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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. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Frankfurt Fit

The changes you experience after you move to Europe are instantaneous. There are church towers instead of skyscrapers, brats and döners instead of junk food, different rules and regulations, armies of bicycles zipping past your ears.

One thing I've already noticed is that I am in much better shape. Aside from the fact that I work out regularly, there is the question of getting around. Although I don't have a car (yet), I'll be hard pressed to find a city where I can get around as easily as in Frankfurt. The public transportation is superb and inexpensive, you can choose between buses, trams, and subways to get you to where you need to go.

Back in the States, it worked like this: get up, get in the car, take the kids to school. Get in the car, do your shopping. Get in the car, pick up the mail. Get in the car, run more errands. Get in the car, breathe. If you are a recluse or a bidding hobbit, then I suppose that's the lifestyle for you. Everything seems to be centered around the automobile, and it doesn't appear this will change anytime soon. As convenient as that may be in a country where gasoline costs two dollars or less a gallon, it is ultimately bound to dead end, in quite a literal sense.

In Germany, people are rewarded for remaining physically fit, as one side of the sidewalk is usually carved out for cyclists. The more you get out into the countryside, the more you'll see that plenty of paths have been appropriated for cyclists and hikers. Back in the States, the automobile is king, and pedestrians and cyclists will have to deal with that. No sidewalk? Tough luck, pilgrim. Walk along the side of the road and pray people don't run you over. Ditto for cyclists.

In Frankfurt, the pedestrian zone in the inner city is a work of beauty in that you'll probably have a flying saucer land in the middle before you'll see a parked car anywhere. Again, in the inner city, cars must know their place. On the autobahn, you can let it out until the wheels lift up and you're airborne, and nobody will be off any worse for it.

In the city, though, cars must mind their p's and q's, or those will turn into penalties and quarrels quicker than you can say 'Flensburg', also known as the northern city where all off your traffic infractions are stored. If there is a zebra crossing, simply stop. If there is a red light or even bright orange, stop. It doesn't get any clearer than that. I recall cows having the right of way in Kathmandu, while people were mostly left to their own devices. Here, the pedestrian is king and rightfully so.

Our subway station is a couple of blocks away, although I consider it a welcome and pleasant walk to get there. In addition, our subway stop has this killer accordion player, who adds to the European flair. He even takes requests, he can probably play 'My Way' blindfolded.

The Grüneburgpark, one of the major parks in Frankfurt, is maybe a 10 minute walk from our house, but there is no way we'll come a across a single car on our way there. Okay, so there is still a remote chance you could get run over by a bicycle, although cyclists are usually very courteous and know when to ring their bells. I've almost forgotten what that is like, just taking a leisurely walk in the neighborhood.

In the end, it all adds to the quality of life, getting from Point A to Point B with little to no hassle. Frankfurt, like most European cities, simply gets it.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Heidelberg: Philosophers Walk

On Easter Sunday, we decide to scale both sides of the Neckar Valley.

For beginners, we need to consider the kids. As much as we would just like to drag them on an all-adult expedition featuring the Renaissance, the War of the Palatinate Succession, and the features of late Romanesque constructions, we realize that this does little to contribute to the overall morale of the family. Luckily, that's what God invented playgrounds and theme parks for.

We decide to take the Mountain Railway all the way up the Königstuhl mountain and pass the Schloss on the way up, which we had already visited the day before. As enticing as the hike all the way to the top of the Königstuhl looks, the weather conditions advise against it. There is a cold drizzle, plus the wind that increases with each meter that we climb with the railway. Our destination is not a mountaintop with the great scenic views of the Neckar Valley, mind you, but a small theme park called Märchenparadies, or fairy tale paradise. 

