Thursday, July 21, 2011

July 10th & 11th – Heidelberg

Heidelberg is renowned for being the most touristy town in Germany, and it certainly lived up to its promise – it was chockabloc with tourists from America, Britain, Spain, Japan, and virtually every nation apart from Germany (our German friends tell us they avoid it).

But, when you see its beautiful setting alongside the river Neckar, the ruined castle perched high on a hill overlooking the baroque town below it, you can see why so many people are attracted here – if you can zone out the hordes of other tourists, it's a lovely place.

Our campsite was in a beautiful location about 10 kms upriver – we were parked right on the river bank and felt slightly like zoo exhibits as the river boat cruises crept past, and the passengers got their binoculars out to have a good look at the strange campervanners.

In Heidelberg, because we were already hot and sweaty after our cycle in, we decided we'd save money on the funicular up to the schloss, by walking up instead. So, we virtually crawled at snail pace up the incredibly steep hill, and once we'd arrived at the very top, we were told that our entrance ticket would have included the price of the funicular anyway! We tried not to allow this annoyance to spoil the spectacular views over the historic town below us, and then we ventured into the castle. After pausing for the obligatory photostop next to the world's largest wine barrel (easily bigger than a double decker bus), we explored the huge complex of evocative red sandstone ruined buildings.

Having feasted our eyes for long enough, it was time to go back down into town again – obviously now that we knew that we'd paid for the funicular trip already, there was no debate about whether we should be healthy and walk, or be lazy and get the funicular.

The reason that the castle was ruined, was that it was attacked and virtually destroyed by the bothersome French in the 17th century, who also laid waste to most of the town – hence the fact that most of the buildings and churches in town were built in baroque style. We walked up its main street (reputedly the longest pedestrianised street in the world – I'm sure that in my lectures on Copenhagen, I say that they have the longest pedestrainised street in the world, but who cares?), with a constant accompaniment of fellow tourists. After quite a while of being in small, fairly untouristy towns, it felt a little strange to be with so many other travellers, but I suppose it's good preparation for our upcoming Baltic cruise in August.

So – the verdict on Heidelberg; undoubtedly beautiful, but if I came again, I'd probably come in May or September, not July.

Monday, July 11, 2011

July 8th & 9th – Pretzel Festival in Speyer

3 facts about Speyer:

1. This is apparently the birthplace of the Pretzel.
2. This is the place where the term "Protestant" was first used.
3. Anyone of Jewish extraction called Shapiro, was probably originally from Speyer

We really liked Speyer (pronounced "spire" in German) – it's pretty (no destruction during the war), it's a manageable size (50,000 population), it's lively (on a sunny Saturday it has a great café culture), and it's got an interesting history (back in the Middle Ages it was an important Imperial capital on the Rhine with a thriving Jewish community).

After having an obligatory pretzel, we climbed up a medieval tower for some good views of the chocolate box town centre below us, then had a look around the magnificent Romanesque cathedral that houses the tombs of 5 Holy Roman Emperors. It's amazing to think that when the cathedral was built, it was the largest church in the western world – considering that the gothic arch hadn't been invented yet, it's enormously tall.

We then had a look around the remains of the medieval synagogue, with a well preserved subterranean mikvah (the pool for ablutions before worship), which was all that remains of the once-powerful Jewish community here. In the 1550s the Jews were hounded out of the city by frequent pograms, and although a new Jewish community established themselves here in the 19th century, most of them were eventually sent to Auschwitz after their synagogue had been burned to the ground by the Nazis on Kristallnacht.

On a happier note, it turned out that the home of the pretzel (confusingly named "bretzel" in Germany), was having a festival to celebrate the bretzel – Bretzelfest, which involved a huge funfair and lots of bands playing in the fairgrounds. So, with the sounds of 70s rock echoing across the campsite, we ventured into town to see what was going on.

Bretzelfest was excellent – loads of food stalls (with curiously enough, bretzels seeming to be the one foodstuff not on sale), lots of bars, tons of rides, and a really good atmosphere. As we sized up the different bands, we settled on one called "Bangers & Mash" playing a good mix of 80s hits – the tunes were good, the beer was flowing and the people watching was excellent.

This has turned out to be our favourite place so far.

July 7th – Taking the Waters in Baden Baden

In Britain, Baden Baden's most famous because this is where the WAGs (Wives And Girlfriends) stayed during the 2006 World Cup. While their HABs were doing so badly on the pitch, they were having a great time in the designer boutiques, exclusive casinos and luxury spas of this supremely wealthy town.

