Wednesday, May 27, 2009

AWOL in Deutschland

The wind pushed loose hair off my face. The morning sun began to tint my skin one shade darker. Dandelion petals floated in the air. As I sped around a grove of pine trees and a florescent yellow field of flowers appeared in front of me, I felt completely off the record. On a late morning bike ride through the countryside I felt a million miles and years away from classes, internships, back-logged e-mails and agendas. I considered myself "missing in action" -- not bad for a change of pace. After a semester studying in London, instead of flying home, a friend and I planned to spend two weeks visiting my cousin in Bavaria, the southern region of Germany full of heritage, rolling green hills, yellow rapeseed flower fields, pretzels and beer.

Castles and the start of fest season

My first weekend included sifting through German antiques in a family-run shop that filled the stone storerooms of an old castle grounds. The unique interior and friendly owner who poured glasses of fresh-squeezed juice made the trip feel more like exploring the basement of a long-lost relative than shopping.

Sunday took us to another castle (warning: Germany has a lot of castles). My cousin, her husband, my friend and I went to a "Garden and Nature" festival at Hexenagger Castle, an outdoor market on the grounds of a hilltop castle with booths selling a lot more than gardening supplies: hammocks, jewelry, wooden crafts and art. My cousin explained May meant the beginning of the summer "fest" season, a time of traditional outdoor German celebrations. I quickly learned no German fest is complete without brats, beer and fish grilled on a stick. We stopped for a noontime snack: beer, pretzels and salt-and-peppered cheese (simple, but delicious). We caught the beginning of the village orchestra show before heading home. Although my cousin's husband was hoping for traditional German tunes, the ensemble of adults and children played a few contemporary selections.

Stepping back into medieval Germany

Monday sent my cousin and her husband back to work, leaving my friend and I to explore Bavaria with a train schedule and my pocket-size German phrasebook (and some golden advice from my cousin). We planned to spend the day in Rothenberg ob der Tauber -- a medieval city untouched by modern architecture, business and franticness. A 700-year-old wall surrounds the city. Old clock towers and wooden cottages make virtually every street postcard-worthy. We wandered the Christmas shops, climbed the old town hall tower and sampled the local fare: schneeballs ("snowballs" of buttery dough baked until crunchy and covered in powdered sugar, cinnamon or chocolate).

Because the city's original planners were not as concerned with accessible train routes as they might be today, getting to Rothenberg required taking four different trains. Three were late, causing my friend and I to cross of fingers each time we pulled into a station and a bit of panic (unidentified train whistles + announcements in German = a lot of running up and down platforms). Thanks to my little German phrasebook and a couple of friendly locals, we didn't miss one of our eight trains.

A history lesson

We switched gears on Tuesday, spending our day in Nuremberg at the museum built in the remains of the Nazi rally grounds. A skeleton of the half-completed giant Congress Hall took my friend and I on a four-hour tour detailing the rise of the Nazi party straight through to the trials of Hitler's followers in the city at the end of WWII. After the exhibit we walked out to the Zepplinfield -- Hitler's parade grounds where he addressed masses (the exhibit indicated the field was the size of 12 football fields). Now, the enormous space resembles ancient ruins, an eerie monument in decay.

The cities of Bavaria...

We spent an evening in Regensberg -- a medieval city with Roman roots and uniquely untouched by the destruction of WWII. We walked along the River Donau (a.k.a. Danube) and across the old bridge. Then we sampled the city's international cuisine -- first tapas at a Spanish Bodega hidden in a corner of one of the city's cobblestoned streets and then we sat outside for a late Thai dinner. Like most university towns, the international influence was strong.

Friday, my cousin and I took my friend to the airport to bid her auf Weidersehen and spend the afternoon seeing the top sights in Munich. First, we sipped apfelschorle (fizzy apple juice) in the Marienplatz (the central plaza in the city, just outside the Neues Rathaus, the new town hall). We visited Frauenkirche (the city's Catholic cathedral) distinguished by two towers at the facade (said to resemble beer steins...coincidence?). And, we ate a traditional sausage lunch at Hofbrauhaus -- the beer hall Hitler used for many of his infamous public addresses.

Friday night, my cousin introduced me to one of my favorite German traditions: stammtisch. It's a weekly dinner among a group of friends that usually takes place at the same restaurant with the same people. I met some of my cousin's crew at a local German eatery. I'm hoping to convince friends back home to adopt the weekly unwind.

The Alps are alive with...

I gazed out the window of my cousin's 1992 BMW as it buzzed down the Autobahn Sunday morning. We had just driven through the southern edges of Munich when the gray and white peaks of the Alps popped out of the ground. Speckled with green forests and mounted in front of a bright blue sky, the mountains were stunning.

My cousin, her husband and I left the house early Sunday morning to give us a full day to play in the mountains in Berchtesgaden. We took a boat ride on the still waters of Lake Konigsee.
About halfway along one side of the lake, the driver stopped, pulled out a trumpet and began to blow a tune; the chords echoed off the sides of the surrounding mountains. Gorgeous views rewarded us when we stepped off the boat on the opposite end of the lake to explore.