The Märchenparadies is a medium sized park featuring rides that don't require standing in line. Do you have a coin? Toss it in! Here's a bumper scooter, over there's a train, there a ball spitting machine. My favorite displays are those of the most famous German fairy tales that can be activated with the push of a button. The only liability here is to the international traveler, since all fairy tales are narrated in German, I believe. Again, families with little kids: this is your parachute for moaning and groaning kids who can't appreciate the bitchin' happeningness of the Heidelberg Schloss or merits of the downtown Heiliggeist Church. And as a little treat for adults, you do get a bunch of photo opps once you reach the top of the mountain.

Another thing I have discovered about Heidelberg is that this town, quite possibly, has the finest Lebanese restaurant we have ever dined in, which is remarkable, considering we lived two years in Jordan and enjoyed some very fine dining there. If you've had your fill of brats and schnitzels in Heidelberg, try the Sahara near the market place. What makes them so special? The food, like the Falafel and the Dolmades, tastes light, classy, it's almost like the food melts in your mouth. Major props to whoever the chef is there.

And yet, even with the mountain railway and the most delicious Lebanese food on earth, the highlight still goes to a hiking trail we take once we cross the Neckar. Past the brass monkey statue we hear a choir huddled beneath the gate singing Easter songs (it is Easter Monday, right?). 

After we cross the bridge, we take the Schlangenweg (cross the street; take the first path you see going up the hill), a trail that snakes its way steadily up the hill on copplestone while a high wall flanks both sides of the path. It's places like these that take you back in time, place like these that make Europe so special. The Schlangenweg eventually feeds into the Philosophenweg up the hill, also known as Philosophers' Walk. Up here, you can hike, bike, run, or simply take the best pictures of the city, featuring the Schloss, the river, and the old town itself. If you're going to Heidelberg, don't miss it. Great place for a picnic!

That's Heidelberg for weekenders. I think we're off to a good start here.

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Heidelberg

For our first travel destination outside of Frankfurt, we choose Heidelberg for the Easter weekend. It's a long weekend, but we don't have a car yet, so we decide to take a train to this famous tourist hotspot in the Neckar Valley.

We travel without suitcases, everyone in the family has one backpack for his/her stuff and a ticket, so we're good to go. We are slow getting out of the gate, as only a few minutes into our trip, the train literally comes to a screeching halt outside Frankfurt. Following a few more bucking and stuttering delays, the train makes it as far south as Darmstadt, where all passengers are asked to disembark. When all is said and done, we lose an hour by the time we reach Heidelberg.

Eager to make up for lost time, we check in and out of the hotel as quickly as you can say Heidelberg Schloss (or Palace), our first destination, and the most prominent symbol of the city. To get there, we hike a steady two miles at an increasing ascent in a cool drizzle, the lush green trees of the surrounding Königstuhl mountain and the glistening cobblestone roads adding tastefully to the experience. 

Few places exemplify German Romanticism like Schloss Heidelberg, the castle now reduced to ruins since the French Army under Louis XIV razed it in the late 17th century. Long an architectural masterpiece of the Renaissance, the castle saw its demolition completed by a pair of lightning strikes nearly a half century later. The whole structure is little more than a shell of its former self, which, quite possibly, contributes to its overall charm. The grounds are still maintained marvelously, and Bash marvels at a couple of non native oxen (yaks, perhaps?) frolicking on the grounds nearby.  

We commit a National Lampoon Family vacation moment by taking a break at a stone bench, which happens to be one of the major tour stops for visitors gawking on autopilot at the numerous monuments inundating the premises. One of the tourists grudgingly wipes the baguette crumbs off the bench before positioning himself for a frontal shot of the stone monument. We sheepishly make room for the guy before finding a more suitable place for our rest stop. 

Even though we easily could have hiked to the cable car station that would have taken us up to Schloss Heidelberg with less hassle, I couldn't resist giving the family an extra workout following the extra hour we had to endure on the train. The kids are none the worse off for it, and we make some stunning shots from and of the castle towering over Heidelberg's old town and the Neckar river below it. It's not hard to see why tourists flock to this place. If they are not interested in the architecture or the history, there are numerous photo ops awaiting them that are simply stunning. 