The whole place just smells of money, as do the rich holidaymakers who are busily finding ways to spend their hard earned (or maybe ill-gotten) wealth. We saw lots of Arab ladies peering out behind their burkhas, lots of Russian families (apparently they're buying up most of the property in town), plus lots of old moneyed types carrying their little dogs around.

After a long 15 km cycle ride in, we arrived caked with sweat, so we didn't quite fit in with the beautifully turned out rich and famous around us. You have to have a jacket and tie to get into the casino to see the high rollers, while we were in scruffy shorts and t-shirts. So, instead of having a slap up lunch in the rows of expensive restaurants, we found a nice kebab shop in a side street to have a designer falafel and pitta sandwich.

We wandered around pretending we were rich, but we decided that it wasn't worth us forking out €29 euros on a spa pampering session when we were going to have to climb back on the bikes and cycle another 15km back. As it turned out, we were to get wet anyway, as 5 minutes into our trip the heavens opened and over the next hour we got progressively soaked to the very skin.

One thing about cycling in torrential rain is that it makes you ride quickly, so we sped along the cycle paths at top speed – in fact, it turned out to be quite an exhilarating and energising experience rather than miserable. I think we're almost ready for the Tour de France.

July 4th to 6th – Palace Hopping in Ratstatt

We found a very nice grassy site a few kilometres just outside Ratstatt, which seemed a good base for visiting both Ratstatt and Baden Baden. It was a lovely site with friendly staff, but the only annoyance was a bizarre rule that you can only put your rubbish in the locked away dustbins between 9 and 9.30am, and 5.30 and 6pm. How could this make any sense to them? Why do these German sites invent such ridiculous rules?

Anyway, we cycled into town to see Ratstatt's 18th century schloss – a sumptuous baroque "mini Versailles", colourfully painted in a jaunty bright peach shade. The out buildings of the palace feature a war museum full of weaponry, medals and uniforms that frustratingly had no signs in English, although the curator was keen to show us the death mask of Napoleon which he proudly told us is one of only 3 in the world. Having gone to such efforts to show us it, we did our best to look like we were incredibly impressed.

The palace was built by the Margrave Ludwig, who gained fame by defeating the Turks in a series of battles in Eastern Europe in the 1690s, in a time when it felt like the Turks were going to take over Europe.

The treasures that Ludwig looted from the Turks financed this slightly over-the-top palace, and he made sure that there were life-size statues of exotic-looking, but glum Turkish prisoners in chains, looking down forlornly from the walls of the otherwise cheerful banquet hall. He made sure everyone knew how successful a general he was.

After his death, Ludwig's grieving widow, the Margravine Augusta, built herself another new opulent palace in the countryside about 5km away, the slightly more modest Schloss Favorit, and she filled it with hugely expensive porcelain and crystal. Neither of our guided visits to the palaces were available in English – the first, of Ratstatt's Schloss was in German so we gleaned virtually nothing from our guide; so at Schloss Favorit we opted for French, and surprised ourselves at how much we understood. Our enthusiastic guide was keen for us to understand as much as possible, and kept directing her narration at us in particular, so we had to perfect the art of nodding sagely like we were getting every word of it, rather than the one word in five that we actually understood.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

July 3rd – Having a Rest in Karlsruhe

Karlsruhe appears to be a very pleasant place to live. There's some industry on the outskirts, but the centre of town has a very comfortable, relaxed atmosphere.

The town was built in the early 18th century by the Margrave Karl – the town literally means "Karl's Rest" – apparently he wanted to build a home away from his nagging wife, so he and his mistresses could enjoy themselves in peace. I'm not sure how much actual resting he was planning to do here.

So, Karl built himself a huge palace, which was to be at the centre of the town, and its streets radiated out from the schloss like a fan. Unfortunately his splendid pleasure palace was left a burnt out shell after the bombs of the Second World War, but the outside has been totally restored since the war. We visited the museums in the re-built schloss, and although they didn't spend much money on the modern interiors, the views from the tower were magnificent. From up here, you could see the shape of the carefully planned city below you, and also see how many parks and green areas there were.

The city looked just as nice from the ground level too - this is as close as Tracy has got on this trip to uttering the words, "I could live here".

July 2nd – Ettlingen

No, we hadn't heard of Ettlingen either, and it's not in the guidebooks. Our reason for coming here was that it was close to Karlsruhe and had a stellplatz (glorified car park) where you could stay for free, and just put a Euro in the meter for 8 hours of electricity.

There's not much to Ettlingen, but it has a nice pedestrianised centre and a lovely open-air swimming baths just across from our stellplatz. So, rather than have a shower in the van, we went to the experience whirlpools, slides, pools and jets, and got to watch the awkward mating rituals of the youth of the town.

