to the Autobahn 66 were still blocked, so we snuck in through the back door via the Autobahn 5, just in time for the official green light by the authorities for all evacuees to return. I'm guessing the kids might be a little tired in the morning, but it was still a productive day, which we had all hoped for.

As an aside, I missed the only debate between the two major German chancellor candidates, Angela Merkel and Martin Schulz. Although I haven't heard about the specifics, something tells me I didn't miss much.


In the end, kudos to the city of Frankfurt for diffusing the bomb. Good practice, too, I'd say.

Saturday, August 19, 2017

The Casemates of Luxembourg

Most cities are defined by their most prominent buildings, statues, or natural wonders on display, in other words what is visible to the naked eye. The Eiffel Tower, the Statue of Liberty, Big Ben, The Table Mountain are prime examples of signature symbols that you couldn’t miss if you had two glass eyes painted over.

And yet, often people are fascinated by what they don’t see. Think about the tunnel complexes built by the Viet Cong or the North Vietnamese Army during the Vietnam War. There are the Capuchin tunnels in Palermo, the underground command center in London, and the bunkers in Berlin, the latter of which will probably never become accessible to the public, owing to safety or image concerns.

Arguably the most popular tourist destination in Luxembourg is the Unesco World Heritage site of the Casemates. The Casemates, both the Bock and the Petrusse, are an underground military defense system engineered by too many nations to name here. The first Casemates were built in the 17th century by the Spanish and were eventually enlarged until they included more than 15 (!) miles of underground galleries, over multiple stories and carved out to a depth of well over 100 feet.

The term ‘casemate’ comes from the Greek ‘chasmata’, meaning of course chasm, or a bomb proof chamber situated in the body of a bigger building. Think vault or bunker, only that these Casemates are well above the ground, as far as we could tell, although probably beneath the grounds of the city center.

Nearly two centuries later after the casemates were first built, the fortress that stood was evacuated and dismantled, the Casemates themselves considerably reduced. Unfortunately, large tracts of the underground complex were destroyed to assist in extending the city itself and its more modern day demands.

What’s left of it is still remarkable. This is the spirit of Europe at its finest, the long tunnels and narrow staircases with the occasional barred window that allows for some incredible views of the city. At the entrance, people are warned about claustrophobia, which is understandable, at the latest when you are trying to squeeze past somebody within the staircases.

Of course, there were also two World Wars Europe had to deal with, which didn’t leave Luxembourg unscathed, either. The Casemates served as welcoming shelters designed to hold 35,000 people in emergency cases, like air raids.

We visited the Bock Casemates, the most prominent among them, with its incredible views through the loopholes. Here, you are treated to the dungeon of the old Luxembourg Castle before you reach the main gallery (about 100 meters long) with its holes, cannons and loopholes. The Bock Casemates could accommodate 1,200 soldiers and fifty cannons.

There is also the former prison, linking the city center with Kirchberg region. There is an old well that plunges 47 meters deep, and the bottom is clearly visible to anyone who cares to take a peek. The Bock Casemates were also used by the Habsburgs in the person of Marshal von Bender, who occupied these paces in the late 18th century against the French.

Although the Petrusse Casemates are temporarily closed, the Bock Casemates are open to the public and are a must see for any visitor to Luxembourg. Tourists can see for themselves that these places actually existed. This is Europe as people imagine it, the best its history has to offer.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Luxembourg

So we're planning a birthday trip for Bash, this one going to the Praehistorium in the Saarland in the west of Germany. Axl went to Legoland for his birthday, Bash will get his beloved dinosaurs. Win-win for everybody, except that Liebi has other ideas altogether: looking at our destination on the map, she sees that Luxembourg is a rock's throw away. Liebi has been greedy lately, as far as collecting countries goes. Never mind that she's done more travel than the entire population of Luxembourg combined, this is her chance to see Luxembourg, so we book the weekend before Bash's birthday to do some exploring in Luxembourg. 

We drive through Hessen, Rheinland Pfalz, and finally arrive in Luxembourg after roughly two hours. Luxembourg is what you would imagine under a typical European country, clean, pristine, gorgeous scenery. Do you remember the opening scene of Quentin Tarantino's 'Inglorious Basterds?' There's a French farmer with his daughters in the middle of 'French cow country', as the wicked SS Colonel Hans Landa calls it, with trees, rolling hills, green, green grass, and happy cows that crank out dairy products that you never knew existed. That, in a nutshell, is what Luxembourg looks like. Some of the street signs will be in French, some in German, others in Luxembourgish French. 