Upon descending from the Schloss, we take the route through the old part of town and its endlessly long pedestrian zone that features mega corporate stores (Kaufhof, Müller) as well as small shops dedicated to seemingly inconsequential items, like gummi bears or even just muesli. It's a welcome change of pace, just strolling through the pedestrian zone without having to worry about vehicles plowing through you. It's nice to see pedestrians and cyclists being rewarded for leaving the automobile at home for a change. 

After an early dinner, we stop at the protestant Heiliggeist (translated: Holy Spirit) church, which, regrettably, is closed, even on the day before Easter Sunday. Built primarily during the 15th century, this is the one building in town that dominates the Heidelberg skyline beneath the ruins of Schloss Heidelberg lingering in the background behind and above it.     

Despite the Deutsche Bundesbahn's worst efforts, it's a wonderful first day in Heidelberg and a great start to the Easter weekend. The weather pending, we have another ambitious hike planned for the next day.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

The Asparagus - Frankfurt's forgotten TV Tower

One building that stands above the rest in Frankfurt -and over all of Germany, for that matter- is the telecommunications tower, also known as the Europaturm (Tower of Europe), located in the district of Bockenheim, slightly north of the downtown area. 

At 331 meters (1,086 feet), only the TV tower of Berlin is higher than Frankfurt's Europaturm, although this is largely due to a higher antenna, not the structure of the building as such. Especially at night, you couldn't miss the Europaturm's conspicuous red light above the turret if you tried. 

The locals never refer to the tower as the Europaturm anymore than the world refers to Elton John as Reginald Dwight or Lady Gaga as Stefani Germanotta. Most common is the nickname 'Asparagus of Ginnheim' (Ginnheimer Spargel), which is misleading, since the building itself is actually in Bockenheim, not the Ginnheim district that is immediately identified with the region north of the Autobahn 66. Even so, people mostly denounce the Asparagus as being little more than a high antenna these days, its status long diminished by satellite technology. Fiber optic cable, not video, killed the radio star, if you will. Even worse, the building itself has been closed to the public since 1999. 

The tower is run by a subsidiary of the Telekom, which runs almost every TV tower in Germany. Telekom itself, of course, is not in the entertainment business, although you can make a hard case that it enables it as much as anybody. Whereas years ago, in the 80's and 90's, the Asparagus hosted a discotheque (the Sky Tower) and a restaurant, the times have changed, since the building was officially labeled as a highrise by the authorties. Translated, this meant that it was subject to highrise laws, most notably those dealing with the nasty 'f' and 's' words, as in fire safety. The inside of the turret was gutted of anything that could even remotely be considered a fire hazard. Personally, I can't think of one thing that could catch fire in a discotheque, can you? (hint: booze, lots of it)

Say bye, bye, public. People now can only wonder what the view from the 227 meter high turret might look like today. My understanding is that the tower only exists as a backup, in the unlikelihood the fiber optic cable network should fail. Such is life for antennas in the 21st century.

Certainly, Telekom says, they wouldn't mind tenants in the tower. Since the place was gutted long ago, this would only translate to an initial investment of, oh, millions of euros. That's quite a startup cost for any business. Add to it that certain modifications would have to be met to satisfy fire safety standards, such as a water and exhaust air supply, a kitchen, plus personnel quarters, not to mention a fire exit. Suddenly, that red carpet rolled out by Telekom looks like some emergency room, where some business just hemorrhaged money on it. 

Poor Asparagus. One day a happening place, the next little more than a ghost town closed to the public. Higher than the Eiffel Tower. Higher than any structure in Germany. Higher than Big Ben, St. Peter's, and the Arc de Triomphe combined. And what do you have? A Disneyworld without the rides, a brewery without the suds, an ocean without a beach. 

Or simply 'tote Hose', as the Germans would say (literally: dead pants), as in nothing. 
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