Month: December 2015
A Very German Christmas
Hot red wine wafts through the air. Friends and families laughing and sharing stories line the cobblestone streets, glasses in hand. The sound of children playing and running through crowds echoes as loudly as the constant sound of Christmas music. Vendors standing behind counters of temporary shops are hocking their goods – handmade chocolates, ornaments, and various Christmas decorations seem to be the most popular. This feels like the county fair but Christmas trees, bright lights, and huge windmills serving as a decoration stretch throughout this pop-up market.
Like a hunting hawk, we are attracted to anything that shimmers which in this case happens to be every other vendor’s booth. We did some real damage shopping for our loved ones. Most vendors did their best to understand our english and we in turn did our best to thank them profusely for their help (danke!). Next to nearly every booth selling merchandise is a food vendor of some sort – potato pancakes, bratwursts, burgers, freshly roasted nuts, donuts, sweet breads and cotton candy to boot. With some hot wine in our systems we bounced from one food vendor to another until we couldn’t possibly have another bite. Pig was by far the favorite meat and we enjoyed immensely.
One of the rituals in which we have taken great joy on this trip has been finding little gifts for family. As much as we enjoy shopping for our loved ones, it’s also an exercise in comfort; seeing the goods we’ve come across through family’s eyes brings us closer in spirit. The holiday season has certainly brought the homesickness out a few times. Without their realizing it, the people we love are always with us as we bounce from one destination to the next and stand in awe of everything we come across.
We stayed in the Rhine Valley for three nights in total. Mainz, Germany was home this go around. The town was teaming with Christmas activities and charm aplenty. Aside from the Christmas market we enjoyed (twice in three days) a couple hours in the Guttenberg museum proved to be…interesting…as well. The inventor of the printing press hailed from Mainz and the town has created a rather large museum in his honor. We strained to read the mostly German plaques throughout the museum but did enjoy the priceless collection of the oldest books in the world, including the first bible printed by the Guttenberg press. A 15 minute demonstration of the inventor’s press in action proved most engaging and perplexing all at once; pretending to understand what was being said throughout the demo was difficult to say the least and I caught one lady in the audience snickering at the dumbfounded look on our faces. We are in Germany, so it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that the demonstration would be in German. We had a good laugh at ourselves and enjoyed the demonstration – what we thought we understood anyhow.
Tarin had once been in this area some years ago after college (go Cougs!) and was over the moon that we were returning to explore. I can recall the excitement in her voice many a time as she told me about the Upper, Middle Rhine Valley. After some research on our train ride leaving Berlin, we determined a one day tour up the Unesco World Heritage Site of Lovers Gorge was in order. Taking a mid morning train leaving Mainz, we headed north along the Rhine River, our train following every bend in the river. We rounded a corner in Bingen. before the river, steeply-slopped vineyards and castle dotted mountains filled our train windows.
For our first stop, we visited Bacharach. Cobblestone streets and Bavarian architecture are tucked into the base of a mountain range set along the western bank of the river. Most shops were closed as this is the off-season for tourism but we found one gentleman plugging away at his craft. His shop was filled with hundreds of handmade pieces which we marveled:
Looking up the mountainside, Tarin spotted the ruins to an old church. We climbed a steep stairway to reach the base of the centuries-old ruins floating above the river and town below.
Trains came every hour along this route and we hopped on board a north-bound locomotive in order to reach Koblenz, the most northerly city on the Rhine Gorge. Always proving most effective, we wandered the streets in the hope that we would find a late lunch. Voila, a few blocks away from the train station, Aubergine appeared! We sat next to a window for proper people watching and opted for a light meal of soups and salads. Their pumpkin soup was creamy with a hint of spice from freshly ground ginger added in and topped with toasted pumpkin seeds – absolutely delicious. Paired with a large salad, the meal provided fuel for our quick jaunt across town to view the confluence of the Rhine and La Moselle rivers.
We only snapped a couple of pictures as we had to hoof it for the train station which was about 2 miles away. We barely made the train headed south before it left. The ride home proved just as picturesque as the sun was setting on the Rhine Valley and our time in Mainz.
