Thursday, April 12, 2007

Travel Notes and Photos

(down from the Zugspitze)

This blog contains travel notes and links to photos from our trip to Germany and Prague during the spring of 2007.

The photos are arranged in sets and kept in a flickr accout. Over there on the right are the links to the different sets. As in:

The travel notes are below and arranged in reverse order (the last day is at the top). If you want to read them in order, you can start at the bottom, or you can use these links:

We loved it all.

the "accident" and the flight home

Thursday, April 12, 2007
The “accident” and the flight home.

This is the day we go home. After the strange comedy of errors last night, and we are safely tucked into the inn just across the street from the rent-a-car place, it seems that nothing else can go wrong.

We all slept soundly, yet with strange dreams. John says that it is the high altitude of our time on the Zugspitz that affected our brains.

I didn’t hear John’s alarm go off at 6 AM and was the last one to wake up (boy is that rare!) Even though the planes from the airport fly directly over us, we never heard a thing. Must be the thick window.

By 7 AM we’re out the door. The morning is cool, but looks to be another warm and clear day for Germany.

Eric and I walk over to the rental car place and John drives the car. Just as he backs out I hear the scrape of the front right bumper on a rock. Yikes!

So when the cute rental car guy comes out to inspect the car he sees the scratch and says, well, we’re going to have to make a claim. This takes a few more minutes of phone calls to VISA (the card I used to rent the car).

We finally make it to the airport. Everything in and around this airport is very expensive! Our simple breakfast ran more than $35. A ½ liter of water is 3.50 euros, or close to $5 US. Eric couldn’t find a water fountain. Even so, there is something of the Munchen airport that is not commercial or crass. It’s a notch above.

We made I through the general security line, but travelers going to the USA have to go through a 2nd security. My toothpaste, which I had put in my backpack at the last minute, had to be confiscated.

Watching the people come and go I feel myself nestled into humanity, and a great fondness for each and all of these peoples in their endless facets and form. I find myself envying Greg (my Peace Corps nephew), with his vagabond, traveling lifestyle.

The Lufthansa flight home is cordial, if a bit snug. Our flight path takes us across the Northern Atlantic, but not as far north as the flight over. We cross southern England and Ireland, and then are over the open sea until we engage the North American continent at Newfoundland.

Euronews offers film footage of Paris models. I picked up a Danielle Steele novel at the Munich airport, and finish the book an hour before landing. I now know why I don’t need to read any more Danielle Steele novels (so trite!).

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

The Zugspitze - April 11

Wedensday, April 11, 2007

The Zugspitze

[Photos from this day are with the Zugspitze Photo Set, the Eibsee Lake Photos, and the on the Road Photos.]

This is our last day in Germany. Another glorious and clear day, we decide that we want to take the Cog Train up Germany’s highest mountain, the Zugspitze. It is only about a 15 minute drive from Garmisch, through enchanting Bavarian mountain villages, to Lake Eibsee, where we will get the train to the top. Most of the chalet-style houses have some kind of painted mural on them. One is more charming than the next.

Eric and I think that we could spend a long time in one of these villages, with just a bicycle and a dog, exploring the myriad paths and roads that wind through the mountains. Dogs are (of course) welcome everywhere, and we could take the train into the city (Munich) if necessary. It appears to be an ideal world, in many ways.

When we arrive at Lake Eibsee we are, at first, unsure about how we get up the mountain. There is a train, as well as a cable lift. All of the skiers seem to be heading for the cable lift, and that is the way John wants to go because he thinks that the ride will be more “thrilling”. Eric and I are a bit panicked about going 10,000 feet into the sky so we decide to go up on the train, and then decide how we will get down.

At the station, while waiting for the train, we meet a young American man with his 2 sons, ages 9 and 10 (or thereabouts). He is friendly and anxious to talk to us. He has the look of someone who has been somewhat traumatized (John says “the look of a scared rabbit”). He is stationed somewhere in Germany, says that this is his reward for having been in Iraq for a year, and that he is now seeing the world “the poor man’s way”. He must return to “the desert” every other year, and has 5 more years to go. He tells us of the hardship all of this has been for his family, and that knowing what he knows now, he would never do it again. I don’t press him for details, but sense how necessary it was for him to tell us what he did, and how necessary it was for us to hear him. I hope that I never forget this young man or the brief conversation that we had as we waited for the train to the Zugspitze.

The train chugs up the mountain through several tunnels. The high forests looks magical – a loam-y kind of soil with light filtering through the trees. I wonder what kind of wild life lives up here.

A clear, warm day has brought the skiers out (or maybe it’s like this all the time?). Obviously, Germans like to ski. People of all ages are decked out in goggles and skis, heading to the top. The train was crowded. Eric and I get a seat, but John stands. There is a bedraggled man just before John that I watch as we ascend the mountain. Every so often he takes a sip from a bottle. I wonder what he’s doing, going to the top of a mountain. The way he holds his head, he appears to me to be in some kind of deep psychic pain – battling demons. I wonder at how some of us, but not all, are especially sensitive and susceptible to this kind of personal suffering.

