Monday, June 20, 2016

escape from castle wolfstein

St. Michael's, Schwabisch Hall
Our way back from Strasbourg wasn’t nearly as nice as the way there. After seeing all the villages of the Alsatian countryside, we were a bit spoiled on beautiful villages, so we didn’t care much for stopping for the Bavarian roadside attractions. But rest stops were in order for the 5-hour drive, so we did decide on a couple. The first stop was going to be Schwabisch Hall—neither of us had ever heard of it, but it certainly had a fun name to say and the visit would include a huge fortified monastery—and the next was to be Neumarkt in der Oberfalz, which we had passed on several occasions, so it had a something of a “why not?” quality to visiting there. The pictures of the town looked nice enough and if our visit to Nordlingen could be a judge of Bavarian towns, then there was sure to be at least some ice cream available.

Schwabisch Hall

Schwabisch Hall is located at about the halfway point between Strasbourg and Nuremberg. For short, locals call the name Hall, giving it something of a Tolkien feel to it—though this was actually its earlier name, as the Schwabisch part wasn’t thrown on until the Nazis. Hall was built on the steep valley walls of the Kocher River in the 5th century and expanded as a salt production center. It now serves as a university town, much like the nearby city of Tubingen.

A channel off the Kocher

We parked our car on the East side of the slowly meandering river, in a garage that appeared to be a half-timbered house from the outside. The wood-roofed pedestrian bridge took us to a small island where there’s a beer garden and a scaled-down replica of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where they must do scaled-down versions of his comedies and tragedies. It’s a fantastic view from the beer garden, seeing the old stone walls holding the city above the Kocher and the houses hanging over the walls. 

On the other side of the river, there’s something of a switch back road, walled on either side by towering half-timbered houses, until at last you reach the main square with the 15th century St. Michael’s Church high up on a storm of stairs—the Freilicht Spiele, used as an outdoor theatre since 1925—and opposite and much lower, the 18th century city hall.

View from St. Michael's

The best times to visit Hall are on Whitsunday (the seventh Sunday after Easter) for the Cake and Source Festival, where some 500 people dress up in costume for the salt mine cleaning ceremonies that have been going on for some half a millennium. Then there’s the International Muzzleloader Shooting festival, which is enough to make any American-liberal-worried-overmuch-about-cultural-appropriation blush quite red in the face. At this festival, there’s a bunch of Germans who are celebrating the American Wild West by dressing up as Native Americans, sleeping in teepees, and having a musket shooting contest. This weird awesome sounding fest isn’t complete without country music bands and cowboy boots for sale.

Comburg Monastery

If you get at just the right angle from the island, you can sort of make out a castle on a hilltop up the valley. Otherwise though, you could visit Hall without even knowing there was a massive castle-monastery a 3-minute drive away. The monastery was founded back in the 1070s by the Counts of Comberg-Rothenburg on the site of their castle. The monks there were all of noble birth, the rejects of the family that didn’t fall in line with primogeniture and whose father’s thought it best that they at least become esteemed maesters of the royal families. Wait – no I’ve got my real history mixed up with my Game of Thrones again. Or vice versa. But really, that sort of thing actually happened. Making your other sons monks did have a way of settling squabbles of inheritance.

The entrance of the monastic castle

The monastery was secularized in the early 19th century and is now used as a teaching school, where they have various teachers’ conferences year round. It would certainly be pretty awesome to have a week long training conference in a castle! I’m waiting for my company to get around to doing one of those…

The outer courtyard

Neumarkt in der Oberfalz

Finally, our driving adventure brought us to Neumarkt in der Oberfalz. Despite being founded in 6th century AD, Neumarkt looked as though it were only just built. Clean streets, freshly painted and built houses, the town looked like it had recently underwent a renaissance. The streets were quiet and nicely paved with a large and busy town center. The town is mostly famous for its Nazi past—Dietrich Eckart, one of the founders of the party, was born there and one of the first local chapters of the country formed there.

the town gate from the main parking garage

The most interesting site in the town we had to miss though, since we were pretty ready to end our trip and get back to the regularly scheduled program in Prague. We could see Bergruine Wolfstein as we passed on our way back to the autobahn, its crumbling towers standing over us. The place has supposedly been pretty incredibly renovated, so I regret that we didn’t get to stop, but home was waiting.

the town square

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

a longing and south Germany

The canal of Nordlingen
It was time to get out of the house again and this time – out of the country! We both had a longing to go do a road trip across southern Germany and to Alsace. Strasbourg has long been one of my favorite French cities, so much better than the overrated Paris. In Paris one finds all sorts of things to hate about France, but in Alsace – and I imagine in the other French regions – one finds all sorts of things to fall in love with the culture. France should hold some sort of special place in my heart – I see all these American and British expats here who have Czech blood and have been pulled back to their motherlands that their parents fled during Communism. I have mostly French blood, with my ancestors having left during the Wars of Religion and other periods, but haven’t really had any sort of feeling of longing to get back; no sense of connection. That, I have for Louisiana a bit, but still, it’s not home. Home really is wherever my sweet wife is and that’s all the longing I need.

So, with our new style of stopping at various villages and towns, in this blog chapter I’ll bring to you the various places we hit in Germany on the way to Strasbourg. Next week all about Strasbourg itself. Then the villages of Alsace and finally, about our return trip. We’re talking lots of pictures of really ridiculously cute looking places, folks, so buckle your safety belts, grab a beer – it is Germany, after all – and enjoy the ride.


the main town gates
Amberg has the looks of an altogether new town with some sort of weird old town vibe to it. There’s a wall and some towers, but otherwise everything looks fresh and modern, like some sort of weird corporation-built suburb of Dallas. There are surprisingly a lot of towns like this in Germany. I’ll readily admit that if you’re in the Upper Palatinate, then you should definitely visit Regensburg first. But if you’ve been there already, Amberg isn’t a bad visit, though it’s certainly a small place by comparison.