We locate our hotel quickly, check in, and hit the supermarket in Luxembourg city, at the Auchan, a shopping mall that almost puts its transatlantic counterparts in the U.S. to shame. The selection of fine foods, mostly European, at the supermarket is simply unheard of. Liebi swoons at the meats, cheeses, and most of all, the bakery items. Axl and Bash, meanwhile, rent themselves a couple of rolling animals to zip through the shopping mall with. Toss in a euro, and that animal is no longer stationary, but is joining the shopping crowd out there. Bash on a red angry bird, Axl on a pig. You would think any of the kids would run over some of the shoppers, and I'm sure it's happened, but there are no incidents today. 

We are a little too tired to go out tonight, so we bring Auchan food back to the hotel. Pizzas for the kids, five different cheeses, a salami, baguette, and two bottles of champagne (right, champagne, from the actual region), all for the princely sum of 25 euros. That's Europe for you, though: quality of life without breaking the bank. 

So far, it looks like a splendid trip. Surprisingly (or maybe not) my French holds up when people don't understand German. It's hard to pinpoint who speaks what. A few merchants even offer to speak English. And people are quite welcoming and friendly. 

Planned for the next day: a walk through Luxembourg City, population of about 115,000 people. 

A walk through the old city on a Sunday, a visit to the famed casemates near the old fortress, plus the military cemeteries of World War II. 

Stay tuned. 




Friday, August 4, 2017

Germans and Gardens

One thing I have always admired about Germans is how they tend to their gardens. It matters very little just how big the space is or what you're growing. People go through great lengths to ensure that the space given to them looks like the Second Coming of the Garden of Eden.

Being that Germany is a relatively small country with 85 million people, there isn't that much garden space to go around, which goes double when you are in the cities. I ought to know. If you look at the classifieds online for Frankfurt, there are hundreds of requests for garden spaces, private or public. The demand is always there.

Then, of course, there are the Vereine, or registered clubs that lease plots, also known as Shrebergarten, usually in spaces of 300, 400 or 500 square meters, depending on the place and the club. The big clubs have more than a hundred of these plots, 100 plots are a middle sized club. In Frankfurt, there must be about a dozen of these clubs. In the U.S., this is almost hard to imagine, being that people prefer their houses with plenty of yard space without the need to leave them. But the gardener clubs also keep the city honest and prevent them from building projects that would not be in their best interests, whether from an aesthetic or a practical perspective. There are not many strip malls in Germany that I am aware of.

Often, a traveler will ride a train through a city and spot these garden plots, whether he may know it or not. It may be a small plot, plus a bungalow on the property, very charming indeed. Now you know what these plots are for. Contrary to popular belief, these aren't the tiniest houses ever made, but only part of the garden and a place to rest, especially during the hot summer days. And those can be as hot as they are long. Yard work can be exhausting during summer. 

Next comes the layout of the gardens. This has become an art, depending on the person leasing the plot. Will (s)he be going for something nice, like the ivy covered arch at the entrance, or will the focus be on growing something useful? Either way, I have rarely seen a German garden in disarray. Some gardens are designed with even the tiniest detail in mind, as to where the gnomes should be standing. Some have five foot high mini green houses, others have flags fluttering in the wind, and all of them have a shack for tools...and barbecue equipment. No stone is left unturned, sometimes in a literal sense.

In Frankfurt, there are seasons for growing certain items. For example, we have picked the last of our cucumbers and green beans in our plot. Now we are picking raspberries, the blackberries are ripening as well, and the apples come at the very end, September or October, or when it is time to close shop for autumn and winter. 

Then there are people who will forego growing crops and restrict themselves to growing flowers. When this is done right, you may be looking at a mini Versailles. Some of them can be over the top, for certain, but every plot is painstakingly maintained.

Public gardens in Germany are eye candy that can be hard to ignore. It's tax euros at work, when it comes down to it. It also adds to the quality of life and is a message to the city's visitors. It's typically European too. A public or private garden will always be in shape, it says so much about the person(s) maintaining them. Even (or especially) in Germany. 

Saturday, July 15, 2017

Steigerwald

It always surprises me to find that one of the nicest places I have ever known, the Steigerwald, was at my doorstep all along.

Again, this is not an area that will garner much ink outside of Bavaria. In fact, most Germans will be hard pressed to tell you where it is. For the most part, it is what the name suggests: a large, wooded area nestled between the three Franconias, or three of the sub-regions of Bavaria: lower, upper, and middle Franconia (or Franken, as the Germans call it). If you were to locate it using cities or townships, I would say you would find it west of Bamberg and Nuremberg, but to the east of Schweinfurt.