Maybe I’m off in my assessments and observations, but thus were my musings as the train climbed to the highest place on earth that I have ever been. I can feel the pressure change in my head. (Demons to some, pressure to others?) It feels like a headache, so I breathe deeply and try to relax. John keeps raising his fingers to tell me how many thousand feet we are above sea level. He has a special watch that gives all these sorts of statistics … 5,ooo feet – 6 – 7 …

The train stops at the Schneeferner glacier – a bowl shaped ski area about 3000 meters high. The initial view is bright and breathtaking. We are higher than the Alps and look down on them. The sun reflecting on the snow is bright, so bright that my eyes hurt even with my sunglasses on. I suspect that one could burn their corneas and get snow blindness very quickly up here. It is also surprisingly warm. We had dressed expecting to be in snow and possibly wind, but on this day there is little wind and all sun. I see people sunbathing.

We watch the skiers for awhile. They all know what they are doing – I don’t notice any novices. We are the only ones slip sliding around.

From here we take a cable car to the VERY top of Zugspitze. There is something mystical about being up here on top of a mountain. I had always looked at mountains from a lower vantage; it’s a little different to be looking down on things. There is Rock up here, and snow. Crystal clear air. Some birds. Like looking from a plane window, but so much more tactile (I am PART of it and breathe its air), I look over at the beauty of the earth – the villages and lakes and rivers. It is a bit dizzying. We could see all the way to Italy.

We walk around all of the observation area and then decide to take the cable car down. When we try to use our tickets to get to the entrance for the cable car, they don’t work. “You’re in Austria!” a man explains. The observation area spans the border between Austria and Germany, and we had wondered to the Austrian side.

Eibsee Lake

So we trek back to Germany for the cable car down to Eibsee Lake. I notice the pattern that tree-line makes on the side of the mountain. Like a wave, it reaches up the mountain, then recedes, then reaches again.

Apfelstrudel and the search for a hotel

We spent some time around the blue, blue glacial waters of Lake Eibsee, before heading back into Garmisch on our way to Munich. We have lunch at our favorite Garmisch restaurant, the Konditorei-Thron. The apfelstrudel, which we split 3 ways, was, bar none, the very best apple strudel that I have ever had anywhere. Maybe the very best dessert I have ever had. It was not sugary-sweet-dough-y; rather this was APPLES(!), dressed and enhanced like I had never tasted them before. Crisp and clean. I realize that I may never again know an apfelstrudel like this one.

We made our way back through Munich and to the airport with no problem (well, just one wrong turn that we easily corrected) … but this is where our luck changed …

I had every day of our trip planned ahead – where we would stay and how we would get there – except the last day. I figured that we would go to the airport, get a room, turn our rental car in, and the next morning we would take a shuttle bus to the airport and fly away.

The moral of the story is – never assume that things are the way you think they are, especially in another country.

There were no obvious hotels around the airport. The hotel right in side the airport was so many euros, I didn’t even bother to convert to what it would be in US dollars. So we go to the rental car place – John is anxious to unload the car – hoping that they could recommend a reasonable hotel nearby. They suggest that we keep the car until the next day – except for an expensive Danish place across the street, all the hotels are far away.

For the next 2 hours from Freissling to Erding we search for a hotel that is not hopelessly expensive. They all are (and without breakfast, they are quick to add.) The one that we found that was sort of ok did not have extra beds, so we would have to get a 2nd room for Eric.

It’s a good thing we still remembered that apfelstrudel we had for lunch, because we were quickly becoming tired, exasperated, and grumpy.

Finally we decided to go back to the expensive place next to the rental car place, because if we could turn the car in today, we would save some money, and the hotels in the surrounding villages were no bargain.

The NL hotel was nice. I love the Scandinavian furniture and design. They brought an extra bed to the room. There were wonderful green apples at the desk. I didn’t let John tell me how much it cost.

I met a little girl, maybe 11 years old, who was traveling with her father. She said she used be from Virginia, but now they lived in the country that was below Russia and on the other side of Turkey. They had missed their flight and were stranded for the night. She was anxious to talk and I enjoyed her friendship.

John tried to take the car back, since we were now just across the street, but again nien, if we wanted a way to the airport we would have to return the car in the morning.

With that, and some expensive soup, we went to bed listening to CNN Euronews. The last thing I heard was the reporter saying, “and you won’t hear that on Fox news!”

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

The Partnach Gorge (“Partnachklamm”) Hike, Garmisch-Partenkirchen

Tuesday - April 10, 2007

[Photos from this day in the Partnach Gorge photo set.]

We awaken in Garmisch to yet another gorgeous day. I have decided that countries should pay us to visit their lands since we bring sunshine and warmth every where we go.

I love the breakfast that comes with our room at the Rheinischer Hof. Fresh fruit, pure juice, boiled eggs, breads, muesli, tea, and, of course, the German sausages, cheeses and condiments that go with the European breakfast. If they get breakfast right, it’s a very good sign that they will get everything else right as well.

At 10AM we meet up with the Felsens at the Olympic Ski Jump Stadium in Partenkirchen (the other side of the river from Garmisch). We’ve decided to do the Partnach Gorge (“Partnachkilamm”) hike.