Amberg has a history stretching back to the 11th century and was the site of a huge battle between France and Austria during the French Revolution. Fast forward to the modern era and it was notable as the home for the U.S. Army at Pond Barracks. The barracks closed after the end of the Cold War and transitioned to social housing.

the town hall
Remaining from the old days are the town hall and the Gothic church on the main market square, the walls and tower fortifications, and a fortified bridge that guarded water access into the city. Nearby is Walhalla, an exciting place that we missed. It was built by Bavarian King Ludwig, grandfather of the more famous Ludwig II, as a dedication to the heroes of Germany, starting with a bust of Arminius who defeated the Romans at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in 9 AD. There is also a Franciscan monastery on a nearby hill which was emptied out after being struck by the Bubonic Plague, and so it goes.


looking at one of the gates
I’ve seen on various tourist sites that Nordlingen rivals Rothenburg on the cuteness and fairy-tale factor. Both of these are a lie. Rothenburg is far superior in both of those forms – closer rivals are Regensburg, Bamberg, Tubingen, and Schwabisch Hall. Nordlingen also has the stench of a brand new corporation-town, besides its huge towers and wall. The place lacks the real cobblestone streets that the other towns have, and just seems too… new, despite having recently celebrated its 1100th-year anniversary. How they managed that, I can’t tell.

That’s not to say that there are no cute parts of Nordlingen. But where Rothernburg is overrun by tourists, Nordlingen seems quite incapable of having them. As we walked around, there was a total lack of shops, cafes, and restaurants, and it came off as a very quaint and sleepy town, which is great for maybe older folks and those who are just tired of the tourist scene. In the pedestrian areas, as my wife and I were wandering around starving for a sausage, all we could find were about 100 ice cream shops. So, if you’re really into ice cream and city walls, add this town onto your agenda.

the town wall and a tower

There is a huge and impressive church with a 90-meter steeple in the city center, St. Georg’s Church. The town is also said to have one of the larger Christmas markets in the area. And of geological note, it was built near the site of a recent huge meteor impact from some 14 million or so years ago. For that reason, most of the stone in the houses of Nordlingen have traces of diamonds in them. Those must be some expensive houses!


This must have been the most exciting town on our German route and is indeed, a hard town in all to beat for its beauty. It’s a university town in Baden-Wurttemburg on the lazy Neckar River, which is filled with Stocherkahne boats – like punts with high-backed seats – that wander up and down the length of the city with people relaxing between the beautiful weeping willows that line the shores. One side of the town is situated on a steep cliff, filled with narrow allies winding between half-timbered houses. There’s an island in the center of the town which is a park stuffed with trees and trails, and finally a flat side where the train station, a large pond, and much of the housing are situated. On the old town side, there’s a castle that overlooks all the student activities that go on through the bustling little town.

Tubingen has been settled since the 12th millennium BC and was the site of a Roman fort in AD 85. The town itself came into being with the settling of the Alamanni tribe in the 6th century. The name first appears in 1191, though the castle of Hohentubingen goes back to 1078. The town is filled with historical places and was the home to many famous Germans – Freidrich Holderlin, Hegel, Friedrich Schelling, Johannes Kepler, Hermann Hesse, and let’s not forget, Alois Alzheimer. The old town survived WWII because of the lack of heavy industry and armaments and many of those people’s houses can still be seen and visited. 

a Stocherkahne boat 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

sieze the marketen!

Drinking mulled wine at the Nuremberg market
All across Europe – or at least the German influenced Europe – was the season for Christmas markets. They begin four weeks before Christmas during the time of Advent, an ancient church tradition representing the four thousand years of Earth’s history before Christ. The world is obviously older than 5,000 sum-odd years, but this is the tradition, so that’s why we keep it at four weeks and don’t let Advent-creep go on too much up to and past Halloween. The twenty-fifth is also – surprise! – not the actual date of the birth of Christ. But hey, it’s tradition and there doesn’t seem to be any reason to change it, other than to get away from the now-established Hallmark Holiday season. 

I'm writing this technically on the last week of Christmas, before 3 Kings Day comes around rears its ugly hydra head around and ushers in Orthodox Christmas. Living in a mixed Christian household, I get the best of both worlds and celebrate both Christmases, which means you, dear readers, get to celebrate both with me as I reminisce about my December travels through the Christmas markets.

There are several names for Christmas markets in Europe and more specifically in Germany where there are as many as there are varieties of wine – which come served hot at the markets. There’s the well-known name Christkindlmarkt, which is typically reserved for the Nuremberg market, where the Christ-child Himself comes down and waves His hands signaling the beginning (usually played by a local child). Then there’s the Weihnmarkt, which is the more common term for the Christmas market. This isn’t a politically correct version of Christkindlmarkt and indeed, not some sly why for the liberal atheist legion to weasel the religion out of the tradition in their all-out war that will only end when all Gods are dead (I’m told). Weihnmarkt, which many Americans think translates as “Winter Market”, actually translates to “Holy Nights Market”, directly referring to Advent. I asked a Muslim what he thought of the Christkindlmarkt once and he said it was a great place to bring the kids, but “it’s unfortunate they felt the need to change the name to Weihnmarkt so as not to offend us”. Frankly, most people in Europe don’t really care what it’s called or what activity happens in European markets as long as there's plenty of hot mulled wine to go around. I for one agree with the average European.

Because of the Christmas markets, the Advent season is one of the best and most romantic times to come to Europe, and thanks to global warming, it’s not even that cold these days. So save your mittens and grab your piping hot mulled mead and wine, here are some of the best of the winter marketen!

