Tag Archives: Germany

Alsace and Schwarzwald – a photo essay

Alsace has been described as “where France crashes into Central Europe”. I don’t know about Central Europe, but it is definitely where France and Germany collide, albeit today the collision is much more peaceful than it was in the past. I just came back from a two-week vacation spent in Alsace and its German counterpart – Schwarzwald. Since I am a bit short on time to write about the trip, and since I have some great photos, I will just show you where I’ve been.

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Classic Alsatian views in Colmar

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Toy museum in Colmar is fantastic

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Dozens of trains in the Colmar toy museum

Colmar itself is not bad at all

Colmar itself is not bad at all

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

OK, the weather in Colmar helped a lot, too

Hiking with children in France...

Hiking with children in France…

...and in Germany

…and in Germany

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

The vineyards in Freiburg are right in the city

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Sweet grapes of Alsace are ripe for the picking

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

Smelly Munster cheese goes great with Gewurztraminer

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A Schwarzwald kindergarten

A young farmgirl :-)

A young farmgirl ūüôā

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Freiburg market from the catherdral tower

Alsace and Schwarzwald 6

Radhaus square in Freiburg

Unmistakably Gothic  Freiburger M√ľnster cathedral

Unmistakably Gothic Freiburger M√ľnster cathedral

 

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Ugly past of a beautiful place

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

September campsites in the Ahr valley are full

The second leg of our Grey Wave adventure took as across another border – this time between Belgium and Germany. Just a short drive, less than 150 kilometres, but since we took to the scenic roads rather than the highways, including a small stop at Signal de Botrange, the highest point of Belgium and one of the weirdest spots on the continent, it took us the best part of the day just to get there. The roads here wind through dark forests and deep valleys, the bottom of which seemed one big campsite at times, as one infinitely long camping seamlessly converged onto the next. And they were all full to the brackets, with elderly wine-drinkers I presume, as the last week of September is the time of wine-festivals here. The Ahr valley, where we camped, looks (and smells) as if it could be in the mountains of Switzerland or Austria, with the steep gorge flanked by numerous vineyards, that, in September, spread an unmistakable odour of rotting fruit. Castle ruins on hilltops and abandoned fruit trees terraces make the romantic setting complete.

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The next morning we took the bicycles for a ride down the valley, to the pittoresque little town of Ahrweiler, the capital of the wine growing in the area, where I had a rather curious encounter with the ugly German past. I have visited Germany on many occasions, and I have even lived in the country for several months. I’ve seen and experienced a number of Holocaust sites and of course I am aware of the history. For me as a Jew, Germany will inevitably be connected to this most ugly chapter in human history. But I don’t hold a special grudge against modern-day Germans, nor do I think that the Germans of the past are more accountable for the horrors than all the other people of Europe. Except the Danes, perhaps, who deserve special credit for their courage and success in saving almost all the Danish Jews.

As I’ve said, I know my history and am not often overwhelmed by emotions about the Holocaust. But as we strolled through this peaceful, sunny little town, we’ve come across the old synagogue, which in the Jew-deprived Ahrweiler is now being used as an art exhibition space. This is where it hit me. I stood there and read the plaque, telling about the desecration of the synagogue in 1938, and how not a single of the town’s Jews survived the Holocaust and I just didn’t get it. I could somehow acknowledge that in the relative anonymity of a big city, where you don’t even know your neighbour’s name bad things can and do happen. But here, in this small remote town? How could it happen in the 20th century, in a wealthy European country, that the town’s people, educated, cultured folk, who lived together with their Jewish neighbours for 7 centuries, who probably knew each and every one of the several dozens of the town’s Jews by name, got together and burned down the synagogue, and send their neighbours to the gas chambers? I just couldn’t fathom it, I still can’t, and I was most surprised how despite all my knowledge of the Holocaust, I still fail to understand, and probably will never be able to understand, how otherwise nice and decent people can be capable of unspeakable cruelties to their closest neighbours.

We haven’t stayed too long in Germany. The weather became cold and rainy, and we’ve made our escape, stopping briefly in ancient Trier, before heading to the next country on our list. Attentive readers will probably have already guessed which one it was.

Golden decorations on a Trier palace - how German can it get?

Golden decorations on a Trier palace – how German can it get?

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The Alps – bite this!

It doesn’t get much more European than the Alps. The great mountain range pretty much defines Europe, stretching over 1200 kilometers and 8 countries, large and small. Careful here – it’s one bite-sized region you may not want to leave.