As we had no accommodation costs, we thought we'd go out and see what Saturday night in Ettlingen entails – as it turns out, not a lot. We had a nice evening of people watching in the main square, but come 10.30pm it appears everyone heads to bed, so it was back to our luxurious car park for us.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

June 29th- July 1st – Marmite Disaster Averted in Stuttgart

So we've now arrived in what is reputedly the richest city in Germany, and probably Europe – Stuttgart. This is a real engineering powerhouse, being home to Mercedes, Porsche and Bosche amongst others, but once you're in the green city centre, it doesn't feel industrial at all.

Obviously, all this industry attracted the allied bombers in the Second World War, but much of the monumental architecture managed to survive or has been re-built, although the shopping streets have a similar concrete feel to many British town centres.

My mission here was two-fold – 1. Get a haircut; 2. Find some marmite. It's been almost 3 months since my last haircut and I've been looking increasingly shaggy and unkempty; however, the thought of asking for my "style" in a language I don't speak has been filling me with dread, so I keep putting it off. But, Tracy has now had enough of walking around with the Fifth Beatle, so she dragged me kicking and screaming into a hairdressers.

The price I was quoted was at least twice what I'd pay at home, but the fact that the nice young lady spoke perfect English meant that I'd pretty much pay any price she said. Half way through I did have a cut that was uncannily like Adolf Hitler's, but in the end, she did a pretty good job (even if I do say so myself).

Next we headed to "The English Shop", where my prayers were answered and they had marmite – again twice as expensive as the UK, but again, I'd have paid any price.

After these triumphs, I didn't care what Stuttgart was like, but it was a nice enough place without a great number of sights – the best was the art gallery, which was a good place to escape the ever-present rain which has been dogging this trip.

June 28th – Steeplechased in Ulm

Having had countless failures in Bavaria to find lunches that satisfy both a marmite-loving bread eater and a non-meat eating health freak, we decided to take a picnic into town for our exploration of Ulm, in the state of Baden-Wurttemberg. So, imagine our annoyance to finally find a place with an enormous choice of fabulous-looking cafes and restaurants serving exactly what we would have loved to eat. Never mind, we had a nice picnic in the sun by the Danube.

The centre of Ulm was pretty much devastated in the Second World War, but it's been re-built quite nicely, even if most of the new buildings don't have much character – however, there is plenty of character to savour in the beautiful historic fisherman's district down by the river. A lovely place to stop in one of the riverside cafes, if only you hadn't brought a picnic with you!

Fortunately one city centre building that did survive the bombing is the enormous Ulm Dom, the city's cathedral. The Dom boasts the tallest steeple in the world – 168 metres high, and a dizzying 762 steps up to the top of it. From ground level it looks pretty tall, but not that tall, so we thought we'd breeze up to the top. However, by the time we'd panted our way up to about halfway up, it wasn't a breeze that was blowing outside, but a full blown gale, howling through the filigree stonework.

The filigree looks nice from below, but when you're 400 steps up (with crucially, another 362 more to go), getting buffeted by the wind and with a fairly clear view straight through the open stonework down to the tiny square below you, you tend to get worried. Tracy was energetically leading the way, bounding her way up the stairs, gleefully counting out the number of steps, "100", "200", "300". By the time she got to "400", our progress was much, much slower and her count much less self-assured. It wasn't that we were getting tired, we were getting petrified.

But, as long as she kept going, I was never going to admit that I was now beginning to feel slightly sick with fear – neither of us had ever experienced vertigo before, so this wasn't the time to start. Imagine my joy, when she just sat down on step 402 and said she couldn't go on any further. I pretended to be disappointed, but with the wind getting stronger, if it was this scary just over half way up, how scary would it be roughly the same height up again. I really cannot imagine how the builders managed it.

So, we both trudged back down despondently feeling like total failures – has age caught up with us?

June 27th – Meeting the Fuggers in Augsburg

Augsberg doesn't have a campsite in town, so we stayed in a stellplatz by the side of the river. For a car park on the side of the road it was in a nice riverside location, although it did seem to attract quite a lot of people to sit by the river getting slowly drunk and singing ever louder songs into the night. Thankfully, once it got really dark the drunks moved on to sing elsewhere, so we had a quiet night's sleep.

Anyway, Augsburg's a really attractive town, full of grand renaissance buildings built in the days when this was once one of the financial capitals of Europe. An evocatively-named family called the Fuggers became massively rich lending to the great and good of Europe in the late middle ages, and they endowed their town with lots of splendid architecture for us to explore.