There are many roads and paths winding in and through the Alps and their foothills. No cars, really, on the roads – mostly people walking or riding bikes, or occasionally a farm truck or horses. It is all right out of a Heidi storybook – we saw herds of sheep and tiny villages tucked in the meadows of the mountains.

We make it through the steep and narrow gorge together, and then split up for different routes back. The old men (Joe and John) are the last to arrive back at the stadium. We were ready to send out search dogs, but they explain that they had taken the higher road and were having beers on the other side of the stadium, waiting for us. Anyway, we were too late for the picnic lunch that Jenny and FA had prepared for us back at the Edelweiss.

We had dinner at a Bavarian restaurant in Partenkirchen that night, all together.

It is curious to me that I have known these boys since before they were born, and then knew them as boys and students, and now they are grown up – some older than I was when I first knew them. I suppose that this means that I am moving into an “older generation” era, but that is not quite right. It feels more like a deepening of mystery.
This was a very fun and relaxing day, just being with people that have been and will be part of my life for my whole life - and in a very special setting.

[Photos from this day in the Partnach Gorge photo set.]

Monday, April 9, 2007

The Bavarian Alps - Garmisch

The Konditorei-Thron Cafe - the best food in Garmisch, maybe all of Bavaria!

Easter Monday – April 9th, 2007, Parsdorf and Garmisch, Germany

[Photos for this day are in the Garmisch Photo set and the "on the road" photo set.]

Another wonderful breakfast with Hartwig and Margret in Parsdorf. How easy it is for us to be together and to talk of many things: the world, politics, religion. We compare the different ways that we know things and find our common ground.

We set out for Garmisch. It is a wonderfully clear day. Taking the “mittel ring” around Munich, I am surprised that this road is not an “expressway”, but an actual street (with stop lights and sidewalks), and we are able to see the life of Munich a little closer. Spring is in full bloom and people are out and about, walking dogs and riding bikes. Easter Monday is a holiday (Europeans know how to do holidays!) so businesses are not open and no trucks.

As we head down to Garmisch the Bavarian Alps come into view. The last time we were in Germany (summer, 1999) it had been raining so this is really our first good view of these mountains. They are not so very high, but are rocky and still snow-y on top.

Garmisch is only about an hour’s drive south of Munich (how quickly everything can change in Europe) and we are soon in a very charming little mountain town. The sun is bright and it is unseasonably warm. We easily find our hotel (the Rheinischer Hof). The attendant is very friendly and convinces us to take a larger room in a house across the street from the actual hotel. This is a very beautiful 3rd floor room with balconies and views of the mountains. We feel like royalty.

We walk downtown and John and Eric have lunch outdoors at a café on the square – the Konditorei-Thron. This turns out to be our most favorite restaurant of the trip. The food and ambience are perfect.

None of the stores are open, but there are lots of people about exploring Garmisch. There is a neat glacial river that runs through town, many times behind and under the buildings.

Returning to our room, we decide to do laundry. The washer and dryer, which are in the basement, take the old Deutschmark coins, and the dryer doesn’t dry. After several DM coins (about $30 US) we decide to just hang the clothes on a line that crisscrosses the ceiling of the basement laundry room.

Then we head over to the Edelweiss Lodge to meet up with the Felsens. The Edelweiss is a special US complex (with hotel) that is just for US military personnel and their families. It is just around the corner from the Rheinischer Hof. Getting through the security gate was more challenging than getting across the iron curtain, though in all honesty, the security was very friendly and accommodating to us. We waited in the hotel lobby until FA (my only sister, only sibling) and then Greg (my nephew) and then my brand new grand nephew, Jack, come. This was my first meeting of 2 month old Jack, who is every bit as intelligent and good looking as the rest of the family.

This coming together in Garmisch is special for my sister and me. This is what has become of OUR family – the 2 daughters of Tucker and Lib (Edwin and Elizabeth Hagan). We are here with our husbands and all of our children: Michael, Greg, Jonathan, and Eric; Michael’s wife, Jenny; Jonathan’s girlfriend, Heather, and with the beginning of the next generation, Jack Felsen, who was born on February 9th, 2007.

Our mother, though she had met John and Joe, never lived to see us married.

Our father saw the arrivals of Michael, Greg and Jon, but not Eric.

I have always felt that, with the deaths of our parents relatively early in our lives, the continuation of my childhood family was somewhat fractured (or un-acknowledged, or something). As I watched all of us through the evening, I watched us through the eyes of my parents.

After some funny games (my sister is a party planner by avocation) to celebrate Michael’s 30th birthday and the arrival of Jack, we have dinner at the Edelweiss.

Michael and Jenny are living in Zemmer, Germany (northwest Germany) where Michael works as an attorney for the U.S. Air Force. (JAG for short).

Greg is a Peace Corp volunteer who is working now in Lesotho, Africa.

Jonathan and Heather came from Asheville NC, where they work as massage therapists and go to school.

Eric came from Fort Myers, FL where he works in TV Production.