Through the Turmoil
The hands on the clock of this adventure are beginning to wind to end. An impromptu trip to Holland gave way, rather quickly I might add, to our ten day trip through Germany.
The most significant amount of time was spent in the capital city of Berlin, in the northeasterly reaches of the country. Today the city is hailed as a hotbed of artistry, nightlife and progressive social movements. However, just a little over 25 years ago Berlin served as the forefront for the Cold War. Alas, Soviet occupation and iron-fisted rule of East Germany dissolved with the removal of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the USSR in the late 80’s and early 90’s- all while I was just barely out of my Pull-Ups – yes, I am a big kid now! Rewind the clock another 45 years and this city played stage to one of the most dramatic defeats in all of modern war in Nazi Germany’s fall and Hitler’s shameless taking of his own life. Forgive the gruesome and rather down-trodden approach to the beginning of this post but our experience with the city of Berlin was marked by the feeling that the city has yet to fully shake off it’s dark and fairly recent past. This is not a judgement but rather an opinion based on my short stay in this large, international city.
Our apartment was very near the center of town and the infamous Checkpoint Charlie which served as an entry point into East Germany during the Cold War period of 1961-1989. Very nearby was an outdoor exhibit of the Berlin Wall, with a small portion of the wall still standing.
As an East German citizen, you were forbidden to cross the border into West Germany without consent of the state, and you were sure to die at the hands of a mercenary should you attempt. Standing in the middle of the once “neutral zone” sent shivers down our backs.
We tended to stay very near this central part of town as there was so much to see in relation to the history of Berlin – the previous location of Fuhrer’s Bunker, Brandenberger Tower, The National Memorial for the Murdered Jews of Europe, to name a few.
Striking was the contemporary look of the city. As a result of the bombings which took place during the later campaigns of WWII, the majority of the buildings we passed and roadways we walked were much more modern than that of those in other countries we have visited in Europe. The city required a near-complete rebuild once Hitler’s regime had been defeated, which came with an incredible financial burden. In order to mitigate the cost, many of the buildings throughout the worst-affected areas were prefabricated; out of these institutional-flavored neighborhoods flourished street artists aplenty, akin to The Rose That Grew from Concrete. These grey-colored buildings have provided a near endless canvas for graffiti artists to leave their mark. While many cities in the US label this medium a blemish on their perfectly clean appearance, Berlin seems to have accepted it as a means of reconciling the rather drab appearance of their function-over-form infrastructure.
Just outside the city of Berlin was the Sachenhausen Concentration Camp which we visited for a couple of hours on a very cold and foggy afternoon. This camp served as the administration headquarters and the architectural model for all concentration camps under Hitler’s reign and as such, the German Democratic Republic (GDR) made a concerted effort to preserve this camp. There is very little which remains today but the GDR have gone so far as to reconstruct some of the buildings in order to allow visitors to see how prisoners lived, where they bathed, ate and received medical care. We wondered around the camp, glued to our audio guide as we learned of the deplorable conditions people lived in.
Throughout the tour and the multiple exhibits, signs were posted in memoriam of those held in this camp and to serve as a reminder that the people of this world must stand united in the face of would-be oppressors in order to prevent such an atrocity from ever happening again. I don’t think we can say that we ‘enjoyed’ this tour but we certainly found it to be deeply moving.
The city of Berlin is thriving, even buzzing today and serves as the symbol of the progress which can be made, even after great tragedies; through hard work, perseverance, and an open mind anyone in this world can cast aside preconceived notions.
Cycles, Canals and Coffeeshops
Arriving to the Hook of Holland by way of overnight ferry, Tarin and I took the first train headed in to Amsterdam. The trains became more and more crowded the nearer we drew to the city and we found ourselves having to separate in order to make room for our gigantic backpacks. We landed at Centraal Station in Amsterdam just after 11am. Yes, that extra ‘a’ is supposed to be there, according to the Dutch.