Unfortunately, in the 20th century, Augsburg was also the home to the Messerschmitt factories, which led to the city being pretty badly bombed in the Second World War; but the place seems to have bounced back pretty strongly, and nowadays it seems a fairly relaxed and prosperous town.

Aside from visiting an interesting art gallery in an amazingly ornate rococo palace, my chief mission was to find the town's international shop, because I have run into a culinary disaster – I have run out of marmite, which means that lunch will soon cease to be enjoyable to me. The excitement mounted when we finally found the shop after much searching, only for my hopes to be dashed when they said they'd run out of this ambrosia of the gods.

I fear that this trip around Germany may turn into a fruitless search for the Holy Grail that is marmite.

June 26th – Neuschwanstein's Fairy Tale Castle

Now was the time to see Mad King Ludwig's fantastical piece de resistance, the castle that really put the "Mad" into his unfortunate nickname - the amazing Schloss Neuschwanstein. This is probably the most famous castle in the world, inspiring Walt Disney amongst many others; and when you see this Gothic fantasy from a distance, with its turrets, towers and mountainside location looking like something from a fairy tale or film rather than a real building, it comes as no surprise that he employed a set designer rather than an architect, to design this amazing architectural indulgence.

The whole thing looks too good to be true, and this is the ultimate expression of the 19th century monarch's restless desire to go back to a more romantic time, when Kings ruled without questioning from their forbidding Gothic castles, rather than having to do what they were told to do by politicians.

The more you find out about Ludwig, the more he seems like a 19th century Michael Jackson. Both were creative but frustrated personalities that never really fitted into their worlds; both had endured difficult relationships with domineering fathers; both had childlike tendencies that needed to be indulged; both loved fairy tales – Neuschwanstein was Ludwig's Neverland; both were loners who probably had doubts about their sexuality; and both sadly died unfulfilled, alone, and penniless in their forties in mysterious circumstances.

Anyway, the setting in the mountains was spectacular (it's a long, steep 30-minute walk uphill from the ticket office), and the tour of the amazing rooms gave an excellent insight into the obsessions and preoccupations of this tortured but creative soul.

June 25th – Oberammergau and Linderhof

We ventured up into the Bavarian mountains again, to stay at the little village of Oberammergau. This mountain village is obviously world famous for the Passion Plays that happen here every 10 years (the last one was in 2010), but our purpose of coming here was to visit the nearby Schloss Linderhof – another fabulously over-the-top construction of Mad King Ludwig of Bavaria.

When I say "nearby", it looks nearby on a map, but if you foolishly decide to cycle from Oberammergau to Linderhof, you painfully find out that it's a long 15km endurance ride up the steep valley that would kill off anyone less fit than Lance Armstrong. Somehow we made it up there, but we were feeling pretty jittery by the time we lurched off our bikes and shakily staggered up to the castle.

Linderhof is probably the most human in scale, and definitely the least over-the-top of Ludwig's three castles, but it shares many of the slightly psychotic elements of the other two. Like them, it's an unfinished, forlorn testament to a troubled soul – Ludwig loved having grand designs, but it turned out that he didn't have the tenacity, the funds, or sadly the life-span either, to fulfil any of his architectural dreams.

Although it's smaller in scale than the Herrenschloss or Neuschwanstein, the level of opulence in the rooms that were completed was unbelievable – beds, tables, walls and ceilings covered in glittering gold and crowded with shining cherubs smiling down on the unhappy king. To give you some idea of his state of mind, his dining room had a table that lifted up from the floor below on a complex hydraulic lift, so that his evening banquet for one could magically appear in front of him, which meant that he wouldn't have to be bothered by actually interacting with anyone else.

Actually, Ludwig didn't shun company altogether, it's just that he got obsessed with certain individuals to the exclusion of everything else. His biggest passion was for the composer Richard Wagner, and he even went to the lengths of constructing an enormous man-made cave, complete with concrete stalactites and an eerily illuminated lake for private performances of Wagner's romantic operas. Utterly ridiculous, but wonderful to see – although the pathos was added to when we were told that Wagner never came to see the concrete cathedral of opera that was constructed especially for him.

Fortunately, after our tour, it was literally downhill all the way from here, so we virtually freewheeled all the way back to Oberamagau to have a look around. If it weren't for the hype associated with the Passion Plays, this would just be a quaint, unremarkable little historic village – but with the presence of the Passion Plays, this is now a tourist mecca full of cafes, restaurants and souvenir shops. Yet somehow, inspite of the daily tourist deluge, people here don't yet seem jaded with all the foreigners, and the place retained a friendly, folksy atmosphere – maybe it's just early in the season.