  • Why go there?
    The Alps have been developed for tourism for the past two centuries and are now filled to the rim with all a tourist can wish for. I mean, seriously, do I need to promote going to the Alps? They are big and diverse though, so don’t underestimate the undertaking of “going to see the Alps”. Its a bit like “going to Europe”. Just cooler.
  • What’s it best for?
    The place to be for a serious adrenaline junkie. If it’s extreme – you can do it here.
  • When is the best time to go?
    Any time. With the amount of tourism infrastructure, you’re guaranteed to have a good time in any season. My favourite time here is May and June, when the mountain pastures are blossoming.
  • How to get around?
    The train network of the Alps is famous for a reason. Use it.
  • Why is it best to avoid?
    Can be pricey. Avoiding Switzerland can help a lot though.
  • Where to go if you just have one week?
    Well, as I said, Switzerland is pricey. But you get serious quality for your money. Just choose a canton or a valley and stay there – the train prices are a real joy-killer.

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Occupy Frankfurt (for a day)

Occupy Frankfurt – going strong?

I was stuck. My week in Karlsruhe was over on Saturday and on Sunday I was meeting a friend from overseas who by supposed to be in Frankfurt. In the last moment he couldn’t make it, but my train tickets were already booked and paid for, so I was stuck in Frankfurt for a day. Since I was already there, I was going to make the best of it.

As I was leaving Karlsruhe that Sunday morning, the all-German punk and anarchist meeting was in full swing. Police was out in force and the station hall echoed with the battle cries of the already (or still?) drunk punks. In Frankfurt the setting couldn’t have been more different. Here instead of greasy hobo’s in fatigues the station was full of teenagers sunken deeply into their anime characters, in town for the Buchmesse, that apparently was having a cartoon day. There were queens, dwarfs, fairies, pokemons and god knows what else.

At the station I have violated pretty much all the rules of safe travelling by storing my passport and laptop in the station locker. Damn if I’m going to carry a 4-kg¬† laptop around all day long. And the passport is just as safe there as it is in my pocket. A bit stunned by the technicolour garbs of the anime teens and feeling out of tune, out in the street I was welcomed to Frankfurt by the warm autumn sunshine.

The last glimpse of good weather

Manoeuvring my way through the joggers on the river bank, I was accompanied on my morning stroll by the melancholic sounds of the accordion from the pedestrian bridge. The shiny appearance of the old Turk playing the accordion was completely out of sync with the melody he was producing. I always appreciate a good dose of irony, so this guy’s contradictory appearance earned him an extra Euro.

The many museums of the city (and the starting drizzle) were calling for a museum run. I’ve tricked the cashier of the Jugendgasse to count me as a student (it’s called being a PhD student for a reason), thereby also proving my credentials. Having thus aquired a solid discount, I pressed on to roam the slightly dull Jugendgasse, the way too German humour of the Comics museum and the superb Museum of Modern Art. I’ve had a good laugh about the kitschy modern glass and the ridiculous Baroque porcelain at the Museum of Applied Art and capped it off among the old masters and new arrivals in the¬†St√§del museum, having braved the line of Sunday art consumers.

It was already getting late, so I went to find me a dinner. For some reason I was set on finding Thai food, which proved to be the only kind unavailable in Frankfurt. I’ve browsed the whole red light district in vain (because that’s the place where restaurants are, and because it is close to the station, not because of what you were thinking). By now it was raining cats and dogs, and Chinese food seemed close enough. There were two restaurants named “Jade” on both sides of the street. “One’s as good as other” I thought and couldn’t have been more wrong. The first Jade I went into was packed. “One minute – you wait!” shouted the passing waitress. I waited for five minutes in vain and attempted to ask politely whether there was a chance of getting some food. My attempt was answered by now an angry “You wait!” The train was leaving in an hour, I was hungry and wet and in no mood or shape to “You wait!”

Crossing the street to Jade-2 was the best move I’ve done in weeks. The vegetable soup arrived within minutes to warm me, the fish with rice some-chinese-province-style filled me to the rim (and there was half of it left for a train snack). I enquired whether jasmine tea was served in pots. Apparently my question duly impressed (or insulted) the owner, since I’ve got the tea free of charge, so that the final bill was less than 10 Euro.

A typical geoscientist’s vacation photo

The train station was just 5 minutes walk from the Jade Wok. Having pulled my backpack from the locker I’ve changed into dry shoes and socks (blessed be a pair of dry socks at the right moment!) and boarded the ICE homeward. A day in Frankfurt – check!