1. Prague, Czech Republic

Overpriced birds eye view
Prague is consistently rated as having the number one Christmas market. Despite it being in the Czech Republic, the region has had a deluge of Germanic influences, being a part and partner of German territories for over a thousand years. Though the old town square is indeed dressed up in lights, a giant, orchestra blaring Christmas tree, and wood stalls everywhere, it’s not just the market itself that wins people over. Indeed, the whole city turns into a Christmas market, as stalls and lights are put up in every square in the city, making it entirely possible to traverse the entirety of the urban area with a fresh cup of svarak – pronounced "svajack", the local word for hot wine – in hand at all times. It also brings in a lot of green and other colors to the much needed city, with all the trees barren and the sky always grey and overcast otherwise.
To beer or to wine?
Normally on the first week of Advent, there’s a huge celebration involving lighting the Christmas tree. This year, they canceled the celebration because of the threat from terrorists that never really happened. The forces of the President, in their zeal and eagerness to increase the number of supporters, decided to cancel the event to stir up some fear and loathing against the refugees, since clearly terrorists and refugees, have so much in common – neither are really at all in the Czech Republic!

The drink of choice in Prague is usually beer, but at the Christmas market, you’re forgiven for drinking a glass of mulled wine. However, the markets usually don’t have the good stuff, as I discovered the other weekend. Instead, go on to a potraviny or shop along any number of side roads in the old town. At their doors they’re often selling some more properly mulled wine for much cheaper!

2. Nuremberg

Come early and beat the crowds
Nuremberg has one of the largest Christkindlmarkts in the Continent (indeed, one of the only). As mentioned, a local dressed up as baby Jesus comes out to start it up and at nearly all times there’s a brass band playing Christmas carols on the packed square. The square has a giant monumental fountain from the 13th century on it, and it looks like a Gothic spire went missing from a local church. Perhaps it even fell from the grand Marienskirche that overlooks the site. Walking around the Marienskirche, there is a children’s market, complete with rides and more hot wine, and the market extends all the way up Marientorgraben to the train station, packed at all time with revelers and shoppers.

Bridge Over the River Pegnitz
Our drink of choice here was the hot spiced apple cider, which for Americans, isn’t the dull powdered stuff you get at Walmart, but from actual fermented apples - a proper cider. I’m not even sure why Americans think apples come from paper packets of powder, but they don't. They come from trees and are freshly picked by a desirous and nude woman.

Think to reserve a hotel nearly six months out. If you want to make a proper tour of Christmas markets and still be situated in a good-sized, not huge town, and still be in Bavaria and Franconia though, Nuremberg is a pretty good starting point, being pretty central to the region. It’s a direct train ride from all the airport cities – Munich, Frankfurt, and Berlin – and a direct, 3 hour bus ride from Prague.

3. Rothenberg, Germany

Fairy tale Christmas village of Rothenberg
Rothenberg at any time of year is a trip back in time and during Christmas it’s almost like a trip into Santa’s workshop. The place is well-known for being the center of sales and possibly production of souvenir Christmas ornaments, clocks, and spinning things year round, with a shop right on the main square devoted to it all. During the Christmas season, the town gets decked out with boughs of holly, branches and poinsettias hanging down every window where there were once balcony geraniums, each house framed with large light bulbs wrapped in pine needles. If only there were some snow in the season any more then this would be the perfect snow time getaway.

Rothenberg certainly doesn’t have the biggest Christmas market in Germany, especially since there is hardly much room in the tight pedestrian streets of the old town – the main square even is one of the smallest in Europe. But it’s certainly one of the more romantic ones, especially with its giant, sagging Christmas tree standing before the town hall which seems to fill up half the square, while stalls of souvenirs and sausages cram the tiny alleys that spider-web out from the center.

Main square of Rothenburg
Characteristic of its time-away-from-time atmosphere, nothing is modern in Rothenberg except for the rare taxi trolling through the crowds, bringing some lazy tourist to their hotel or picking them up. Don’t expect to pay for things with your credit card – except maybe your hotel room – and especially don’t expect anything to be on the Internet. Despite there being probably hundreds of hotels in the town, there are less than ten listed on, and those are often booked up to a year in advance. But don’t worry, you can always just stay in a nearby village, which may even offer something much more romantic and much cheaper, and since the sun goes down at 4, there’s still plenty of time to enjoy the Christmas lights in Rothenberg and make it back to your hotel.

The drink of choice here is the Feuerzangenbowle. It’s a hot mulled wine, red and white, that is simply insanely delicious. Perhaps the best hot wine I’ve had in all my Christmas marketeering days – and I drink a lot! Meanwhile, the snack of choice is the Schneeball, which is a kind of cookie wrapped around itself until it comes to the size of a fist. I’m not overly impressed by the taste and it’s a real mess to eat, but you’ve got to try one when you’re in their hometown.

5. Bamberg, Germany

Bam, the father of Bamberg
One of the best surprises of my travels was the town of Bamberg. You don’t normally read about Bamberg on the main trails, usually the cities mentioned in Franconia are Rothenberg and Nuremberg. It’s a mistake though to miss out on the Bamberg Christmas market. Bamberg itself is a beautiful medieval town hugging closely the banks of the Regnitz River, pedestrian only bridges – from stone to steel – making an intricate lacework over the rushing waters. The Christmas market here is huge – almost the size of the one in Nuremberg – but the market also winds down the side streets, making it feel as warm and cozy as that of Rothenberg. It’s the best of both worlds really, and since it’s not on the primary tourist track the prices of souvenirs are quite competitive.

Neptune, the God of Christmas
Given that this was the last town I visited on my Christmas market tour, I can’t remember what I drank, but I do remember detoxing at some cafĂ© near a donut shop. I was thinking fondly of donuts, since they’re hard to come by, they taste better than Schneeballen, and my stomach was still sick off eating too many of those fried doughy things. And then there was more wine, or punch, or something and oh, a guy dressed as Grandfather Frost!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

the Castle and the old town festival of Nuremberg

The Castle from Am Olberg street
From the last blog, we went around Nuremberg from the trainstation to the Tiergartentor, one of the prettiest and oldest-feeling squares in all of Nuremberg, with its tall stone tower, it's stone tunnel of a gate, and its medieval cottage style buildings crammed together. When I was there with my parents, we went to my favorite spot for coffee and strudel: Kuchlbauer's Gastehaus. As it was already cold on that cloudy and wet September day, my mom was wanting some mulled wine and my father and I - being that it wasn't noon yet - were looking out for some coffee. 

