In the spring of 1990 our first trip to Europe started in Vienna. This city of Baroque and Romantic composers was a pristine tourist attraction with beauty at each step. We walked from early morning to late at night enjoying sights and sounds. People speaking a wide variety of the world’s languages all meandering narrow streets. After a brief sprinkling of rain, shopkeepers were on their knees with a bucket of soapy water and a brush in hand scrubbing the almost invisible splashed water marked sides of brick walls. Churches, colorful buildings and good food were among the items that also attracted attention as Al and Ruthie McLeod, Dwayne and I experienced this beautiful city. After a few days we received a message from Heather, Al and Ruthie's daughter, who told us the border had just opened to general tourism and because we were so close we must go Prague. So, with train tickets in hand off we went. Upon reaching the border of Austria and Czechoslovakia the guards came through the “carriages” (interesting name for what we call train cars, perhaps the name contributed to my feeling of being a felt a touring “infant.”) The guards were not quite sure what to do with us and our American passports. Being among the first western tourists into this formerly closed country probably contributed to their confusion. As we entered Prague the contrast with Vienna was dramatic. The city was quiet, few visitors and "gray" soviet buildings and energy throughout. Accommodations for tourists and dining opportunities were sparse. We walked the almost empty streets and even had a private tour to the Castle in the evening. We were the only tourists on Castle grounds that night.
Now, 24 years after our first visit in 1990, we see a transformed Prague. Following 7 or 8 miles of daily walking from morning till night, I became aware of what tourism and western culture does to a city. Sounds of the world’s languages, and a beggar bowing before an empty hat are just a few of the many sights and sounds of this vibrant city today. Many people walking among historic brightly painted buildings as well as McDonalds, Starbucks, and Subway. An avenue to rival California's Rodeo Drive for expensive shops, and many classy hotels, including the “Big” Hilton where we had a four star room, were also part of the landscape. Heading west from Prague for Nuremburg included a long bus ride through the Czech Republic and German countryside. What takes a car 2 hours with the unlimited speed limits on the Autobahn, too our bus 4. However, the slower pace allowed wonderful views of the countryside. We pass a boarder check point no longer used as travel between EU countries is no longer regulated. The ever-present golden arches are along our road. Rapeseed, in full golden bloom, is used for canola oil and a mandatory additive for gasoline. Interesting that an element of something so beautiful when in bloom later provides both the convenience of travel and it's accompanying pollution.
Today a child kicks a ball with his father on the same parade grounds. Yellow lines mark the spaces where formulae cars line up for an annual race. Groups of youth play roller hockey where tanks once rumbled. And if you look closely above the playing child and group of youths, you will see a cluster of people, including one in red, standing on the podium from which Hitler uttered his poison. In Germany today one will be arrested and fined for giving the Nazi salute. Denying the existence of the Holocaust are grounds for losing your job. Our German guides made it very clear we must never forget the horror of Hitler so that it is never repeated. Bamberg is another beautiful city on seven hills with canals and rivers bisecting its crooked lanes. Our walk takes us by a City Hall built on a tiny island in the middle of the Regnitz River. Built there because the politically powerful Church owned all city land and prohibited building on city land. So the ingenious city fathers built on the island. Not to be missed on this city hall is the three dimensional mural, love the leg. Higher on one of the hills we entered the magnificent 11th century cathedral for part of a mass. Hearing the mass spoken in Latin and the congregation singing hymns in German in this setting was inspiring, and this from a “non-believer”.
Most of our city walks occur over cobble-stoned streets and sidewalks. As we walk through the “Jewish Quarter” we’re told of the 80,000 who built their lives here before the dark period of WWII. Hitler’s henchmen removed them to various unspeakable futures and only 8 returned after the war. This day we encounter a new way those who disappeared are memorialized; a brass tile the size of a cobblestone with each family member’s name is laid in front of the homes where they once resided. It caused me to ponder such human sacrifice. This is hard to get my mind around. Massive stone walls surround half-timbered houses with red roofs, more cobblestone streets and a house that remains originally furnished as it was built in 1270...ARE YOU KIDDING ME... yes, really. It includes a wooden carved bathtub used sparingly because of the dangers of bathing and tiny rooms where children slept 2 or 3 to a bed as most families had 12-15 children. This intriguing house was spared when allied bombs destroyed 40% of Rothenburg. Fortunately all has been rebuilt as my wife, Dwayne, commented, “…it is like walking into a story book.”
A Christmas market that has occurred the past 500 years adds a festive spirit year round as several stores specialize in selling only items for this season. The highlight of my visit was a long stroll through Kathe Wohlfahrts Christmas Village. I saw through eyes of my young childhood and delighted to beautiful trees, stuffed animals, lights on all colors and areas where only white lights shown. In Rothenburg the baker’s baptismal chair was used to dunk those bakers who did not provide the required weight for a dozen rolls. In order to avoid dunking, bakers began adding a 13th roll.... hence “Bakers Dozen” was born. Europe was settled 2000 years before Christ. On our bus ride to Heidelberg we pass through an area not settled until 700 BC, partially because of the belief that evil spirits lived in this isolated forest. Currently the forest is not only beautiful, but supplies warmth during the October through May frost months. The wood is a heat source returned to after many years of raising energy prices and is regulated for “clean” burning. A system must be measured and approved so that it meets the standard of 94% clean fuel, achieved with special filters and the type of wood that is burned. For each tree that is cut two are planted, thus supplying sustainable clean energy. Clean air is a high priority for Germany. Specific areas that meet requirements are identified as “clean air” zones and those with breathing problems are sent on “health retreats” for 3-6 weeks to these areas. During the time they are engaged in a strict program as it is not considered a holiday. Insurance covers the costs of all medical needs in Germany with the exception of medical “wants” such as breast implants or other types of cosmetic surgery. 15% of a person’s salary is deducted for health insurance and the employer matches this amount. The guide reported this single payer system is very satisfactory.