The area is the same now as I knew it then: a haven for hiking and biking, a relatively untouched piece of land where time stands still and development occurs only gradually or not at all. This explains the resistance of the locals, including their elected representatives, to have their area converted to official national park status. After all, people reason, more protection means more exclusion, and shouldn't the area continue to be available for all? Here, people equate protection with inaccessibility, meaning their beloved forest will become a jungle if left to its own devices. I'm not so sure about that, although from my experience, I can easily say the area is ravishing, no matter what its status is.

Only a week ago, we rented an apartment for a couple of days just to get some country air. It would take us a little more than an hour along the Autobahn A3 until we would finally reach Ebrach, another charming little town nestled within the Steigerwald area. From there, the roads gradually become smaller while the number of cars decrease. The autobahn turns into a Bundesstraße, or a more minor highway, from there it becomes a Landstraße, or a country road that becomes as narrow and curvy as a roller coaster rail.

Once we are out of Ebrach, we follow a road for six miles through thick forest and rolling hills, which is where I slow down and simply enjoy the ride. We eventually reach the place located in nearby Koppenwind, next to a horse ranch, which is an added bonus, being that the boys are crazy about horses. Chances are you will hear the clopp, clopp, clopp of a horseshoe hitting a turf outside your window rather than the rubber of a tire. The loudest thing I hear is the refrigerator humming in the kitchen.

From here, we hit different towns, like Ebrach, Wiesentheid, even the abbey of Münsterschwarzach, where I went to school. Again, you wouldn't know where to find these places, but they are just as vital to Germany as the cities and the more heralded mountains or medieval fortresses...and usually without the waves of tourists accompanying the added hype.

Bamberg is less than a half hour away, so there's a another wonderful little city that is so emblematic of Germany. More about Bamberg in a later post.

The Steigerwald area is as good a place as any for a weekend hike or bike ride, if you're out to be one with nature, but would rather do without the crowds. Even years later, this place never fails. A solid but unknown tip, if you have time to spare when you're in the area.

Friday, June 16, 2017

Germany's little cities - Bad Homburg

Let's archive this one under the label 'cities nobody knows about but absolutely should'. Enter the 50,000 people township of Bad Homburg, located in the greater Frankfurt metropolitan region.

Bad Homburg can actually be reached, quite easily, by train, whether from Frankfurt's main train station, the Hauptbahnhof, or one of the urban trains in Frankfurt, the U or S-Bahn. It shouldn't take more than 20 minutes to get there. There's also the good old automobile, which can take you to Bad Homburg via autobahn in 15 minutes.

First, the name. You will notice that many German towns have the word 'Bad' in it. This has nothing to do with the city being cursed or consisting solely of evil spirits. The word 'Bad' stands for bath, meaning the towns (Bad Homburg, Bad Tölz, Bad Kreuznach, among many others) used to be wellness centers, where people spent their vacation to recover from illnesses or stress. The city itself was popular among allied troops after World War II, thanks in part to its central location within the country and some of the large hotels the occupying forces, especially the Americans, would use as administrative quarters.

The first thing we notice is the park, the Kurpark, where we park our car. There are nice fountains, accessible paths, a nice layout, even though that's what every park should like, one could argue. There's a cute little temple that was donated by the kingdom of Thailand, in another quarter a Russian orthodox church. What we didn't count on were the numerous sculptures popping up out of the ground. It turns out that every two years, the park features sculptures, by world famous and only locally known sculptors alike. Suddenly, there is a 15 foot head popping up from out of the ground. How's that for a walk in the park? How about a ten foot cucumber saying hello next to where the fountain is. Brilliant, the entire concept. On this Sunday, there are hundreds of people in the park. But that, too, is quality of life. Wonderful, wonderful job, Bad Homburg.

Equally famous is the Schloß, formerly the summer residence for Kaiser Wilhelm II. No charge, just stroll on through the gate and enjoy the walls, towers, and gardens. The Schloß today, if I'm not mistaken, is used by the state for the administrative wing that deals with - who would have thought? - castles and fortresses in the state of Hessen. Lucky people, who get to do their job is such a formidable building. Most tourists are Germans, every now and then I hear Russian, but for the most part this is a site enjoyed by the locals.

We use another two hours to hike outside into the lush forests outside of the town, following a lunch of Döner Kebaps. Funny, how quickly asphalt and highrises turn to forest paths and evergreens. Usually, there is some residential neighborhood that will ease you back into the country, but not here. Before we know it, we are swallowed by the forest and come across a well-known campground, where you will find campers, hikers, riders on bike and horseback, every now and then a lone automobile passing through.