When a few gray clouds began to roll in, we opted to finish our afternoon inside rather than out. We toured the salt mines a few miles away. We donned official black salt mine jumpsuits and boarded a train that took us deep inside one of the Alps' peaks. The temperature dropped about 20 degrees, as did the light level. We disembarked and flew down a series of wooden slides turn-of-the-century miners used to reach their posts. In the next hour we learned how the miners took the salt from deep below the towering mountains to our tables. The living history lesson included a boat ride across the underground salt lake.

We drove into the Salzburg for dinner that evening. The city's intimate shop-lined streets offer the ideal setting to enjoy the end of a warm spring day. After dinner we could not resist the last outdoor table at a cafe for a glass of wine and the city's specialty -- Salzburger Nockerl (a fluffly white souffle cake sitting on a tart raspberry sauce).

The following day we wandered Salzburg. High on the list of sights to see was the Salzburg Cathdral, different from its other European cities' namesake cathedrals because of its Baroque style and grand organs (one in each of the four corners of the center crossing). We took the funicular (an uphill rail car) up to the Salzburg Fortress (Hohensalzburg), a nearly
1,000-year-old castle built on a hill above the city for fortification from outside invasions. We toured the staterooms and old towers, which provided an ideal view of the sprawling city. Then we began a steep hike down the backside of the fortress. After about 20 minutes through a grassy field and forest, we came upon a restaurant with big wooden outside tables overlooking Salzburg and delicious Spargel soup (spargel is a white, variety of asparagus grown in Germany, in season for a short time each year -- May).

For the rest of the afternoon, we followed our own self-guided "Sound Of Music" tour. We found the Mozart Bridge, the gated cemetery that inspired the final search scene in the movie (which took place on a Hollywood set), the mansion that inspired the Von Trapp's lakeside villa and the actual gazebo where two teenagers sang about how old they were. We almost broke out in song...

On the move again

A few days later I boarded my flight back to the U.S. As I left European soil, it was hard to believe my bags were packed and my semester had ended. But, it was even harder to believe where the semester had taken me... As I scan the pictures on this blog I pinch myself to remember it was my finger that pressed the button and my eyes that saw what was beyond the viewfinder. And, as I settle back into the routine of summer internships and another semester on campus, it is my challenge to remember not only the landmarks and the photo-worthy, but the people I met and the different cultures I experienced.

Thanks for reading -- cheers!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The last days of London

A royal tea party

As I crossed the street and walked through Black Lion Gate into Hyde Park, I walked into a postcard. The sun lit every leaf and blade of grass a bright green. Mothers pushed kids in strollers and dozens of owners walked their dogs. The lilacs, tulips and petunias had finally all come out, filling the park with pockets of lush purple, red, yellow, white and orange.

Faced with very few days left, a friend and I decided to spend our last Friday afternoon in London at Kensington Palace for a tour and afternoon tea. We lucked out with picture perfect weather -- 60s, sunny and breezy. Despite the mountains of work piled up in our flats, we both agreed it was the perfect use of the day.

The red brick palace was extravagant, but livable compared to the more ostentatious Windsor Castle and Buckingham Palace. The first floor highlighted the tour by showcasing Princess Diana's dress collection. One of my favorites was a form-fitting pale blue beaded evening gown, soft, but sophisticated.

We stopped for refreshment after our tour -- traditional afternoon tea at The Orangery, just next-door to Kensington Palace. At a patio table, we each sipped cups of Darjeeling, "the champagne of teas," and nibbled on an apricot tart and a fruit scone with jam and clotted cream. I felt a million miles away from e-mails, due dates and review sessions.

On the British Seashore

With a mechanical jerk, my carousel horse lurched forward in sync with a familiar march playing in the background. Behind me, my friends made faces as I snapped a picture. In front of me a rocky beach and the blue waters of the Atlantic stretched across the horizon.

My friends and I spent the better part of Saturday in Brighton, a seaside town with a bit of history and a lot of character. The resort town "came into fashion" in the late 1700s when King George IV (then the Prince Regent) began spending time at the waterfront for his health. The first stop of our day was the Royal Pavilion, George's opulent and eclectic weekend home (a.k.a. palace), which is open to tourists today.

We spent the rest of the afternoon along the beach, findin
g the occasional shop, carousel and ice cream cone.

At the Globe...

Sunday allowed us the unique opportunity to see Shakespeare as it was intended to be seen -- on the stage. Some friends and I ordered tickets to see "Romeo and Juliet" at London's Globe Theater, a recreation of the original Globe Theater where Shakespeare's plays were performed in the 1600s. Despite high school frustrations with Shakespeare's old English, I laughed out loud at the poet's jokes when I saw them live in front of me.