"Haben sie gluhwein?" I asked for mulled wine. 

"Was?" was the response from the waitress. "What?"

"Gluhwein?" I said, trying to pronounce it a different way. And again. And again. Finally she understood. 

"Ja ja," she said. 

"Und zwei kaffee," I said. "Haben sie americano?"


"Espresso lungo?" 

"Was? Espresso?"

"Nein, nein, espresso lungo. Um, kaffee mit wasser. Lungo. Americano."

"Was? Espresso?"

This clearly was not working.

"Fine, ja, ja." I gave up and ordered my dad and me some espresso, then went off to the restroom. When I came back up, there was a glass of red wine in front of my mom - not hot red wine, just red wine - and two espressos. Another family came in and had been served americanos, what I was trying to order. I scratched my head. Later the mystery had been unraveled - what internationally is usually known as an Americano, and what some places, like in Italy, might call an espresso lungo, they call in Germany a cafe creme. Won't make that mistake again. But despite this difficulty, the cafe remains a goto place for me, simply because of the beautiful interior and atmosphere.

From the Tiergartentor, there are two ways to continue to the castle. You can go through the city gates: a long tunnel through the city walls that winds around the moat and then another entrance in the back side of the castle complex or you can go to the main castle gates by following the staircase behind the Zum Albrecht Duhrer (or the more common path down Obere Shmiedgasse). The advantage of the moat path is that you get to see the weird little gardens down below in the greenery of the moat where locals have allotments and tend to vegetable gardens. The other path takes you above Nuremberg where you get to climb up the steep driveway of the castle and then look out over the city. Generally I prefer this path, since its more of an epic and grandiose entry into the castle, and then taking the moat path on the way back.
The Castle from the tower
The imperial castle was built back in the days back when Nuremberg was an Imperial Free City of the Holy Roman Empire. Truly, those were its glory days, when each emperor would always convene their first Diet in the city and in the Emperor’s absence the mayor got to rule the sprawling city in his stead, with no other feudal powers overseeing him. The museum itself I had been to before and there honestly isn’t much there to enjoy. It has a wonderful exhibit on the history of the Holy Roman Empire and of Nuremberg’s place in it, but you can learn the same from a history book or Wikipedia. The original building received a lot of damage from the Allied bombing campaign and the only building to survive its true form was the chapel, which is admittedly quite a gorgeous piece of stone work with three levels and a center well, allowing for the Emperor to attend mass in a nice, heated room above the second floor, undisturbed by the filthy peasantry that chose to attend down below. 

Inside the chapel
From the castle we walked down the Burgstrasse, passing on the left the nice ornamental courthouse which was not the one made famous after the fall of Nazi Germany, where the famous Nuremberg trials were held. That one is the Palace of Justice, just outside of the old town, about a 15 minute walk away. The notorious room can still be toured, but only at very specific times, since it is still an active courtroom. The furniture has all been replaced and really, there’s nothing original there, but you get to at least see the same walls that the defendants were staring at as they were condemned to death for their war crimes. Finally we made it to the Hauptmarkt, which was the main town square, with its Schoner Brunnen standing as a crown over the city. The Schoner Brunnen – literally “Beautiful Fountain”, the Germans weren’t so creative on names – was built in the 14th century and is adorned with the symbols of the Holy Roman Empire.

At the head of the Hauptmarkt is the Frauenkirche, the weirdly small and country-chapel like, yet Gothic, Catholic church built in the 14th century. I say weirdly small because from the outside it doesn’t really look that large. But once you enter, it seems fairly large, like a brick built Gothic TARDIS, but the only time travel here is in the feeling of antiquity. Most of the statues were restored after World War II, but you can at least glimpse where many of the imperial ceremonies were held in Nuremberg from the time of Charles IV and onward, and this is where the Emperor Charles IV had his son baptized. 

The Frauenkirche and Old Town festival
Also at the Hauptmarkt is where most of Nuremberg’s cultural festivities are held. In the winter, this is where the sprawling Christkindlmarkt is. But as this was in October, we were there for the Old Town Festival, thinking that this would be Nuremberg’s version of Oktoberfest. It isn’t. If you’re reading this thinking about going, then let this blog be a great let down to you. The Old Town Festival is a giant flea market, with various crafts and junk made in China and Turkey for sale. You can get things from gloves, to purses, to jackets, to spatulas here. There really was no consistent theme, and unfortunately it was equally lacking in beer. No beer. Anywhere. I was baffled. How could there be a German festival without beer? How useless! Unless you are looking for a cheap plastic spatula made in China. After our fierce and frivolous search for beer, I apologized to my father and we headed up the Konigstrasse, which was curiously lacking in pubs or bars. As our last ditch effort to have a beer before catching our bus back to Prague, we went back to the cutsey medieval looking Handwerkhof, where unfriendly women in dirndls with overflowing breasts slammed beers down on our table, the frothy head dripping over, down the sides of our plaster steins. Finally, a place to rest and relax, before getting on the 4 hour DB bus, direct to Prague.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

the curse of the Nazis

The Nurnberg Handerwerkerhof
Nuremberg has an unfortunate history which could certainly and unfortunately mar its future. More than any other city in all of Germany, it suffers from the curse of the Nazis. For the entire time of the reign of the Nazi regime, Nuremberg was the center of the Party's power, and for this reason Hitler had Albert Speer design his gigantic Olympic-sized festival grounds made specifically for Nazi party rallies. When you Google “Nazi party rally” that’s what you’ll see – monumental sized concrete monoliths, stages, and flag holders, all built just outside of the city of Nuremberg. Of course, that all lies in rubble now, the weeds and wild flowers having long since defeated the once fertile grounds of white supremacy and racism, driving out the floating dandelion seeds to different grounds and across different seas. Nuremberg had suffered a terrible fate in World War II, like Dresden it was scourged and raked; had the days been those of the Romans, the fields would have been sewn with salt. All that was left after the Allied bombing campaign was a smoldering castle on a hill, missing much of its palace, and the coals of a once bustling medieval city-scape, only the occasional charred church spire rising from the smoke, the carbon coiling around the Gothic buttresses and spikey peaks. 

