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:

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


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. 

Saturday, April 1, 2017

Frankfurt, Alpha City

When you look at the most populated cities in Germany, Frankfurt on the Main (the river, pronounced 'mine') ranks fifth behind Berlin, Hamburg, Munich, and Cologne. From a regional perspective, the Frankfurt Metropolitan region boasts a population of over five million people, third in the country only to the Ruhr Area and Berlin.

As for overall tourist sites in Germany, you may have heard of the Oktoberfest, the Berlin Wall, Hamburg's Red Light District of St. Pauli, or Cologne's cathedral. Can you name one tourist site of international renown in Frankfurt? Even smaller cities like Heidelberg, Potsdam or Weimar seem to garner more ink than Frankfurt on most travel websites.

And yet, only one city ranks as an alpha world city in Germany...this city, Frankfurt am Main (the river needs to be added, as there is also a Frankfurt on the Oder river in eastern Germany). Munich is the closest to it, ranked as an alpha- (minus) city. Rankings to cities are distributed according (primarily, but not exclusively) to economic status. The highest ranking is alpha++ which, predictably, has only been bestowed upon two cities, New York and London. Is Frankfurt low in the estimations of traveled tourists? Perhaps, but there are other factors that can add to the overall value and status of cities.

Consider that Berlin and Hamburg, Germany's two largest cities are beta+ cities, which should tell you something. What's the answer for Frankfurt? Location, location, location.

Frankfurt is not only centrally located in Germany along the Main and Rhein rivers, but also in Europe and, arguably, the entire world. Frankfurt can reach any continent, save for Australia within a matter of hours.

Frankfurt is unique in other ways in Germany. Whereas in most cities either a church or a TV tower will dominate a skyline, Frankfurt boasts a skyline not unlike most of its U.S. or Asian counterparts, with tall skyscrapers strategically situated along the Main river. It's no coincidence that Frankfurt earned itself the name 'Mainhattan', a nod to America's alpha++ city across the Atlantic.

Of course, Frankfurt has another nickname, that being 'Bankfurt', another similarity to Wall Street driven New York. Located in Frankfurt are the German National Bank, the European Central Bank, and the stock exchange, better known as the DAX. Just as an aside, you'll find the world famous Frankfurt Book Fair (Frankfurter Buchmesse), the Music Fair, and the headquarters of the DFB, the Deutscher Fußball Bund, also known as the powerful German Football Association. Now you know where the alpha status comes from.

There's also the so-called 'Frankfurter Kreuz', the Frankfurt Cross, the most frequently employed Autobahn in all of Europe, with over 300,000 vehicles passing through per day. And beneath the Frankfurter Kreuz, you'll find more than moles and armies and ants going about their business, in this case a fast rail tunnel that connects Frankfurt with Cologne to the north.

Frankfurt's airport, the larger Rhein Main Flughafen, has over 60 million passengers per year, which almost triples the total of Berlin's largest airport, Berlin Tegel. In Europe, only London's Heathrow and Paris's Charles de Gaule claim a larger total.

Aside from that, I can assure you Frankfurt is still a beautiful city, which I will have ample time to write about in the coming months. Mainhattan, Bankfurt...just call it Frankfurt, very likely Germany's most important city.

Wednesday, March 29, 2017


In the summer of 1978, my parents packed up their things, along with six children and a few suitcases, and left California for a promising new future in what was then called West Germany. I was nine years old at the time.

Fast forward 30 years, Axl is nine years old, his brother seven, and we are heading to Germany again, landing in Frankfurt Germany, same as then. The only difference is, we will not be moving on to Bavaria, but will remain in Frankfurt, our posting for the next four years.

After the Middle East, Asia, South America, and Africa, we are happy to add another continent, Europe, as our next stop. So far, the readers have more or less read about third world countries, now they will get to read about a first world country and life in one of its major cities. 

First, the trip there. Here I'll add a few extra tips for the last week before moving. A week before flying to Germany, we stop shopping altogether. Here we need to consume what we have, eat out or order in if we need to. No need to buy anything (especially perishable), now that we're about to hit the road.