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Europe weirdland

In Europe, you can visit the strangest places. Here are some of the weirdest European tourist attractions:

  • Chernobyl, Ukraine
    Yes, its a tourist attraction. And yes, its worth a visit even though its a bit pricey and rather creepy. The tour includes a genuine Soviet-style dinner served in Chernobyl. Some visitors forget that it’s not a “fun” place like the Eiffel tower, so if you do get there try to keep it down. To complement the visit, don’t miss the Chernobyl museum in Kiev.

    An amusement park in Pripyat. It was scheduled for opening on the 1st of May, 1986 and, since the reactor exploded on April 26th, has never been used

  • Lourdes, France
    At first glance, Lourdes seems a normal French town. But it has a really weird vibe, swarmed as it is with cripples and sick of all kinds. If you think of drinking the holy water – think again. Look around you. All these people, carrying every possible disease, have been bathing in it. Trust in god, but with a pinch of salt and a bucket of common sense.

    For about 5 minutes after arrival, Lourdes seems normal

  • Liechtenstein
    What can be weird about Liechtenstein? The country isn’t even big enough to afford weirdness. However, if you measure weirdness per square kilometre, only the Vatican might be weirder. For example, the mighty army of Liechtenstein once returned from a war with more soldiers than it started off with, after some random guy liked their uniforms and marched back with the troops. Actually, its even weird that Liechtenstein even thought of going to war with someone. They can’t afford customs, but the tourist office charges 3 CHF for getting a Liechtenstein stamp in your passport, supplementing the nation’s income from tax evasion. The weirdest thing about Liechtenstein – you can rent it. And its the only country to have won an IgNobel prize.

    The Prince of Liechtenstein's castle, wine-tasting from the cellar is included in the rent

  • Berlin wall, Germany
    If you’re old enough to remember, think about what it was like just 25 years ago. You’d be shot if you would as much as look at it. Nowadays – its the number 1 tourist attraction in Berlin. The weirdest thing – there’s no wall at all. They were so happy they just cleared it all away. As the whole former death zone is built up with shopping malls and offices, you actually have to really look hard for the remaining pieces.

    Checkpoint Charlie - I guess its still forbidden to carry weapons off duty

  • Museum of Aviation, Belgrade, Serbia
    The weirdness starts with the location – the Nicola Tesla Airport. Usually, airports are named after politicians – Kennedy, Indira Ghandi, De Gaulle and such. This one is the only airport I know of named after an electrical engineer (who was also the inventor of the death ray). Perhaps naming it “Slobodan MiloŇ°evińá Airport” would create some frictions and generate too many jokes about the destinations (“only flying one-way to The Hague”), so even the inventor of the death ray was a better alternative. The museum itself features an amazing collection illustrating the complexity of local history. So, the Yugoslav pilots flew just about any plane in WWII – German, Russian, Italian, French, British – anything they could lay their hands on, resulting in an impressive collection. The star of the exposition is undoubtedly the Stealth Fighter wreckage, certainly the only one on display anywhere in the world.

    Not so invisible after all - F-117 wreckage at the Museum of Aviation in Belgrade

  • Signal de Botrange, Belgium
    I have described this unique location earlier here. Its the highest point in Belgium. In order to achieve a 700 meter altitude, the Belgians built a 6-meters high tower on the otherwise unidentifiable 694 meters “high point” on a flat windy marsh. It takes a lot of effort to find this place and once you found it you wonder why were you looking for it and how do you get away as fast as possible.

    Extreme Ironing on the stairway to nowhere at the Signal de Botrange

    • Zivilschutz-Museum, Zurich, Switzerland
      In the middle of Zurich, under a green garden hides the most exclusive museum I know of. Open on every first Sunday of the month, between 14:00 and 16:00, the (free) visit includes a guided tour, given in magnificent Swiss German. The guide, a former employee of this air-raid bunker/fallout shelter/commando post, appears on almost every photo on display and it seems as if the whole venue is a private vendetta of his to save some Cold War legacy for future generations. Walking through the 6 underground floors gives a good image of the madness and naivety of the era. I mean, hometrainers for electricity generation? That’s your answer to the A-bomb? And did they really think that a horse-drawn field kitchen is a legitimate piece of military equipment in the 1960’s?

      While the nuclear war is raging outside, you can give birth to the next generation of bankers thanks to the Zurich Civil Defence

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