Liebi, it seems, has a new favorite town each time we visit a new one. Heidelberg, Wiesbaden, Bad Homburg. And you can argue we haven't even scraped the surface yet. It's another fantastic little day trip we get to enjoy with the family. Tips: check out the Kurpark and the churches (especially the Erlöserkirche), the Schloß, the pedestrian zone, or hike from the Schloß to the Herzberg. 

Tuesday, June 6, 2017

Ebbelwei - Have a Cider!

Ah, differences, or what makes cultures earn their names, even if that is within the same country.

Having grown up in Bavaria, I know the state is divided into beer and wine country. In Munich, for example, it doesn't take two guesses to know where you are. Even before you see the beer halls and hear the brass instruments playing, the long fields outside of the city growing hops are a firm indicator that beer is the beverage of choice. Here, it's mostly a question of preference: pils, lager or weizen. A Bavarian breakfast, always a popular Sunday starter, consists of a pretzel, a weißwurst (white sausage, usually boiled), and a hefe weizen. Beer is legal to purchase at many vending machines, simply because, before it can be labeled 'alcohol', it is labeled, first and foremost 'nutrition'. If Bavaria were an independent nation, it's per capita beer consumption would be off the charts.

The vineyards in the area where I grew up in Lower Franconia tell you this is wine country, nowhere more so than in the vineyards of the Main Valley. In summer, every village will have its own weinfest, where Main Street is sealed off and the priest and the mayor can sit, listen to the music, and partake in the local wines the merchants have to offer. It's a relaxed atmosphere, a good excuse for the merchants to sell their wine and the villagers to drink it. Even so, wine except for certain places in the south (Baden, Franconia, the Pfalz), is more of a rarity in Germany.

And then there's Frankfurt. I have already mentioned in multiple posts that Frankfurt is not your typical German city, and I have barely scraped the surface in this blog. Enter Frankfurt's favorite beverage: Apfelwein, Äppelwoi, Äppler, Appelwein, Ebbelwoi, Ebbelwei...The English just call it apple wine, or simply cider. Though not exclusive to Frankfurt and the federal state of Hessen, this is where the beverage is the most popular. Supposedly, historians believe that cider in the region dates back to the 17th century, although the cultivation of cider was documented by the Romans ages (and even in Germany) before that.

It's hard to find a love affair between a region and a beverage the way Frankfurt has it with cider. Back in Franconia, a 'wine queen' was elected every year. Well, what's good for the goose is good for the gander. Frankfurt has its own Apfelwein Königin, or Cider Queen. Try that on for size, Franconia.

In Frankfurt, there's also the Ebbelwei Express (or simply Ebbel Ex), the different way of taking in the sights of Frankfurt...with pretzels and cider, plus a beginner's course in the Hessian dialect! There's a regular schedule for the Ebbelwei Express on weekends and holidays. If you look at the colorfully painted train, you'll see that The Magical Mystery Tour has absolutely nothing on the Ebbelwei Expres. Here a rare link to a photo to illustrate:

https://www.ebbelwei-express.de/en/information/history/

Cider itself, not unlike beer and its purity laws, adheres to strict standards, and its health benefits are amply touted, although I won't go there. Best to just enjoy it, chilled, at around 10 degrees Celsius.

Man, I need a drink. 

Monday, May 29, 2017

The Kaiserdom

Following a visit to a Magritte exhibition at the nearby Schirn Kunsthalle, I decided to look up the Kaiserdom a few blocks away. I'm positive I haven't set foot in the place for over 30 years. To be clear: a 'Dom' (pronounced 'dome') in a German city usually refers to its largest church. Those are the buildings you will see above all others. The Dom in Cologne. The Dom in Munich. The Dom in Berlin. This is the featured building of most skylines in Germany.

Of course, Frankfurt is always the exception to the rule. Although the tower of the Kaiserdom stands at a proud 95 meters and would be tall enough to loom over any building in any other German downtown, Frankfurt just happens to have a few friends called 'skyscrapers', as in big banks that easily dwarf the tower of the Kaiserdom, also known as St. Bartholomäus. In fact, you will be pressed to see the church from our neighborhood, or once you have even reached the Hauptwache in downtown Frankfurt. The only place I have had an uninhibited view of the tower has been from the other side of the Main River.

The tower of the Kaiserdom is one of the most unique I have ever seen. It's almost like a hybrid between a tower and a cupola, round and polished in some places, spiky in others. To say nothing of the layout itself! Again, very unusual: most churches stretch in length, you can expect rows and rows of pews that eventually all lead up to the altar, or where the priest is celebrating mass. But the layout in itself is almost square, the way you would expect it from a central structure.