Neat family, huh?
[Photos for this day are in the Garmisch Photo set and the "on the road" photo set.]

Sunday, April 8, 2007

Prague, the Autobahn, and Easter at Axel's - April 8th

Moon over Vltava River, Prague, Easter Morning

Easter Sunday, April 8, 2007

[Photos from this day are included in the Prague photo set, the Photos from the Road set, and the Easter at Axels’s set.]

Sunrise in Prague

I awakened early on Easter morning, and was unable to go back to sleep so around 5 AM I ventured out into the pre-dawn streets of Prague. It was freezing cold. Down at the Charles Bridge the photographers were setting up for what promised to be a stunning sunrise. The sky was perfectly clear. There was a cluster of people smoking marijuana, and 2 drunk (or very high) girls huddled and babbling loudly from the foot of one of the statues. Occasionally someone crossed the bridge who looked like they were going to work.

I watched the sky. I was not pleased with any of my photos facing the sunrise from the bridge. It was when I turned away from the “spectacle” and looked at something else that I captured something of the loveliness of the morning.

I expected to hear the bells of the many Churches as the day broke, but surprisingly I only remember one lone bell at around 6AM.

We were due back in Parsdorf for Easter dinner with the Voges family, so after breakfast we retrieved our car from the parking place under the hotel and took to the road again. This time we knew our way and didn’t have much trouble getting out of Prague, but we still hadn’t figured the one-way signs out and at one point we found ourselves on a narrowing street that was just for trolley cars. (John quickly backed out of that!)

The Autobahn

On this Easter morning, the Western Czechoslovakian landscape was glorious. I saw crumbling castles in the distance and the towns and villages looked pastoral. There were no trucks on the road, and we had no problems getting through the “iron curtain” back into Germany. I don’t know how John did it, but we were back in Parsdorf in about 3 hours. When there are no speed limits posted on the Autobahn, you can go as fast as you want – and John did. We needed to get gas on the way – more than $5 per gallon.

Easter dinner at Axel’s

We went from the home of Hartwig and Margret to the home of one of their sons – Axel (Alexander) – about 10 km from Parsdorf (I don’t remember the name of the town). We have known these sons, Alexander and Andre, since 1980 when they were 9 and 10 years old. They are now grown up with wives and children and homes.

Axel’s home is considered to be “in the country”, but it is really on the road that connects the little villages. Land here is very expensive; I think 500 euros per square meter, or something like that, so owning a home with land around it is special. Axel and Martina have a small home that was built in 1920. They are both earthy and handy (and hard-working) and have made for themselves and their children a very unique and comfortable home.

We felt very fortunate to be able to spend Easter with our German friends. We had “Easter Bread” with coffee when we arrived, and later a Bavarian (Schwalbian) meal of roast with onions, red cabbage, green beans and potatoes. Each time we blessed the food and each other by holding hands and chanting a German Kindergarten grace:

Piep piep piep
Wir haben uns alle lieb! (we all love each other)
Bon Apetit!
Our friends and their children and grandchildren made this a very special day for us.

Margret is an exceptional and rare woman. She knows how to lose herself to the heart and mystery of what is good in life. When she is with her grandchildren she completely enters their world – verbally, physically and spiritually. Later that evening, as we were talking, she told me that she would not want to live in Munich or village much larger than Parsdorf (population about a thousand). They have lived in Parsdorf for 30 years and know everyone in the village. “We all know each other, raised our children together, and now we are growing old together”, she told me. “There is much comfort, security and mystery in that for me.”

[Photos from this day are included in the Prague photo set, the Photos from the Road set, and the Easter at Axels’s set.]

Saturday, April 7, 2007

Prague - Holy Saturday, April 7th

The Mala Strana (Lesser Town) and Prague Castle
photo taken from the Charles Bridge

April 7 – Holy Saturday

[Photos from this day are in the PRAGUE PHOTO SET.]

Knowing that our time in Prague was limited, we set out to explore and come to know Prague as we could in this one day. The day began overcast and a bit cold.

After a so-so breakfast (corner-cutting, with flavored sugar water for “juice” and coffee from a cheap cappuccino machine – at least they can’t screw up tea!) at the Hotel Roma, we headed back down to the Charles Bridge. There were things on the other side that we needed to see again before exploring our side (the Lesser Town, Mala Strana). I looked for the Czech-glass earring stand that I had seen on the bridge the day before, but he wasn’t there. Nor were the policemen at the Hebrew Crucifixion statue.

Prague has been a big deal, as a city, for a long time, its history tied to the land of Czechoslovakia / Bohemia. I knew that we would never be able to grasp more than a rudimentary understanding of all that had happened here. So we contented ourselves to see and experience what we could of Prague-2007.

Old Town Square
We wandered again through the Old Town section, making our way to the Old Town Square (Staromestske Namesti), Prague’s oldest marketplace. There were many souvenir shops – marionettes, nested egg dolls, painted eggs, Czech glass. I was in search of some Czech glass earrings. We saw a roasting pig (I think it was a pig).