Our student budgets afforded us the standing seats on the floor in front of the stage. The Shakespearian-era theater is round -- a horseshoe shape ring of seats with a rectangular stage to close off the circle. Unlike the covered box seats, our area was completely open-air without a roof. We were all thankful for clear skies and mild temperatures.

British clockwork...

I rolled over and pulled my sheets over my head. With a start, I realized I was awake (and not because my alarm was ringing). I grabbed my phone off the nightstand and saw that I had slept straight through the first alarm I had set. So much for trying to finish my term papers before I had to run errands...

It was the day before the day before I left London -- my last day in London I would not spending packing my life of four months into two suitcases and two carry-ons. The day was scheduled to be jam-packed.

I just made it to my appointment in Covent Garden to get my hair cut. Then I jotted around the market to pick up a few last minute souvenirs and packing supplies. Thank goodness for the sun, which kept my energy up and my freshly cut hair dry. I dropped off my photo collage book to be bound; I had arranged my Italy pictures into a book for my final project for my photography class. I went home to finish up the final edits on my term papers and rushed over to school to print them and turn them in.

I had some time to relax in the afternoon over a cup of tea at the cafe in the park at the end of my block with my London relatives. The warm spring breeze, brightly-colored tulips and dozens of people playing in the park reminded me how much I was going to miss London.

I had just enough time to change clothes and walk back to Covent Garden to meet up with friends for a pre-theater drink. We had tickets to see "Billy Elliot,"
an original London musical about a boy who wants to dance. A classical ballet duet with grown-up Billy and 12-year-old Billy highlighted the show in the second half.

Oh, London!

Monday, May 25, 2009

A weekend in the British countryside...

Our bus pulled off the two-lane road about 30 minutes after we had left the pub we lunched at. There was not a building in sight. We unloaded and began walking along a dirt path up a gently sloped green hill. I could make out three tiers of about 25-foot tall ridges ahead as we reached the top of the first hill. My professor explained we were looking at the remains of the 6,000-year-old Maiden Castle. The grass-covered rings once stood as imposing earth walls to protect the site's ancient inhabitants. Our group walked the perimeter and loaded back onto the bus.

Twenty-five classmates and I were halfway through the first day of a two-day trip to Dorset -- a county of sea-side towns and farming villages in southern England. Miles from the traffic-filled streets of central London in mid-April, I saw a slice of the quieter British life and a geological goldmine.

Earlier that afternoon we had seen the Cerne Abbas Giant: the figure of a naked man carved into the chalk layer of a Dorset hillside. The region is known for its chalk found just below the surface. We stopped half of a mile away for the best view.

We also stopped at Lulworth Cove, known for its Purbeck marble, drug up the river Avon to Salisbury hundreds of years ago to build the cathedral. Years of ocean's wear and tear has pushed the rock up to form the coves. Before we left, we also sampled the area's other specialty -- Purbeck ice cream. Strawberry trumped all -- and I'm not normally a fan of strawberry ice cream.

Our hotel in Weymouth looked directly on the British sea. We dropped our bags, grabbed a quick drink at a pub down the street and the group took a short ride to the Isle of Portland for a picturesque sunset. This tiny pseudo-island (actually a peninsula) is famous for its namesake stone used to build Westminster Abbey.

Back in Weymouth that evening, we ran across some local musical talent in one of the seaside town's finer establishments. "Tamborine Man" was playing at the pub and invited us to share our musical genius with the locals. Of course, we complied....

We began the next day with a cliff-side hike along the English Channel. We crossed fields of cows and sheep; climbed through caves; and stayed a safe distance back from steep cliffs over the crashing waves. Just before we finished, we hit a "surprise" in the trail -- a valley along the cliff. That translates to a very long staircase down and a very long staircase up -- nature's own StairMaster.

I tried an English specialty for lunch at the pub -- a jacket potato (mine had garlic and mushrooms). Then we explored the remains of Corfe Castle, reverting back to our five-year old selves running around the castle ruins. We took one last coastal hike along Chesil Beach before bus took us home to London. I walked into my flat exhausted, sore and sandy (especially my feet).

After a good night's sleep, I woke up Sunday for another day of exploring England's southern countryside with my uncle and his London friends. We drove about two hours before reaching the town of Chichester. After stopping for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- we toured the Chichester Cathedral.

Next, we stopped at Arundel Castle for a quick look around, which turned into an afternoon of wide eyes and lots of antique furniture. The oldest medieval parts of the castle are almost 1,000 years old. The newer additions house the current Duke of Arundel and his family during the winter months (when the estate is closed to the public). The castle design resembles Windsor Castle and the inside resembles a life-size doll house. The furniture collection comes from all thousand years of the castle's existence and from across the globe. Ornate carved chests, silver pieces and portraits fill the rooms. My favorite room was the library, rich with dark wood, red velvet curtains, plushes couches and books on every wall.

We made one more stop for tea -- because that's what you do in England -- and we drove back to London. One lesson I learned from the day: if you are going to marry rich, find someone who is going to inherit a castle.