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!

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