Dominating one side of the Old Town Square is the huge Gothic cathedral, the Church of Our Lady Before Tyn, which was the main parish church of Old Town Prague. We had been calling this “the Darth Vadar Castle”, and I was somewhat surprised that it was a church since the spires are so much higher than the crucifix.

The astronomical clock at the Town Hall has dials that represent the positions of the Sun and Moon and stars, as well as figures and other moving statues that parade on the hour. The “Death” statue tolls the bell. The clock was made in 1410 and has worked continuously since then and still works (tell that to the computer makers!).

Josefov - the old Jewish ghetto
We meandered again over to Josefov, the old Jewish Quarters. For some reason, there were policemen around. We looked again at the Jewish museum (we didn’t go in), the Old Synagogue and the cemetery. There was one section of the cemetery that looked like it had been created over shops – or probably it is the other way around, the shops were built under the cemetery. I sensed a mysterious energy here in this old Jewish ghetto area.

Making our way back to the bridge via the river we passed the Rudolfinum Concert Hall. The presence of music is apparent everywhere in Prague, from the street musicians to the many posters advertising concerts.

The Mala Strana and Prague Castle
Again on the Mala Strana side of the River, it was time for us to climb the steps to the Prague Castle. The Castle is actually a whole complex of buildings – cathedrals, government office buildings, etc. It is old and impressive – gothic and baroque and other architectural styles - perhaps especially the St. Vitus Cathedral. We did not wait in lines for tours. Sometimes I think that I need days to just study one aspect of things, and I wonder if trying to take in Prague in one day is not merely skimming the surface of the city's complex life.

John was hungry about now, so we had a Czech lunch somewhere on the way down the steps from the Castle. I found myself wondering what kind of life had taken place through the centuries on these streets below the Castle.

Petrin Hill Park
By mid-afternoon the sky had cleared and the weather became delightfully sunny and warm. We spent the afternoon climbing and exploring Petrin Hill, which was just across the street from our hotel. A very pleasant park, dogs are (of course) allowed here, and there is even a point beyond which they do not need to be leashed. This pleased me immensely. It truly is a joy to see how much Europeans love their dogs. They are allowed in all restaurants, with waiters serving water to the dogs before their owners!

There is a memorial in the Park to those who died and suffered during the years when Czechoslovakia was under Communist rule. Great views of Prague and the Prague Castle from here. At the top there was an Observation Tower. Also a mirror-maze which we decided not to go into, but I’m still wondering what it was like.

The Church of the Infant of Prague
Walking back to our hotel we happened upon the Church of the Infant of Prague. As a child I had an “infant of Prague” doll and my father always said a little prayer to the Infant of Prague. John and Eric had never heard the story so we went into the Church and there was the original doll, amidst gold and splendor, on a side altar. It still feels a little hokey to me.

The restaurant where we wanted to have dinner was full so we went to a little café across from our hotel that was run by 2 (or 3) very friendly and enterprising young Russian men. The food was quite good – a mix of Italian/Asian/American. All of the people there were young, like in their 30’s and American music played in the background.

epilogue - (notes before going to sleep)
There is a fair amount of graffiti in Prague, and I wonder what this is about. John says that it is “inexcusable”; it feels a bit angry to me – like the visible presence of some repressed part of the population. The parts of Prague that we visited were clean and interesting. But there is a washed-out feel, visually, to the city when I see it from a distance. It was like this in Rome – perhaps it is the oldness. I kept wondering if there was something wrong with my camera, or if the pollution had something to do with it. I’m not sure if the Prague that we are seeing has anything to do with Czechoslovakia as it is today. Most of the people we meet are from somewhere else. I met a delightful shopkeeper while I was looking for my Czech glass earrings (which I never got). She spoke good English and was very interested in me- Americans. She said that she was from The Ukraine. I don’t even know where The Ukraine is.

[Photos from this day are in the PRAGUE PHOTO SET.]

Friday, April 6, 2007

Regensburg, the Iron Curtain, and Prague - Good Friday, April 6th

April 6, 2007 - Good Friday

Photos from this day are included in the REGENSBURG PHOTO SET and the PRAGUE PHOTO SET. (Prague is still being sorted and labeled.)

Regensburg – My sleep was disturbed with visions from Dom St. Peter, the Gothic cathedral. Medieval spirits, it seems. From our room we could hear talking, arguments, walking, laughing and singing from the cobblestone street below. Once I got up to look down only to see a shadow, quickly scurrying away.

Friday morning promised to be yet another glorious day. Good Friday is a holiday here, so none of the shops were open and the streets were empty. Around Dom St. Peter several young priests (or seminarians) were excitedly fluttering in their long black robes. They all looked very young to me, not more than 19 or 20 years old. They were practicing for the Good Friday service that would be held later in Dom St. Peter. (John remarked that he "feels sorry for them" - whatever that means!).

The cathedral is also home to the “Regensburger Domspatzen” (Boys choir), who sing here on Sundays and holidays when they are not traveling the world. It would be nice to hear them, but evidently the seats are booked well in advance of their performances.