This would be the fewest days we were to spend in any one of our destinations on this entire trip and the time flew by. We found the city itself easy to navigate, but the transit system didn’t necessarily make it very easy to understand which bus/tram/train connected with one another so we did quite a bit of walking. Our apartment was fairly close to the Anne Frank Haus and just far enough away from the Red Light District that we didn’t hear the raucous crowds. Given the good fortune we’ve had with the places we’ve stayed, I suppose the universe has now balanced itself; the apartment we stayed in while in Amsterdam was, how do you say… a bit of a polished turd. Let me expand just a little: the kitchen lacked the basics needed to cook a meal, the washer smelled like Humphrey Bogart’s trailer & looked like a science experiment and we were awoken every morning at 6am to the sound of Tram #10 whirring by our front window. We ended up eating out for every meal which we ordinarily wouldn’t mind, except the extra cost and the time lost to the entire process of finding somewhere – “what do you want?” I don’t know, what do you want” – but we did enjoy nonetheless. All was OK!
While killing some time before a reservation, we wandered up a street thinking we were headed to a park when bells sounded, lights flashed and two barriers swung down in front of a bridge; moments later, the bridge rose to let a couple of house boats pass through.
Tarin took great pleasure in the ability to not only peer into someone’s home but also to view this wonder of engineering.
One late afternoon was spent at the famous brewery Brouwerij’T Ij (now you pronounce it) connected to the iconic windmill design associated with Holland.
I fumbled along trying to order with the bartender and a couple of flights of the haus brew magically appeared at our table.
Their amber was by far the best, characterized by it’s hazy color, a creamy head, with a taste of malt and caramel hints. Smooth and easy to drink!
After our libations we enjoyed dinner at one of the many Mediterranean restaurants in town. I had a huge plate of meats – lamb, chicken and beef – and Tarin had a baked, whole sea bass. Full and happy bellies carried us through The Red Light District and back to Centraal Station where we caught a ride on a canal boat for Amsterdam’s Festival of Lights. The nearly 90 minute boat ride was surely the height of our experience in Amsterdam.
The diversity of the people in Holland was also something in which we took great pleasure. As nearly professional people watchers, we can assure you that a walk through the Red Light District provides a viewing populous like no other. We walked over a ridiculous amount of bridges, dodged countless bicyclists and passed by multifarious coffee shops. Some of the coffee shops had this awfully strange but familiar odor emitting from their doors – they were certainly roasting something, but not coffee beans. Hmm.
One Ferry to the Next
Scenery and time seamlessly fly by again as we ride our train from Bath to London on this early Sunday morning in December.
The town of Chippenham was home for the last three nights and four days. Our resting place was the most unique setting yet, a 100 + year old barn remodeled into four loft-style studios. Our host, Alex, appears to have done most of his own work on the interior of the space and we very much enjoyed the fit and finish. We slept in the small loft which sat over the top of the main living space containing the seating area, the kitchen and the dining spaces. Alex appears to have an affinity for Latin culture as we noticed all the tile work throughout the space had a very south-of-the border feel. He even had a small spice rack containing some of our favorites like chili powder and cinnamon; we added another in the way of cumin and cooked up several Mexican dishes that made us feel at home. Fortuitously, I spotted a bottle of Anejo Tequila in the cupboard which practically begged me to have a taste. However, it was unopened and I just couldn’t bring myself to break the seal. We made good use of the studio and even took an entire day to relax and catch up on planning and other, much less exciting stuff that comes with being an “adult”.
A day spent in the neighboring city of Bath was probably the highlight of our time here in the UK. The drive in to the city was beautiful and reminded us quite a bit of Ireland: rolling green hills, open space and innumerable sheep dotting the landscape. The city of Bath itself was incredibly picturesque. To kick off the day, we began with a visit to Alexandra Park, which resides on top of a hill overlooking the city.
After our visit to the park, we dropped off our Hyundai at a “car park” – you know, where your car goes to stretch it’s legs and rest while you visit your destination by foot – and weaved our way through the holiday shopping crowd. Not having any expectation of what the city would offer outside of aged buildings, we were dumbfounded at the amount of people out shopping; remove the old architecture and we could have believed that we were in the US, save all the funny accents we heard. Tarin had done quite a bit of research for our day in the city and went so far as to schedule afternoon tea at the Royal Crescent Hotel.
Arriving earlier than our reservation proved to be a non issue and we were shown to a quiet room in front of a large window overlooking the manicured courtyard gardens.