Next, we cancel our trash pick-up service and take the cat to the vet, since the European Union requires a certificate of health to be issued within 10 days of our flight. You will also need a micro chip for the EU. As an aside, some extra advice: on the day of the cat's vet visit, keep Kitty inside. We have to postpone the first vet visit, because she is nowhere to be found, as if that darn cat had a sixth sense. Next, keep your laser pointer handy. Use it to play with the cat a lot, and on the fateful day, have the cat follow the laser point directly into her cage. It's like taking candy from a baby. 

Last but not least, cancel any outstanding services you may have: internet, trash pickup, cable, etc. There is nothing more frustrating than to pay for services that are no longer required. 

We take a United Flight from Dulles to Frankfurt, total flight time seven hours, forty minutes. The cat is in the cabin with us, and the poor thing can't stop shaking. Axl and Bash are bored until they realize that they can check out as many movies and games on their little screens as they want. I'm guessing I sleep no more than 30 minutes for the whole flight, I'm just too uncomfortable. The next day, I will have to whip the jet lag the hard way. It happens. 

Although Frankfurt Rhein-Main is not my favorite airport, it's done very well, considering how it's expanded over the years. Too many airports do not account for the prospective sudden growth spurts that are as much a fact of life to major hubs as population growth and the expanding infrastructure that needs to go with it. We will discretely withhold the names of the offenders here. On second thought: no, we won't. Paris, New York, Rome, Berlin...come on down. 

From the moment we get off the plane to the time we arrive home, 45 minutes have passed. Frankfurt, of course, is the well tuned machine I've grown accustomed to over the years. It is, after the Ruhr Area and Berlin, the third largest metropolis in Germany and arguably the most important with its location and banking business. 

Spring greets us in Germany. There is still a bit of a chill, but nothing that will stop us from taking a walk outside, either to the park or the supermarket. 

So after day one, a warm hello from Germany. Get ready for many interesting new posts from Europe.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

The North Carolina Arboretum

Getting tired of posts in the U.S. about Western Carolina yet? Fear not, this will be among the last ones before our time draws to a close here. The next post will be revealed in due time, and like the others, it's a guaranteed dandy. Bear with me just a while longer here. 

For now, it's more of Western Carolina, then. The Arboretum is a 434 acre public garden located just outside of Asheville and neighboring the famed Blue Ridge Parkway. The Arboretum was established almost 30 years ago within the Pisgah National Forest. If the Western Carolina Nature Center is your place for animals, then this is the place for dendrophiles, or plant aficionados. 

After our most recent visit here, I am convinced that this is perfect for hikers, (non motor-)bikers, and runners. Do you have a dog? Bring him out! I am not so sure this is the place for kids, since they take an interest in plants the way Americans do in cricket or french fries with mayonnaise. If your kid is into hiking or cycling, then by all means: take the kid with you. Just be warned that there will probably be more groaning than grooving when all is said and done. I'll think twice before taking my kids back here. Parents with kids, use your own judgment. 

Personally, I think this is the perfect place for the hikers who would prefer to know where they're going than simply rely on a compass and the sun. If you like the hiking, but can do without the adventure, the Arboretum is for you. There are a dozen good trails, all marked, so that getting lost is very unlikely. And as an encore, you will be educated about plants and trees on your trails, as if you were on a guided tour. You can easily hike for hours here without any fear of getting lost.

At the Baker Exhibit Center, there's an exhibition inside that reminds me of what we already saw when we visited Cherokee Nation, although the focus here is on the trees and plants, and how people, usually Native Americans, benefited from them. There's the canoe that was carved out of the trunk of a large red oak, or the rocks that Cherokees used to make arrowheads. 

Once you wander back outside, it's on to the large central lawn that is surrounded by plantings, both seasonal and evergreens. One of the central features is the statue of Frederick Law Olmsted, the often heralded father of American landscape architecture. There is an absolutely gorgeous Bonsai Exhibition Garden, featuring an extensive bonsai collection that needs to be seen to be believed. 

