Saturday, July 22, 2006

Jessica & Nick in Germany 7.2.06

Early Sunday morning, the 2nd of July we left Verona, packed to the gills with our stuff and Jessica & Nick's luggage, to spend our week in Cologne at our friend's wedding. Poor kids, they were crammed in the back seat with the things that didn't fit in the trunk while I sat with bags of stuff under my feet in the front seat. We own a small car, a Toyota Yaris and I do mean small. On purpose really, we did not want or need anything larger but it is a challenge when our guests and their luggage must be transported from one place to another. And especially so, when we also must bring some things for a few days on the road. The wedding made this even more complicated because we also had to bring the sorts of things we don't normally travel with like fancy dresses and suit jackets! We managed well enough and stopped several times along the route just to get out and stretch our legs. Nick, at around 6'3" had the hardest time I'm sure and did not complain about being folded up like a pretzel, although it was obvious he enjoyed the breaks.

Our plan was to spend the night along the Romantic Road in Bavaria that we remembered from our last visit to Germany, in a charming little town called Dinkelsbuhl. It was along the way to Köln, a little past the mid-point so it seemed a good place to pause for the night. Along the way we made a stop in Dacchau for Nick to see the former concentration camp and museum there, not exactly a cheerful way to introduce Germany but one of historic importance and significance. They have expanded the museum since we were there 12 years ago and there is much to read and listen to about this tragic and horrific time period and it makes quite an impression to see the photos and read the stories of the people who died there.

We all enjoyed Dinkelsbuhl and Jessica said she kept expecting to see the seven dwarfs and Sleeping Beauty's house any minute; it was all so cute and perfectly charming. The bed and breakfast we stayed in was great, affordable, very comfortable and right in the heart of town. It was called the Hotel Palmengarten Garni and we had found it on the Internet. Their breakfast was great, plentiful with fruit, yoghurt, cereal, an assortment of breads, cakes and rolls, meats and cheeses - Bob and I even had soft-boiled eggs - unheard of in an Italian B&B!

After walking around the town in the morning light, we continued on and stopped for a few hours in Rothenburg ob der Tauber, another charming, medieval, slightly larger walled city in Bavaria. Lovely, lovely, it was busier than we remembered but this is July and we were there in May, shoulder season in those days and less crowded. Still it retains its charm with all the gothic cathedrals and gabled houses, flowers and gardens blooming in profusion everywhere and spotlessly clean.

It had been our plan to drive along the Romantic Road (the Romantische Strasse) as I remembered how idyllic the views were on this charming stretch of road. It has either changed through the years, with more businesses and less bucolic countryside than I remembered or the better part of this road is further south, which I suspect to be partly the case.

Changes are everywhere noticeable throughout Europe I suspect and we noticed more and bigger supermarkets, more shopping malls, more commercialism than we remembered. But, there are still many lovely country roads in Germany where, I suspect, billboards and advertising are not allowed and farms large and small dominate the landscape, dotted now and then with country houses and little towns.

With the excitement of the World Cup, the German flag was flying everywhere and we heard and read in news reports that it once again seems OK for the German people to feel nationalistic pride without having to apologize for it. I found this to be the case also with some of the young Germans we spoke with who had no problem criticizing what the United States is doing and to condemn us for our behavior. Most were kind and friendly and we shared with them our distress at the direction our government is taking our country. We talked with a young couple, the husband German, the wife Iranian and heard the story of how humiliated she felt having to be fingerprinted when entering the United States and we apologized, despising the fact that our government is making our friends feel like criminals. Others said they loved America and enjoyed their visits to our cities. Another told me she could not come to America now because of George Bush and the activities of our government and that the people we elected must, she felt, reflect the American people. I defended the 50 or more percent of us who tried as hard as we could NOT to see this man re-elected for naught. I had to bite my tongue to not respond by reminding her of the not so glowing history of her own country but that seemed ancient history now while these are the events of today, shockingly and embarrassing so.

It was very thrilling to be in Germany with all the excitement of the World Cup. Everywhere people were wrapped in the flags of their countries - Italians were there as well and the French and Portuguese, as this was the last week of the games and there was a fever in the air that was palpable. Everywhere there were giant screen TVs, every bar and restaurant had one or more. The weather was warm, everyone was sitting at outdoor cafes until late in the night watching the games, drinking beer (the beer glasses are giant in Germany!) and cheering their teams.

We toured many of the beautiful old churches in Köln, including of course the famous Dom Cathedral, whose foundation stone was laid in the year 1248. It was then built and changed and added to throughout the next few hundred years and finally completed in the 1800s, according to the original gothic designs. It's a masterpiece of elaborately decorated pinnacles with buttresses, gothic figures and gargoyles and its stained glass windows and floor mosaics are among the most spectacular as we have seen anywhere. We climbed the over 500 steps to the top of the bell tower for a terrific bird's eye view of Köln, the Rhine River and its bridges.

We particularly enjoyed the church of St. Gereon, with sections of it that date from Roman times. The oldest part of it is oval in shape and was built in the 4th century over the graves of early martyrs, and legend has it that it was founded by St. Helen. It was close to our hotel and we had a perfect view of it from our 4th floor skylight windows and we found it to be impressively handsome. I read that its dome is one of the largest in the world. As with so many of these German churches, it was bombed and had to be rebuilt. They stayed meticulously close to the original designs with the exception of the stained glass windows and the contrast of the ancient stones and marble patterns to the more modern art adaptations of the windows, some quite abstract, is stunning and remarkable.