The roofs of Nuremberg
The first time I had visited Nuremberg I was with my wife. I had decided to save all the “Nazi sights” for when my parents were there – the parade grounds which now serve as a coliseum for rock concerts and a gigantic park, filled with joggers, sunbathers, and twenty somethings playing frisbee with their dogs – and of course, the Palace of Justice which served as the home of the Nuremberg trials. There’s also a museum of a dungeon that was used to hold stolen art pieces, protecting them from the rain of fire from overhead. We were there for the Christkindlemarket though, which was hardly the right spirit for the Nazi tour anyway.

When my parents came, we still didn’t have time for the Nazi tour, as it was only a stop of a few hours. My attempts at pleasing my inner Nazi kept Hitfailering though, since we had found a different reason to visit Nuremberg: the old town festival. I might add that I don't have an inner Nazi, it's just some wry history nut's humor there, dearest NSA reader.
My father wasn’t quite sure that he wanted to suffer the crowds of Munich and the main Oktoberfest in all of its dirndl glory of breasts and granfalloons, but he did want to go somewhere with beer. So a quick search of festivals in the area of Bavaria and Franconia – we were in Rothenberg at the time, trying also to find something in the direction of Prague – brought up the Nuremberg Old Town Festival. Now, if you read my description up above about Nuremberg’s placing near first in Allied ravaged cities of World War II, then you might be wondering, what Old Town? And you’d be perfectly right in saying that. But buildings and people manage to survive the worst of terrors, and then are sometimes just destroyed for the most petty of things, like a parking lot. Vonnegut – in I think Mother Night – once noted how the destruction of war is all seemingly completely random, how a bomb might fall on a house, burning everything to embers, but for a desk with a stack of paper and an inkwell, somehow sitting there completely untouched.

All that to say Nuremberg’s old town rose from the ashes, though in patches. Some streets were recreated to look fairly similar to its medieval past, streets and buildings rivaling the old timey beauty of Rothenberg even, and then other streets lined with the glass, steel, and concrete of the modern era, with giant red lit H&M signs, the red light districts of market perversions and materialistic obsessions.
Lighting candles in St. Lorenz, Christmas 2014
We had a limited time for our exploration. We began making our way to the small medieval market, the Handwerkerhof Nurnberg, that’s hidden alongside the old town wall and tower. Then we followed the granite pedestrian streets which made up most of the town center to the Lutheran Church of St. Lorenz, which started construction in 1250 and was finally finished in 1477. It’s one of the few Lutheran churches that was spared the iconoclasm of the Reformationists, as the locals saw all the art as pieces of their heritage and refused to remove them from the church. The church is a must see of Nuremberg, with its hundreds of statues still lining the walls. We then followed the streets down to the bridges of which there are many beautiful crossings over the River Pegnitz. The most beautiful is an old iron chained pedestrian bridge, the Kettensteg, built in 1823. It follows along a mysterious building that serves also as a bridge and was, as I was told, once used as a prison, but is now one of the more famous biergartens in Nuremberg, the Kettensteg Biergarten. If it’s a sunny day – which I’ve never seen on my many visits to Nuremberg – then be sure to spend your time there. Another bridge that you should be sure to use in crossing is the Trodelmarkt bridge, which leads to a small island of the same name in the middle of the Pegnitz. At one time this was the pig market, and later a sort of medieval flea market, it’s now the host of beautiful restored medieval style buildings which are the homes of quite the variety of boutique shops – if you want to get away from the chains found on the South side of Nuremberg, then head here.

The River Pegnitz
From there, we headed up Winklerstrasse to Sankt Sebaldus Kirche, which is a bit more properly Lutheran in that it’s depressing and stripped of all of its ornaments, a real contrast to St. Lorenz. Then we went up and up towards the Imperial Castle. The best way to approach it is along Albrecht Duhrer Strasse which leads to a nice and narrow advance to the Tiergartnertor, which served as the main gate of the city back in the old days, leading around the castle moat and into the city just underneath the auspices of the castle. There are the typical buildings of medieval character, with plaster white walls and dark wooden crossbeams, and a huge stone tower that dwarfs everything. There are several cafes there, among them two of my favorites in Nuremberg, the Augustiner Zur Schranke – a very typical Bavarian/Franconian restaurant, where my mom developed a love and obsession for pork knuckle – and Kuchlbauers Gastatten, which has quite delicious strudel and coffee with an interior that looks like it was designed by Gaudi. Upstairs there is some fine dining that usually requires reservations during high season, but in honesty, go for the homelier Augustiner – the food is tastier, cheaper and much more of the ethnic German experience that tourists are looking for.
The Tiergartnertor
Also not to be missed near the Tiergartnertor are the Albrecht Duhrer House Museum and the Historischer Kunstbunker. The Albrecht Duhrer house was, in some incarnation, the home of the famous woodcutter Albrecht Duhrer, who in the 15th century made a series of incredible woodcuts of Biblical scenes, of which such a quality in woodcutting is still unmatched. The Historischer Kunstbunker Is where the Nazis stored a lot of stolen art, along with the local treasures of the city (like Duhrer’s woodcuts), hoping that the Allies wouldn’t destroy them in the bombing and that perhaps they wouldn’t discover them, so then they could be sold on the black market after the war and the Party heads could finance their exiles off to Argentina in style. There isn’t much here left but an empty bunker filled with photographs and a video, but it’s an interesting place nevertheless, and if you’re in Nuremberg during a blazing hot summer, it is air conditioned.