Before we leave Regensburg, we make one last visit inside the cathedral. I am determined to make peace with the Gothic structure that has imposed its all-encompassing world view upon my psyche, both conscious and unconscious.

The Iron Curtain

We head east, toward the Czechoslovakian border and Prague. The German countryside was rolling, with forests and a windmill here and there. I didn't see any windmills in the Czech Republic.

We expected to be questioned at the border so I had our passports and car information ready. After all, this used to be called “the Iron Curtain”, and when I had traveled through Yugoslavia and Hungary in 1972 it was a big deal. Surprisingly the young border patrol authorities simply waved us through. They seemed somewhat bored and lackadaisical. This free passage from one country to another is supposedly the result of the formation of the European Union. It makes the border between the US and Canada look like an Iron Curtain by comparison!

As we travel through the western Czech Republic the land becomes more hilly and reminds me of a cross between KY and the steel mill towns of Pennsylvania. There are a lot of trucks on the road. My eyes begin to burn from the diesel fuel of all the trucks.

Czechoslovakia looks and feels very different from Germany, somewhat less tidy. The villages are much larger; there are more apparent factories and industry. And there are billboards, many in English. We see advertisements for Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s. There is a haze in the air.

I see a pile of junked cars with smoke/fumes rising from them.

Prague – Mala Strana

We get lost on our way into Prague. It is a very large, old, and sprawling kind of place. Finally, seeing the Vltava River and using it is our navigational guide, we make our way to the Mala Strana (Lesser Town or Little Quarter) of Old Prague - the part of town under the Prague Castle. I’m glad that I didn’t make reservations at one of the lesser expensive hotels in the outer lying area of Prague. Making the trip into town, even using the public transportation, would have been a hassle.

We found our hotel (the Hotel Roma) and stowed our car safely in the underground parking lot. Hartwig and Margret had warned us about “Russian owned” places, which this feels to be, but it is also quiet, comfortable and safe – and we can walk every where we want to go. Our room is on the 3rd floor, and we all like it. Eric says that it reminds him of the place where Ann Frank lived. I don’t think that Ann would have survived as long in Prague as she did in Amsterdam.

[For many centuries Prague was the most important Jewish center in Europe. The Jewish people built their community on the bank of the Vltava River, near the Old Town Square. In continual tension with Christian rulers, their movements were limited, they were identified as a minority group and they were alternately persecuted and expelled, or tolerated. Jewish refugees expelled from other countries came to Prague and for periods of time their culture flourished. In the early 18th century, more Jews lived in Prague than anywhere else in the world. At the start of World War II, 55000 Jews – 20% of the city’s population – lived in Prague. At least 2/3 of the Jewish population of Prague perished in the Holocaust. Today, about 1700 people living in Prague are associated with the Jewish community. (See here for more history of the Jews in Prague.)]

The Charles Bridge

Setting out to explore, we first wander down to the Charles Bridge. The crowd is thick and the energy of so many people sets the tone. This city is very different from Regensburg, even though the histories of both cities extend back to before Roman times. The buildings are very large here, old and of so many different styles it feels a bit “confusing”. John and I both say that it feels like a place where we’ve never been before, perhaps a bit like I would expect Moscow (or Russia).

This is “middle Europe”, and evokes images from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings books. Gypsies, street musicians. Hartwig says that Europeans are all descended (with much inter-mixing) from 3 ancient tribes: the Germanic, the Roman, and the Slavic. We are in Slavic land. Czechoslovakia is also referred to as “Bohemia”. Ancient Bohemia (before Roman times) was occupied by a Celtic tribe of people.

However, at this point I find myself wondering if the crowds around me are not all tourists from somewhere else.

We venture onto the Charles Bridge from the Mala Strana side of the Vltava River. This bridge was patterned on the Old Stone Bridge in Regensburg with 16 arches, and was originally called the Stone Bridge of Prague. Along with the artists, performers, musicians and vendors, there are 30 large statues standing at guard.

The day before we left, one of my computer students who is Jewish told me to look for the “Hebrew Crucifixion” statue. The writings on the cross are all in Hebrew – “Jesus, King of the Jews”. When I see it, there are 2 policemen standing in front of it. Perhaps because it is Good Friday? The policemen were not there the next day.

When we reach the other side of the bridge – the Old Town – there is a dark Gothic tower that we climb and from which we can see the entire bridge and surrounding area. The tower was part of the old fortification system of Prague. The official name for this tower is: 'Staromestska mostecka vez'. We watch a little film there about the history of the bridge, Prague, and King Charles IV.

Charles IV (Karel IV) was king of Bohemia from 1346 to 1378 and Holy Roman emperor from 1355 to 1378. He was educated (he spoke 5 languages), a diplomat, and a good king. Charles established Prague as the cultural capital of central Europe and made it one of the most prosperous European cities at the time. Charles IV loved Prague and the city flourished during his rule.

According to the film, Charles secured his power and military strength by a strange merging of pagan sun worship with Christian martyrdom. On the summer solstice the sun sets on the Prague castle exactly where he has buried the bones of St. Vitus (vitus means “victory”). The relics of St. Vitus are supposed to have healing properties, and Charles gathered all of the known relics of Vitus to bury in the Prague cathedral.
Eric surmises that religion was used as a ploy to keep the people fighting for the king. I wonder if things are much different now.