Electing for a sweet and savory mix of food and a rich black tea, we decided to add in a flight of Champagne. Hey, when in Bath! Wait, I might have that wrong…but it is an ancient Roman city. Don’t judge me.
Our last day was spent lounging around the studio as we were both feeling a bit exhausted. We’ve been travelling for 67 days. We miss home and our animals. We took yesterday to relax side-by-side and recuperate. Right now, we are en route to London for a day of sightseeing. To be continued…
ANNNND, WE’RE BACK! Our train pulled in to Paddington Station, London around 10am and we transferred to the metro line. After a couple more transfers, we landed at Liverpool station in the heart of the city. We dumped our baggage at a holding station and hit the streets. A busy day lie ahead as we took in the main attractions including London Tower, London Tower Bridge, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, St. James Park, Buckingham Palace and Green Park. Phew.
Needing to rest our laurels in the afternoon, we grabbed some seats in the first establishment we could find. Sketch – a local Teahouse turned artists exhibit. Apparently this place is a Michelin Star rated restaurant and they serve a killer macaroni and cheese, although it was $18USD. Save the sticker shock, we really enjoyed our stopover. Leave it up to a couple of Americans to order mac and cheese at a Michelin Star restaurant! The entire place mimicked an art installation with each space having it’s own theme. Tarin likened it to Alice in Wonderland and I was reminded of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Sketch certainly offers more than the typical English Tea experience!
All said and done, we covered over 13,000 steps while in London, which equates to a little over 5 miles. Our feet and eyes are tired and we are ready for the overnight ferry to Amsterdam!
Attempting to take in every last bit of the seashore, I’ve got the windows open at Gunfort Cottage, once a small fisherman’s abode in the town of Tenby, Wales. Literally, this place must have been a small fisherman’s home. It’s a pint sized apartment with extremely low doorways (I’ve got the bumps on my noggin to prove it). Although compact, it served it’s purpose well and we’ve enjoyed having a kitchen for home cooked meals. This was the first time in a while that we didn’t have a big agenda for a destination. We’ve slept in, had our morning coffee and made an egg breakfast every morning. Our view out the front door is jaw dropping and we enjoyed a nice long beach walk a couple days ago – working out all the problems of the world, of course.
After our jaunt on the beach, we stopped off at the local museum where I inquired about my family heritage. Unfortunately, the local historian who specializes in family genealogy was not in this week so I left him my contact information. For now, I’ve been relegated to the wealth of information available on the internet through the many websites offering to “find your family history here!”. To say the least, the amount of information is overwhelming and quite impossible to make sense of, much less corroborate. I’ve got my fingers crossed that I will hear from the local historian sometime soon.
We spent our last day exploring the area, driving through the myriad pastures along some dangerously narrow two-lane roads. We stopped off for a morning stroll along the Wales Coast Path which carried us through three separate tunnels once used for a small-scale coal mining railroad over 100 years ago.
The rain was unrelenting, so we broke off the uncovered shore path and headed for the woods. Muddy and soggy yes, but we found comfort in the forest as we reminisced about our time spent in Dash Point State Park in Western Washington.
Those of you who know Tarin well are probably familiar with her fascination of someday flying an airplane. A few years ago, I found a small regional airport offering introductory flight lessons for aspiring pilots. A few weeks after receiving the certificate for her first flight lesson, Tarin took to the skies with her instructor while I kept my feet on solid ground to take pictures. Needless to say, Tarin still dreams about getting her pilot’s license some day. On our way to our next destination, Tarin spotted a sign that indicated a monument for Amelia Earhart was nearby. Doubling back in our rental car, we found our way to a spire erected in the female pilot’s honor and to commemorate her stopover in the small Welsh town of Burry Port. Viewing this monument while traveling through Wales served as a reminder for Tarin to continue chasing these dreams.
This travel has been not just about experience but also about discovering; having the chance to explore the physical world and our often-jumbled inner thoughts has allowed us to bring in to focus our aspirations, both as a married couple and as individuals. For the first time in our adult lives, we have had the opportunity to ponder with no regard for necessary action.