Monday, November 23, 2015

not your typical bavarian town

One of the barbicans of Rothenburg
“Now this is what I had in mind for a Bavarian town!” my dad said upon entering through the old stone gates of Rothenburg. The tower pierced the sky above, the grey stones meeting the grey skies above. The clouds were gently weeping, cold pellets plummeting miles downward, signaling the beginning of fall. Behind the high stone walls were houses with white plaster and broad wood beams, pink, blue, and red petunias hanging in bunches from window boxes, spilling over like the head of a German beer after it's served on the table. Our march in, with our bags on our backs, passing by the restaurants and hotels, could have reminded us of centuries before, when any number of people had entered the same gates.

View from the town square
“Dad, this isn’t Bavarian! It’s Franconian,” I corrected them and immediately regretted that I did, thinking it just sounded like some smart ass son ready to show everything off. We had left Ludwig’s fairy tale castle of Neuschwanstein and the accompanying Bavarian town of Fussen – which true to Bavarian form looked a bit more Italian than German – up the railroad around Munich, stopping a few times for transfers and kebabs, and finally to the fairytale town of Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It’s technically in Bavaria, but it’s part of Franconia, which was the ancient area covering the heart of the old Frankish Empire. The people prefer to be considered separate than Bavarians – indeed, Franconians are Germans, not Bavarians! It was a part of the kingdom of Bavaria, but it was also the Protestant part, which perhaps forms the sharpest contrast between otherwise two indistinguishable parts of Germany. But I’ve stayed in Franconia long enough – twice in Wurzburg – to understand the sensitivity about the non-issue. In American terms, it would be like calling someone from Oklahoma a Texan. Yeah, they’re basically the same place – oil, white people, Injuns, Tex-Mex food, BBQ – but goddamnit, don’t call me a Texan! Not one of those people! And indeed, Franconia is the Oklahoma of Texas, much smaller than its Southern neighbor and often overlooked in favor of them as well, despite having one of the best tourist attractions in all of Germany.
That tourist attraction? Rothenburg ob der Tauber. It’s one of Germany’s oldest, most authentic, and most intact walled cities, still preserving in a true form the medieval feel of Europe. The houses are still built using dark wood with white plaster in between and dark wood shingles on the roof, the sidewalks and roads all cobbled – though truly cobblestone roads are a fairly new thing, as in medieval days typically only the main square and the main road were cobbled, the rest of the town’s streets would have been a mixture of mud and shit - but let's not nitpick when we're trying to picture ourselves in ruby slippers. The town’s name means “Red Fort” in English, as on the hill top was once a red castle or a red roofed castle that stood over the river Tauber – German for Tabor, a common Christian religious name for places, given the origin of the name near Jerusalem. During WWII the town was revered by the Nazis as it was considered “the most German of all German towns” and keeping true to that claim to fame, it was one of the first towns to expel all their Jews – who then were treated as apparently refugees should be treated and were rounded up in camps for slave labor and extermination. You can never be too careful with those Jews, as they say. They were given special Jewish identity cards, kept track of using IBM manufactured punch cards, monitored, and later put aside in special districts and camps.

View from the Burggarten
We stayed there for a total of two nights, which I found was plenty. After the initial thrill of walking through a fortified medieval town, one realizes there really isn’t much more to do. Even beer gardens are somewhat rare in the town, and the beer gardens that are there are a touch on the pricey side. The restaurants and cafes are similarly slim pickings, especially for a tourist town of this caliber, and mostly the town is composed of tacky tourist shops. Though if you’re looking for dolls or wooden puppets, this is perhaps the place to go, with some of the best deals on such items that I’ve seen in Europe. There is one bar there, a place called Rockcafe which had a bit of a stereotypical American music bar design, with lots of vinyl records hanging around and in the bathroom a vending machine with sex toys. But Rothernburg isn’t known for bars or sex toys anyway. Rothenburg is known for its Christmas market, and they have a permanently in season Christmas store right next to the town hall.

The Christmas store is eery, especially in mid-September. It’s two stories of pine scented, crafty wooden and glass ornament displays, so flooding over that it’s nearly impossible not to knock something over. The amount of woodwork in there is stellar, and the place could simply serve as a museum of woodwork with a Christmas theme. But that much Christmas – with carols constantly playing and girls dressed up as elves – is overwhelming and highly disconcerting. An hour under that roof and you begin to constantly check your calendar to make sure you haven’t missed a few months and to see if maybe it is Christmas! Or perhaps you've been teleported to the United States in the near future, where the Christmas creep has made it past Halloween and Black Friday has replaced Columbus Day in some sort of Hellish politically correct takeover of holidays.
Near the Christmas market shop
If you manage to escape the Christmas market store intact, then you’re strong enough to manage the torture museum, which is called the Mittelalterliches Kriminal Museum. There are torture museums all across Europe in every major city and tourist destination, and for the most part they’re all the same museum – the same floor plan, the same poorly edited descriptions of torture and the same mass-produced, “authentic” torture devices on display - sadly they're about as authentic as a Rolex sold in Turkey. The place is so mass produced, that in Prague alone, there are even two identical one-of-a-kind torture museum experiences!