HEIDELBERG, one of Germany’s oldest cities, was settled beginning in 1196 when six villages were begun by the Franconians. Mark Twain spent three months in this romantic setting in 1878, and commented on many aspects of his experience, even writing a book about it; “A Tourist Guide to Heidelberg.” In 1385, the first university in Germany and second in Europe was founded with 4 students. Enrollment remained between 4 to 8 each year until a significant influx in the 1850’s. Currently of the city’s 140,000 population, 30,000 are students. The student prison is one of the more interesting aspects of the university. Minor infractions, such as excessive rowdiness, led to spending a minimum of two days while more serious offenses, peeing in the professor’s coffee, meant a longer stay. There was status confirmed on the imprisoned student and the opportunity to immortalize oneself via poetry and painting on the ceilings and walls For 250 years much of Europe believed water was deadly, so baths, brushing teeth, and washing clothes were not regular activities. Frederic the 5th fell in love at first sight with his arranged marriage partner Elisabeth Stewart, the daughter of Mary, Queen of Scots. One of the major elements of her beauty was the presence of teeth. Yes, it was rare for people beyond their teen years to have a full set of teeth. He dedicated much of his life to win the love of this young maiden including major building projects at the Heidelberg Castle, aka Schloos Castle.
The guards of the SCHLOSS CASTLE, where Fredric and Elisabeth resided, lived in towers for 6-8 months at a time. You might notice the Fresco depicting the guard has a large, grapefruit size, bulge between his legs. Large male reproductive organs were believed to indicate strength and the statues reflecting this belief were used to intimidate enemies. The Castle was abandoned 300 years ago but is still the home of the world’s largest wine barrel that once held over 50,000 gallons of wine. An earlier Frederic believed, and often repeated, “Life is a Bore”. He added that there were three things that made it tolerable, “wine, women and song.” When asked which he would do without he responded “song”. And if required to give up women or wine, he responded, “It depends on the vintage”. An earlier Frederic believed, and often repeated, “Life is a Bore”. He added that there were three things that made it tolerable, “wine, women and song.” When asked which he would do without he responded “song”. And if required to give up women or wine, he responded, “It depends on the vintage”. The GRAPE GROWING REGION of Germany and the many rolling hills and charming valleys are covered with vineyards where grapes have been grown for 900 years. The Vineyards, many on steep hills, are often planted in vertical rows. This enables easier movement by the EU supported labor from Poland. Among the vineyards are breathtaking countrysides with rolling hills and vast farmlands unbroken by homes. Small villages exist in the clefts of the hills - a residual of the need in the Middle Ages to gather in groups for protection. There was some safety in numbers.
MAINZ is another 2000-year-old city with the distinction of being the home of the Gutenberg Museum. Johannes Gutenberg (1395-1468) changed the world with the invention of the printing press. In fact, an issue of Time magazine recognized him as the man of the 15th century. An interesting aspect of the printing press process is that type was held in a large case, with letters used most often in the lower part of the case and those used less often in the upper case, hence lower case and upper case designations for our fonts. A walk through the small village of Rudesheim ends our busy day.
On the “sun” deck in the fog at 7:30 am to slowly float by beautiful small villages with protective castles above them along the middle Rhine and Moselle Rivers. The “robber barons” used these castles to monitor traffic along the river. Upon seeing activity approaching their section of the river, “robbers” would stop merchants and other travelers to collect exorbitant fees. Townspeople also paid for protection from the knights/armies/men of the castle. On a precipitous rock high above Cochem sits the extraordinary Imperial Reichsburg Castle. Built more than 1,000 years ago, the multi-spire fairy tale like setting provides stunning views of the village nestled in the Moselle Valley with its forests, meadows, fields and vineyards.
Our morning walk through Bernkastel, a very small 700-year-old village of half-timbered buildings and tiny “walking only” streets, took us to three delightful bakery stops. Pastries were definitely a repeatable part of our trip! The cemetery with its unique headstones offered a contemplative visit. One grave marked a life that ended in 1868, another as current as last year.
Trier is the oldest city in Germany. Founded by Roman Emperor Augustus around 16 BC, the oldest Roman ruins outside of Rome exist here. Imagine going to the new amphitheatre in 100 AD with 20,000 of your fellow countrymen. Or you might imagine playing in the cobblestone streets with a young Karl Marx, born here in 1818. Finally, maybe you will meet your spiritual needs by attending the oldest Christian Church in Germany and followed by a visit to Germany’s first pharmacy for your medical needs. Or you can imagine you are there today watching life unfold in the streets.
What words can express the experience of viewing names of 371 WWII American soldiers who are “Missing in Action”? The remains of these men who fought and died for the world’s freedom were never found and rest somewhere in unknown graves. And how can the emotions experienced when viewing over 5,000 marked graves spread across acres of lawn in Luxembourg, France be written about? Finally, the admiration for the leadership of General George Patton is felt as I stand before his grave that overlooks the area where his soldiers are buried. Paris, THE CITY OF LIGHT was our next stop. Read about our experiences there on the Paris Page.