We then just wander around the Old Town and over to the Jewish ghetto area, known as Josefov, before crossing the bridge back to Mala Strana, a Czech dinner, and bed.

Photos from this day are included in the REGENSBURG PHOTO SET and the PRAGUE PHOTO SET. (Prague is still being sorted and labeled.)

Thursday, April 5, 2007

Regensburg - Thursday, April 5th

April 5, 2007 – Holy Thursday

[Regensburg photos are here]

Margret and Hartwig treated us to a sumptuous breakfast (will we ever need to eat again?) before setting out for Regensburg. The day is lovely. We easily find our way back to the highway. The landscape of Bavaria (southern Germany) is beautiful – fields planted in something green (alfalfa?) and hops, rolling hills and forests. Hartwig says that the forests are called the Bavarian Forest as long as we are in Germany. We see more and more windmills as we travel east and the hops fields become more predominant. Every few miles there is a little village like Parsdorf, neat and red-roofed, nestled into the land.

We get off the highway to go into Regensburg. I have a somewhat crude map, using the railroad tracks as a navigational anchor. When we cross the bridge that goes across the tracks – about 25 or more tracks – Eric says, “Wow that is some railroad track!” European train tracks are a step or two above those of America.

From here we rather suddenly find ourselves in dense and narrow cobblestone streets, and because we haven’t yet figured out what the one-way street sign is, we make some mistakes. But eventually we make our way to the parking lot, Petersweg, where we are supposed to put our car. And we set out into the winding cobblestone streets. I am amazed at how we can sort of just walk around and find our way to things, and before long we discover the Munchner Hof – a wonderful little hotel almost hidden in the maze. We love our very spacious room, which looks out over one of the cobblestone streets. There is an interesting mirror on the wall that we call the “mirror, mirror on the wall”.

Regensburg was the capital of Bavaria before Munich. Situated at the northernmost navigable point of the Danube River, Regensburg was already an important river town when the Romans arrived in the 7th century. Regensburg was most recently in the news because this is the city from which the Pope gave the speech that contained the unfortunate remark about Islam. Benedict is a Bavarian and resided for awhile in this city, which is home to the University of Regensburg. He seems to be popular locally - many stores sell photos of him.
Regensburg is an extraordinarily beautiful city, and feels very medieval. Charmed by everything, we set out to explore. Near to our hotel, and the most obvious thing in Regensburg, is Dom St. Peter. A huge Gothic structure, the church overshadows everything around it. The many people lounging on the steps and ledges remind me of perching pigeons. Strange dog-like creatures lunge from a higher outside ledge.

It is a bit creepy. Supposedly this church houses the only extant statue of the Devil’s grandmother, so we venture inside to look for her. It is the height of the place the first impresses me. And then the beauty of the stained glass. I am not usually a fan of stained glass windows in churches - they remind me of coloring books. But there is something so exquisite in this work that I am simply awed by its beauty. We look around a bit at the statues, but basically feel a bit overwhelmed with the immensity of the church. I seem to be captivated by and drawn to a statue of a pregnant Elizabeth and Mary. It is on the outside as well as the inside of the church.

I light a candle in memory of my parents – a habit I got from my father, who lit a candle in every church he visited.

We head down to the river, and the Steinerne Brucke (Old Stone Bridge), which was built in the 12th Century . Three armies of Crusaders gathered in Regensburg and crossed this bridge on their journeys to the Holy Land.

Regensburg is a very peaceful city and on this warm and sunny spring day everyone is out. Ice cream (Eis) is popular. It doesn’t feel like a tourist town. As we wander around, I get the sense that we are mingling among the locals.

We watch the sun set on the 16 graceful arches of the Stone Bridge from an outdoor restaurant on the other side of the river, the Historische Wurstkuche.
We go to bed to the sound of church bells tolling - a deep chime that seems to awaken one to the place of dreams.

We never did find the statue of the Devil’s grandmother.

[Photos from this day are here.]

Wednesday, April 4, 2007

Parsdorf - Wednesday, April 4th

The Voges home in Parsdorf, Germany
Wednesday, April 4th, 2007

It was overcast when we arrived in Munich at 8 AM. There was some hassle waiting for the rent-a-car people to pick us up. Looking around the airport I noticed the fine bakery (how do these people stay thin with all these carbs?!) and how professional and classy the young people looked.

Finally, with much ado, we got a rental car – a Mercedes of some kind – and we ventured onto the roads. John was concerned that I had refused the insurance, so I called Visa to make sure that their coverage was good internationally.

I love the subtle coloring of things and notice the trees just beginning to bud. It is somewhat cold (40 degrees F.), but feels very refreshing. The Munich airport is about 25 km north of Munich, surrounded by fields and little villages.

We made our way to Hartwig and Margret’s home in Parsdorf without too much problem. I had printed maps from Mapquest. Parsdorf is a village of about 1000 people, 10 miles or so East of Munich. It seems to be very typical of the many villages of Germany that dot the landscape – not a suburb, but a village that is separated from the other villages by fields and forests.