But, from the outset, it’s clear that this isn’t your run-of-the-rack torture palace. This place is branded differently, it’s not of the same company. This is the Mittelalterliches Kriminal Museum! And though the first floor is full of torture devices and wonderful imagery, the next few floors are full of information and records of medieval laws and criminal proceedings, with the top floor being for children, full of small scale action figures of punishments being doled out and cartoons about scheming lawyers – apparently lawyers were about just as popular in 18th century France as they are today. Definitely worth a visit.
View from the walls
The last thing that we discovered in the town was the wall itself. You can walk along the top of the battlements, and look out across the town. Now abutting the wall is a thickly forested park, while before, in the old days, that would have been trimmed back so all invaders could be seen easily and shot. Along the top there are also bricks with names where you learn that, though the city was mostly spared the Allied reign of hellfire that many others suffered from, there still was some pretty immense damage. 

The barbican at the end of Spitalgasse
The story went that since the Secretary of War McCloy knew how lovely the town was, he ordered that artillery not be used on it. Six soldiers of the 14th Infantry Regiment rode up with white flags and told the Nazi occupants that if they did not surrender the city, it would be leveled. Major Thommes on the German side, defied Hitler's order to fight to the end and surrendered the town, also understanding that the way of old Germany - and indeed, all that was beautiful of Germany - would live on if they did not fight. There was some damage done in the war though and the bricks all contain the names of people who had donated to the repair and restoration of the town, reviving it into the beautiful touristic destination it is today. Perhaps un-ironically, many of those names were Japanese, friends with Germans before and after the war. The best place to start a proper wall walk is at the massive barbican at the end of Spitalgasse.
The barbican from the moat
One final note about Rothenburg and one large warning: Germany seems to exist in a time of its own, one in some ways that is before the rise of financial technology, especially in these medieval wunderkindful places like Rothenburg. Forget your credit cards and make sure to stock up on your cash. Even in one of the main tourist shops, where we bought some presents, they didn't have a proper credit card machine. The lady cursed politely upon seeing our plastic, bent down, and pulled up this archaic iron machine that takes an imprint of the credit card on carbon copy. It seemed a close cousin to the printing press possibly still in use over in Mainz.

Monday, November 2, 2015

on the death of a king and the birth of legends

Neuschwanstein peaking from the morning mists
In the middle of a continent that was torn apart by war and itching for more, one sundered by revolutions and dangerous waves of idealism lighting the fires of chaos in the open ovens of taverns and salons, there was one king who held himself quite aloft from everything. While Bismarck was dumping millions of marks into the development of his military and the modernization of his riflemen to make his infantry supreme, another German leader was much more concerned with the development of the arts – and indeed, to show an excellent example of the ultimate triumph of the arts over warmongering and Realpolitik, there lived one mad Bavarian king, Ludwig II. Everybody knows the things that Ludwig touched and held high, whether it’s from the original Disney castle perched high in the Bavarian Alps, or Richard Wagner, the man of his obsession who otherwise would have fallen along with the heaps of other obscure authors, poets, and musicians of that period. And let’s not forget Bavarian culture as a whole, made powerful, momentous, and memorable because of the efforts of that one man, who instead of buying new needle point rifles for his army created armies of musicians to go out and win the world through the heavenly sound of horsehair drifting across catgut.

Of course, we can’t fool ourselves here, there was much value in Bismarck’s military obsession and his sheer ability to make a fool out of all who opposed him. He pressured Napoleon III’s unprepared military into declaring war on him, then – through a great deal of other political machinations, created a vast German Empire that swallowed up all the other German speaking provinces and that would tilt the period’s beloved balance of power, sending Europe into an eventual spiral of paranoia and treaty-signing that would lead to World War I. He held the use of “iron and blood” far above that of democracy, and as one whose goals were to make the German Empire into continental domination, he was successful, but at a future cost that would be much greater. After the pivotal Prussian-Austrian War, Bismarck was able to garner control of all of northern Germany in a single, lightning war – the first time the term “blitzkrieg” would come to use, but not the last. In addition, Bavaria became a mere tribute state, and the once powerful Austrian Empire a mere vassal, living now under “The Misery of Austria”, and whose later Emperors were to be considered buffoons.

View of Hohenschwangau from Neuschwanstein
It’s that world that Ludwig II grew up in, one where the new kingdom of Bavaria was trying to find its place between hugely powerful Empires that were bent on gobbling up the rest of Europe like a feast on a holiday, each participant poking each other with forks under the table while pretending to be civilized gentlemen on the top side. Ludwig was the son of the King of Bavaria, Maximilian II, who himself was keen on the arts and historical studies, having once declared that he would have preferred to have been born a professor than a king. As a king, he was caught in the constant struggle between Austria and Germany over who had the right to rule the German people – a question that would not be answered until his son’s reign – with Bavaria, as a Catholic state, supporting Austria’s claim. As a lover of the arts, he constantly had a coterie of artists around him and rebuilt Schwangau Castle, later to be called Hohenschwangau – or the High Swan County Castle. Hohenschwangau, designed by the German architect and stage designer Domenico Quaglio the Younger, was built in neogothic style and is reminiscent of Crusader castles from long ago, with battlements along the high walls of the house. 

The view Ludwig had imagining his future castle
Ludwig II spent much of his childhood with his brother Otto in Hohenschwangau, surrounded by artists, scientists, philosophers and other friends of the king. There he developed his own love of the arts, often ignoring his princely duties to study politics and how to run a kingdom, partly because the King and Queen seemed to have no real interest in either of their children. Perhaps he thought his father would live forever to work on that, but he had a shock in his 18th year, when his father passed away and he inherited the throne. He was at first energetic with the idea of pushing the arts as a matter of policy, creating his army of musicians and – as his first real act as king – inviting the then reviled Richard Wagner, who was living in poverty and hiding, being a democratic revolutionary in Bismarck’s land of autocracy. Wagner came to live in Ludwig’s household, causing great strain in his family, as Ludwig’s uncle, Luitpold, saw him as a negative influence on the kingdom. Luitpold saw the future of Bavaria with Prussia, which was not compatible with Wagner’s own drama. Yet of the two, it was Wagner who would create an immortal Germany, propelling German folk stories into a real German Myth.