Even so, what people don't realize is that the church you see now is actually the third church constructed on the Dom's site. People in Frankfurt laugh when people suggest that the Dom used to be, oh horror, destroyed. But which church? St, Bartholomäus went from Catholic to Protestant back to Catholic again quicker than you can say 'war'. The construction of the first church started in the 13th century, which is almost modern by European standards. In the 1860's, the free city of Frankfurt was occupied by Prussian troops under the leadership of Wilhelm I. Mysteriously, the church caught fire, which didn't help relations between the locals and the occupying force any. It took an enormous initiative by the citizens of Frankfurt, largely through private donations, until the church would stand again, bigger and better than ever, with a few additions that hadn't even been completed when construction first started

The first thing you see when you enter the Dom is a black and white photo of the Kaiserdom following the war. Like most cities in Germany, Frankfurt was leveled by multiple air attacks during World War II, courtesy of the Royal Air Force. Surprisingly, the Kaiserdom's damage was marginal compared to the inner city, despite the RAF's best (or worst) efforts. Although the Dom was smoked out and most windows destroyed, the tower still stood after suffering minimal damage.

On the day I visit the Dom, there happens to be a mass in progress. As a former altar boy, I know how a mass, even in German, runs its course by heart. In this mass, the priest lands a swift kick to the bells (that's on the altar boy), which makes me suppress a chuckle.

Whether it's for worship or for sightseeing, the Kaiserdom is one of Germany's unique churchs in its architecture and its history. This is an activity I would do without children, as you can also climb up to the platform of the tower, up (ugh! if you're a kid) stairs. 

Sunday, May 14, 2017

The Goethe Tower

To get to the Goethe Tower, we take the subway to the Südbahnhof in Frankfurt, the Train Station South, which takes us less than ten minutes. Although we could easily take the bus to the Goethe Tower from the station, we decide to hike it. BTW: from the train station you can get to the tower using bus line # 48, if you're in more of a hurry.

The hike to the Goethe Tower is a little more than one and a half miles, which we think should get us there just in time for lunch. Although the kids moan at the prospect, they quickly fall in and start yapping about everything underneath the partly cloudy sky, from dinosaurs hunting in packs to which is the coolest looking car on the road. The weather is a very agreeable 69 degrees, the perfect day for a hike.

The Goethe Tower is just part of a larger park that features a beer garden, several quality playgrounds, as well as abundant hike/bike trails that stretch on for miles. As luck will have it, there seems to be a fest that's being celebrated from some club, or verein, which means there's a band playing, with the tubas, the trombones and the trumpets. And wherever there's a band playing, there's also suds available, or also in this case cider, the local specialty in the Frankfurt area, known as Apfelwein, or 'Ebbelwoi', in the local dialect. As we look at the restaurant's menu next to the Goethe Tower, we realize that a glass of coke is actually more expensive that the same quantity of beer or cider. Supply and demand, I guess.

We have a nice leisurely lunch in the beer garden, Liebi and I each enjoy a cider. Once lunch is over, it's time to scale the Goethe Tower itself. The tower, erected in 1931, is roughly 140 feet high and 100% out of wood, with narrow stairways (and 191 steps) that can take you to the top, and from there to a fantastic view of greater Frankfurt. Being that the Goethe Tower itself is on a hill, you can see greater Frankfurt all the way from Wiesbaden to Offenbach. As big a metropolis as Frankfurt is, you still can't help but marvel at all the green space in the region.

Why was the Goethe Tower named after Goethe? Hard to pinpoint any theory to that one. Goethe was born in Frankfurt, one of Germany's largest universities here was named after him. There's a prize named after him, a street, a school, etc. People suggest that the opening ceremony of the tower in 1931 almost commemorated with Goethe's death nearly a century before in 1832.

After the tower, the kids burn some more energy on the playgrounds, one including a long, tubular slide that allows for little traction and feels more like a roller coaster, from what the kids tell us.

The Goethe Tower (German: Goethe Turm) was a perfect day tripper for our little family of four. Tickets for the subway/bus for the entire family: 11.40 Euros. Lunch, plus cider: 28 Euros. That's less than 40 Euros for a quality day spent in Frankfurt. No car needed, no hassle, and all the physical exercise to go with it. There were dozens of families who took their bikes to the tower, which is also a viable option.

The quality of life in Frankfurt, so far, has been outstanding. This should make for an interesting summer. 
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