We have not visited Hartwig and Margret in Germany since 1999, so they are very glad to see us. Hartwig and I worked together in the early 1980’s. He was an engineer for a German company that was producing silicon chips in the USA. I was an IC (integrated circuit) layout designer (a drafter of sorts in the early days of CAD – computer aided design). Our families became friends and we have visited back and forth with each other ever since.

After a typical Bavarian lunch - Wiesswurst (white sausage) and other assorted hams and cheeses, beer - we decide to take a nap. Hartwig and Margret give us the 3rd floor of their home. John and I still maintain that this is one of our favorite places to sleep. The sloping roof and European bed with flannel comforter and pillows make it delightfully cozy and comfortable.

About 4pm we get up for yet another Bavarian snack, and then take a walk around the village.
Spring is in the air. Everywhere trees are budding and every house has a little tree decorated with colored eggs.

The Maypole is in the center of Parsdorf, along with some restaurants and biergartens. All closed now. We walk down to the GrundSchule (elementary school), which all of the children of Parsdorf attend. There are 2 large soccer fields. Soccer is very big here and all of the children are encouraged to participate so that they can learn team play. At around 10 years of age, they must go to a different town for school.

The town church, St. Nicholas, dates from 1483. The present priest is Polish, with a name that no one can pronounce (or so Hartwig says). Though it is a Catholic Church, the 4th week of every month the Protestants of the village use the church for their service. Hartwig was raised Protestant and Margret a Catholic, so they attend the Church every week, whether Protestant or Catholic. Margret says that most of the villagers do the same. Their son, Axel, was married in the Church.

Surrounding the village are fields that are almost always planted in some kind of food – potatoes, wheat, etc.

We walk over to the large Segmoller Home Store that is on the main highway. Since the main highway was built, all of the smaller roads of the village were converted to bike paths and pedestrian walkways.

We walk down the Salz Strasse (Old Salt Road) which is the original road that was used to bring salt (”white gold”) from Austria during the Middle Ages. Salt was essential to preserving food and enabling it to be traded. This road, which goes through Parsdorf, was a very important trade route between Salzburg and Augsburg (the other side of Munich).
That evening we went to a local restaurant – Gasthof Zur alten Post. This restaurant dates from the 1400’s and was a Coach House, serving the coaches and horses that traveled the Old Salt Road.

The food is excellent. ( See photos from the Parsdorf set here.) We end with an Austrian dessert – kaiserschmarrn - a kind of burnt sugar strudel, omelet-like with raisins, nuts and apples. According to the legend, when the emperor’s cook was making an omelet he screwed up, so he added raisins, nuts and apples. The emperor (Kaiser) was so impressed that the dish was named for him.

Hartwig says that this is not a real restaurant, just an inn, but I don’t know that we will get better Bavarian food anywhere. After dinner Hartwig, John and Eric had schnaps.

I love to hear Margret tell about their travels to warm places so that she can snorkel. I like to swim as well and can relate to her passion. Of late her favorite place is Africa. Most recently they were in South West Egypt (the Sinai Peninsula) where she snorkeled in the Red Sea. Next they will go to Namibia. Margret says that Africa is wonderful because of the love of the people whose lives are poor and desperate, yet they know the miracle of the moment and do not hurry.

In our attic room there are posters showing the many fish of the Maldive Islands.

Tuesday, April 3, 2007

The Flight Over - Tuesday, April 3rd

Tuesday, April 3rd, 2007
We’ve made it through security and are waiting for our flight to Charlotte. Got some sandwiches at the airport that were bad (the lettuce was black) and way too expensive.

It’s good to have Eric with us.

The airport seems crowded and chaotic to me – tense – but maybe it’s just me and the excitement of leaving. I haven’t flown in over 2 years.

There is something about “flying away” that is appealing – leaving our life and routine and problems behind and going somewhere else for awhile.

Lufthansa Flight from Charlotte to Munich

At both the Palm Beach and Charlotte airports I saw African Americans with shoe shine businesses. They were jiving and shining the shoes of large white American men. I hope that they are making a lot of money.

The Lufthansa flight to Munich is decidedly cleaner, roomier and more comfortable than the US Airways flight from Palm Beach to Charlotte. I am feeling much less harried.

Our flight captain announced that we would be flying over Montreal, Goose Bay, Greenland, Iceland, then down the Norwegian coast, across Hamburg and then into Munich. I love these northern lands, and feel safer knowing that I am above them.

I listened to some podcasts and music on my ipod, read an article in the New Yorker about the Pope and Islam, and did some sudoku puzzles. Nice not to have a computer along.

The Euro-news that was running on the plane TV showed extensive film footage of Guantanamo that I had never seen before. Then a little robotic character demonstrated some in-seat yoga. (I think I was the only one doing it.) They passed out hot towels before dinner, the wine was free, and 2 movies were shown, neither of which interested me.

The northern sky lightened as we crossed the Norwegian Sea.

I lost an earring and the temperature outside the plane was -70 degrees C.