Köln (Cologne) has Roman origins and there are Roman ruins scattered throughout the city. The name of the emperor Charlemagne is attached to its history and they are proud to say that they have 12 Romanesque churches. From the year 1388 there has been a university here. Not wanting to "church-out" Nick we visited a few of the more ancient ones, most of which suffered damage during WWII and had to be rebuilt and restored after the war. There is still restoration work going in many places we visited in Germany, so it is not only Italy that is undergoing repair of its old buildings.

We also visited the city of Aachen by train from Cologne, and learned that when Charlemagne was crowned emperor in the year 800, Aachen became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire. It is here that his bones rest, in the center of the old town, in a complex of building called "Pfalz", some of which belonged to his former palace here, in a lavish shrine on display in the presbytery. The architecture and design of this cathedral is stunning. We especially enjoyed seeing the massive copper candelabra, a gift from Emperor Frederick I, the bronze doors, the marble details, stained glass windows and the pulpit made of gold-plated copper inlaid with precious stones, a gift of Heinrich II in the year 1014!

We found the old center (zentrum in German) of Aachen charming and we ate lunch at one of the outdoor cafés, just steps away from the cathedral and wandered around. Since we had taken the train, this also gave Bob a chance to take a break from his driving and relax during the ride back to Köln.

We met Vincent, Andrea's fiancé, for the first time when we arrived in Köln on Monday evening and he and Andrea turned over the key to our hotel rooms. More like an apartment, the Statt Hotel in Cologne is an interesting, narrow old building that has been recently restored as a hotel. One apartment wide, it unfortunately was a walk up the 4 (5?) flights of stairs (not to mention the spiral staircase from the bedroom and bathroom, where Jess & Nick slept, up to the living room where Bob and I slept on the sofa bed) and the kitchen. But the views were worth the climb and we had a pretty good although partially obstructed view of the Dom Cathedral out the huge gothic window and small balcony. It was a very convenient spot from which to explore Cologne, being right in the center and it was surrounded by many bars and cafes. We even found a little place that made bagels when Bob and I slipped out early one morning while Jess & Nick slept in. We haven't eaten a bagel in over a year and it was wonderful. As were all the baked goods everywhere we went in Germany. We ate breads and rolls and pretzels that made our mouths water just looking at them! (I'm sorry to say that so far we have not found really great bread in Verona but we will keep trying.) Fortunately (or unfortunately!) I was trying not to over do it so I would still fit in my dress come the wedding day on Friday!

It was quite a shock to arrive in Germany and realize that most Germans do not, contrary to what our Italian friends think, speak English fluently! Many do not speak any English at all. It was always an adventure going into a restaurant in some places (not so much in Cologne, as there were dual languages on the menus) and not understand a word and not know at all what to order!

The strangest experience was stopping in Limburg for dinner, just before we arrived in Cologne. We were getting tired and didn't want to wait until Cologne to eat and simply exited at the next city we came to. Bob described Limburg as a sort of Bavarian Mr. Toad's Wild Ride, because of the haphazard feeling of many of the original half-timbered houses that date from the end of the 13th century and look as if they might collapse on themselves at any minute. The narrow, zigzag layout of the streets added to the feeling of confusion but we wanted to see the cathedral, which dominates the city's skyline from the highway. It was closed when we arrived unfortunately and we went in search of a place to eat. We found a tiny restaurant with a small outdoor terrace that looked charming and cool, under a leafy canopy and decided to give it a try. The bad part of it was there seemed to be only 4 things on the menu, no one spoke English to help in translating and we had no idea what to order! It's our own fault, not theirs that we do not speak German. We felt bad about that. About not even studying some basic language beyond Guten Tag and counting to 3 but with our emphasis on learning Italian we just couldn't get our brains around German! And as much as the Italians have talked about how the Germans and other Europeans study English from an early age we just expected there would be more spoken which did not turn out to be our experience. Except for our friends, who speak several languages (Andrea speaks German, Hungarian, French, English, Italian and Spanish! Vincent, to my knowledge, speaks at least German and English besides his native French.)

At any rate, we decided to order one of each of the things on the menu and just sample what we expected to be some authentic German cooking. We would just pass the dishes around and sample a little of this and a little of that. How fun! The first dish that came out was a roasted Bratwurst with sauerkraut. Not so unusual. The bratwurst was very tasty even though I don't much like sauerkraut. Next came a meat dish, like Weiner schnitzel, not a weiner at all but a cutlet with some potatoes, also tasty. What came next surprised us all. It appeared to be some sort of mystery meat, pieces of it suspended in a sort of gelatin and served cold with pickled something or other on the side. No one wanted to eat this one! The last dish was some sort of fish, completely drowning in a white sauce with bits of other stuff thrown in for good measure! We were 2 for 2 we decided and Bob managed to eat the white dish while the rest of us settled for nibbling at the bratwurst and schnitzel. We left hungry, you can be sure and decided next time we had better ask if there is an English language menu before taking our seats!

The two wedding days were wonderful (I'm writing about those now), it was terrific seeing our friends and spending time with them, as difficult as it must have been for them with all the guests they had to entertain. We loved Vincent! He seems a perfect match for our "German daughter" and we immediately fell in love with him too. He is sweet, warm, friendly and intelligent. We had the opportunity to meet also his charming parents, his sister Emily and her partner David, who is from Ecuador and their friends who were traveling with them. A very international family! They live in the countryside in the south of France, and invited us to come visit some time which we hope to be able to do before we leave Verona, if possible.

(to be continued: A wedding in Köln)


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