Ludwig was obsessed with Wagner’s operas, an obsession that would never go away. At one point, when Wagner was being driven out of Bavaria by the Parliament led by Luitpold, Ludwig told him that he would rather abdicate and join Wagner – but Wagner refused this offer. It was under Wagner though that Ludwig was the closest to creating a real Bavarian power. At Ludwig’s announced wedding of fellow Wagner fan, Duchess Sophie Charlotte of Bavaria, who was the youngest sister of Austria, Napoleon III would come as a guest, and this would solidify the notion to the people that German unification with Prussia was out of the question. But without this tripartite, it would be impossible to sway the people against Bismarck and a unified Germany. He wrote a letter to Sophie announcing they would not get married, in it, stating “the main substance of our relationship has always been… Richard Wagner’s remarkable and deeply moving destiny.”

It was true. Especially since Ludwig was a bit of a dandy. Not just because he liked the arts, but because he also liked thespians. Male ones. But he also insisted that he would remain true to his Roman Catholic faith, so despite having several male companions, never seemed to have consummated his love for any of them.

The cancellation of the wedding though gave power to his uncle to drive Wagner out. At this time, Prussia and Austria finally moved on the inevitable machine of war, sucking Bavaria into the chaos on Austria’s side. But Bavaria wasn’t prepared, with Bismarck and his allies having just reorganized and modernized Prussia’s military. Bavaria was crushed and forced to submit to Prussia, remaining a kingdom in name only. This defeat led both Ludwig and his brother – who served as a leader in the military – into insanity and obfuscation.

Ludwig would become a recluse, holing up in Hohenschwangau, preferring to live his life as though he were in a fantasy kingdom, with him as an absolute monarch, modeling his life around his servants after the French absolutist king Louis XIV and even seeking to build a scale model palace after Versailles, and calling himself the “Moon King” opposite Louis’s title of the “Sun King”. To supplement this name, after his self-exile, he began to only work at night, and would take carriage rides through the moonlight, calling upon his villagers.

His grander, much more ambitious project was Neuschwanstein, on a mountain peak quite visible from the patios of Hohenschwangau. Neuschwanstain, or “New Swan on the Rock” was the encapsulation of a mountaintop Camelot. It was based off the set design of Lohengrin, who was the Swan Knight in Wagner’s drama, and who was the cause of Ludwig’s initial obsession with the operatic.
Lohengrin's castle realized
Lohengrin is weird story about a guy who comes riding in on a boat pulled by a swan, kills a guy, marries a girl named Elsa, and makes her promise to never ask his name. When she asks his name, he reveals himself as Lohengrin, the son of King Parsifal and a Knight of the Grail, who had sworn to remain anonymous to all of his lovers like some sort of Germanic Casanova. He then decides to leave her and ride back out on his swan. But fortunately, the swan then turns into her brother, but she dies anyway from grief at her husband leaving. Also, the wife of the guy killed earlier turns out to be a witch and she gets killed. But at least Lohengrin is off adventuring somewhere else and marrying other young virgins and Gottfried, Elsa’s sister, is now a Duke. So not everything ends bad that goes bad.

Ludwig grew up adoring this opera and imagining himself as the Swan Knight, while he passed his time below next to the lake that is filled with swans throughout the summer months and while living in his High Swan County Castle. When he became king, he was promoted to being the Swan King and needed a castle fitting as such, so he became convinced in his self-created exile from public life. He would call the castle, New Hohenschwangau, though the name would be later changed after his death. Ludwig sent emissaries out all across the world to discover the beautiful and great, so that he could create castles using a combination of all these good things. Neuschwanstein was a product of this research and glee, its two main inspirations drawing from Chateau de Pierrefonds in Picardy, France, and Wartburg, near Eisenach, in Germany. But Neuschwanstein would far exceed either castle in vision and beauty.

From a nearby promontory
So that the project could be protected from the scheming of his ministers, Ludwig used only his family’s money and borrowed extensively to build his castles, rather than using any of the public treasury funds. Ludwig worked extensively with the architect, Eduard Riedel, to get exactly the image that he wanted. It was a theatrical castle where he could live out his fantasies of being the Swan Knight in seclusion. The interior lacks room for a proper court – which would have been held down at Hohenschwangau – but has an elaborately decorated and designed theatre - the acoustics being of the highest technology of the age - extensive private chambers, and even a room built as a cave, complete with stalagmites and stalactites. All of the art throughout the castle, from paintings to statues to room designs, reflect something to do with one of Wagner’s operas, whether they were of the actual characters, or they were influenced by the set designs.
View of the castle from the village
The house is utterly beautiful but also sadly incomplete. During its construction, an array of ministers who had grown disillusioned with Ludwig’s reign decided to try to depose him and approached Luitpold to lead them, who accepted. They hired a psychologist named Bernhard von Gudden, who despite only having met Ludwig 20 years before, declared Ludwig insane and unfit to rule. They brought Ludwig to Castle Berg as a prisoner and patient, while Luipold ruled as regent. On one day, Ludwig went out with von Gudden for a walk around a nearby lake. Both were found dead in waist-deep water, leaving behind as many conspiracy theories as that which surrounds Kennedy’s death.

After Ludwig’s death, they proclaimed Otto king, who was also insane, so naturally Uncle Luitpold stayed as regent. Luitpold died in 1913 at the age of 91 and was succeeded as regent by his son, also named Ludwig, who then deposed the crazy king Otto and declared himself king. It was a short reign, as World War I started shortly after, bringing a finish to the monarchies of Germany.

Neuschwanstein was never finished and never fully realized its purpose. Shortly after Ludwig's death, the castle with its views of sheer cliff faces, waterfalls, and lakes, became a museum, as it remains today, drawing in 1.3 million visitors every year.

Read my previous blog for some tips in visiting the place.