There's an amphitheater, also known as the Outdoors Event Center, plus a Greenhouse that has been closed to the public due to renovation. In front of the amphitheater is the Rocky Cove Railroad, a garden scale model train representing the train in Western Carolina at the turn of the 20th century. See also the Saluda Grade a few posts back. 

We spend more than two hours on the trails, although I have to admit I was a little annoyed at times by the cyclists. To be fair, they are pretty courteous and are on their best behavior. If that shouldn't suffice, there are numerous paths, primarily the Bent Creek Trail, that is only accessible on foot. We would take this all the way to Lake Powhatan. 

Okay, so maybe we overdid the hiking bit a little. When all is said and done, we hike a good eight miles, which was good enough for Axl, but oddly like pulling teeth for Bash, the more gifted specimen in a physical sense. The trick with kids is that you make them forget about the hike itself. What do they like to talk about? Bash talked about dinosaurs for at least two miles, Axl about new Terraria stories he could write. I still prefer to see my kids on trails than on the internet for the same amount of time.

Either way: when in Asheville, come see the Arboretum as well. There is no formal admission, although the high fee for parking ($14) seems to cover everything. It's worth every penny.

Thursday, March 9, 2017

FENCE: Foothills Equestrian Nature Center

As beautiful as Western Carolina is, I have noticed that I haven't even dedicated a post, let alone a single word, to my favorite place of all: that would be the Foothills Equestrian Nature Center, in short FENCE. 

If you can't find one thing you like about FENCE, regardless of your demographic, then you can't possibly be human. Young, old, single, married, with or without children: chances are, there is something for everyone at FENCE.

FENCE is a nature reserve that is spread out over 380 acres of rolling hills featuring woods, wide open meadows, rivers and ponds. For hikers, birdwatchers, stargazers, or simply children wishing to burn some much needed energy, this place is simply spectacular, and I haven't even seen the equestrian part of it yet. 

The place itself is located along the I-26, although I prefer to take the more bucolic routes to get there, like Route 176 from Tryon or Route 108 from Columbus. Try it yourself! Be daring! On your way there, you can get used to the bucolic settings, the numerous gorgeous horse farms and the even more spectacular views of the ever present Blue Ridge Mountains looming in the background. 

This is a great place for kids as well. Whereas our kids first started the day with a groan whenever we told them where we were going, there would always be a smile on their faces by the time we left, the result of them having learned something valuable, besides spending a day outdoors, usually on the hiking trails. 

Last Saturday, for example, we attended a presentation by a local wildlife rehabilitation chapter, a non-profit also known by its name 'Wild for Life'. As the name suggests, this is an organization that specializes in protecting wildlife that has been brought to their doorstep, one way or the other. This time, they were focusing on birds of prey and brought two owls and a hawk to display to the visitors, birds of prey that otherwise would have perished. Injured birds brought in are usually the result of being shot, or even more common, being run over by cars. Seeing these birds up close and personal is a thrill in itself, something most people never get to witness. The kids were gawking at those birds as the birds were gawking at them.  

You have your pick of the trails, as well, most of them not exceeding one mile. At the end of our visit, though, I'm fairly certain we walked about four miles, a pittance by a hiker's standards, but a much needed reprieve for the kids from their digitally guided world. The trick is to tell them that they will be hiking less than a mile, and then let nature take its course. Before you know it, your kids get used to the trail, where they point out trees and animals, or other information of note that is left behind on the numerous trail signs posted by FENCE. It also helps to take a backpack with snacks with you, maybe even a book to read for when you take a short break. Here I recommend the shelter by the pond, where you can engage in some more bird watching, while the kids run around and play.

FENCE itself was established by a land grant in the 1980's, which stipulated what the land would be used for, thus assuring its conservation for future generations. Not surprisingly they understand that education is the key. It stands to reason that you will wish to protect the great outdoors the more time you spend there. 

In many ways, it is similar to the more renowned Tryon International Equestrian Center nearby, although it does without most of the fanfare and strobe lights. 

GREAT place, for adults and kids. For the one day you need to spend in the great outdoors with your family, try FENCE. And no, this is not an advertisement for them. None needed.
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