Sunday, August 17, 2014


We're backlogged on posting, but it doesn't mean we haven't been getting out and doing stuff. Joe and I took some time off in April and May to entertain his college friends (Mikey and Melissa) visiting from the US. A few days later we set of on an ICE train, bound for Berlin, to meet up with them again, and another college friend and his girlfriend (Tim and Kelly), who live in Berlin. We've been threatening to go to Berlin for awhile, and the May 1 holiday was the perfect time, especially since Tim got an offer he couldn't refuse and they moved back to the US this summer in time to start his professorship.

The afternoon we arrived we saw the Bundestag, or parliament building. Apparently it is quite nice to go inside, but since we were there on a holiday weekend, there were no reservations available.

The next day was May 1 (May Day), and Mikey and Melissa arrived by train in the morning. We set off to "MyFest", which was a play-on-words of "Mai", the German word for May, pronounced the same way. The streets of one neighborhood were lined with food vendors, who were mostly normal citizens who made a lot of something yummy and came out to sell it. There was a lot of Turkish food, some Indian, and various Asian to supplement the "Wurst" stands. Nevertheless, Mikey and Melissa did take the opportunity to enjoy a Wurst.

May 1 is of course the day where Bavarian children dance around a maypole, but Berlin is famous for its May 1 protests, due to the fact that May 1 is International Workers Day. This day marks the Haymarket riots in Chicago, but the US for whatever reason celebrates Labor Day at the end of the Northern Hemisphere summer. Joe was thrilled about the coincidence of our trip and the protests, so we spent part of the day circumnavigating the protest parade route. I have never seen so many armored police vehicles. Luckily, it was not violent this year, and we stood back from a healthy distance and watched the loud, red river (communists), bounded by a bank of blue police.

From nearly everywhere we went in Berlin we had views of the "Fernsehturm", or TV tower. It was built in East Germany during the 1960's, and is the tallest structure in Germany. On the ball, when the sun is shining, there is a kind of shiny cross, referred to as the "Pope's Revenge" on the state with no religion. We also saw many remnants of the Berlin wall, and Checkpoint Charlie while walking around the city. To contrast this, we ventured into the small kernal remaining of medieval Berlin to find the remnant of the original city wall.

We took an evening walk around the Schlossgarden after dinner at a Russian restaurant. One of the highlights of Berlin for me was the culinary diversity. In addition to Russian and great street food during the festival, we had Turkish breakfast, twice, Sri Lankan, Indian, and probably a few others.

In any major city you can do a hop-on, hop-off bus tour these days, but Berlin has a bonafide bus line that is used for transport by Berlin residents, but has a top deck to accommodate tourists, as its route hits a lot of the major sites. On one gigantic roundabout we hopped off to investigate the victory column. It was built in the 1860's to commemorate Prussian victories and the coalescing of the German Empire. The above picture shows the reliefs flanking the bottom of the column, which were removed by the French in 1945 to lessen Germany's memory of its military success; the relief were returned in 1987, during the 750th anniversary of Berlin.  It is interesting to note that only the figures of the monarchy are systematically defaced on the relief, so there might be a connection to German defeat during "The Great War" and the end of the German Monarchy.   Nevertheless, the column was only lightly damaged by the WWII bombings that destroyed much of the city. Obama also gave a speech here in 2008.

Of course we eventually wandered back to the Brandenburg Tor (Gate) on our bus tour. By this time we were cold and hungry, so we found a shop selling Currywurst. I tried the East German version of this hot dog with curry flavored ketchup: sans casing, as it was hard to come by behind the iron curtain.

Near the gate we encountered the Jewish memorial, which is a contoured landscape with coffin-dimensioned columns rising to different heights out of the uneven ground. It was easy to get lost within the concrete coffins, and cold spring weather lent to the ominous feeling. But we couldn't deny a sort of whimsy in the memorial, as it was impossible to resist playing hide and seek.

One of the most thought provoking experiences was venturing deep into East Berlin to see the Soviet War memorial, built to honor their dead soldiers and their contribution to ending WWII. Americans love to remember our bold rush to finish the war, but this was enabled by a slow, cold bleed of Germany on the eastern front that took the lives of millions of Russians. Of course a cold war ensued, and the "spoils of war" were enjoyed by victorious Russians at the expense of East Berlin's citizens. But for me it was a good reminder that this history is not as simple as an American GI hero swooping in to save the day.

During our walk to the Soviet Memorial, we found a fish stand selling mackerel sandwiches. This was Joe's culinary highlight, and I made up a little song about it that I still sing to him all of these months later.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Donau Radweg: the final installment!

We took advantage of a beautiful weekend to finish the last section of the Donau Radweg (Danube Bike trail) that we had not completed of the Germany and Austria sections. We took the train down to Sigmaringen on Saturday morning and started downriver. One of our first stops was the "Nudel Haus", a Swabian noodle factory and store. Couldn't resist checking it out.

We ended up getting caught in an afternoon downpour after lunch, but as Joe put it, that was the sky vomiting up what didn't agree, because the rest of the day was beautiful, and not too hot! We found this cool bike fountain that was balanced such that it could spin both ways. We make a little video of that.

It turns out this section of river is famous for its many storks. So the towns have larger-than-life stork statues painted or decorated differently. We also encountered storks several times in the field. I think that all of these stork sightings are sending us a message. Wonder if we might find out what that message is before the year is up?!?

This part of our region is also famous for its Baroque churches. We passed many, but took a pilgramage up a drainage to see our favorite - and what must certainly be the most impressive in the area - the münster in the town of Zwiefalten. It's completely over the top (which makes sense, since it's actually Rococco), but with the sun streaming in it is absolutely gorgeous to be completely overwhelmed by the interior.

We spent the night in the little town of Obermarchtal, which has a gigantic Cloister with its own Baroque church. There was a lot of infrastructure, so we didn't have trouble renting one of their hundred rooms for the night. It had recently been renovated in what I can only describe as "papal fashion": bright red curtains and other red details, complete with the pillows fluffed into pointy pope hats. We got the corner room overlooking the münster in one direction and the river and dam in the other. We walked around town, and crossed a little creek to the hill opposite of where our cloister stood. There was once a second cloister there, but it is green space now. Like a phantom twin, it seems to have disappeared into the shadow of the town's main cloister.

We made it to Ulm in mid-afternoon on Sunday, goal achieved. I boarded a train headed for home, and Joe turned around and rode the 100 km toward home over the Swabian Alb. I beat him by 3 hours. Might be our last big bike trip for awhile! But, our neighbors are loaning us their old tandem, so if we get it fixed up we will post some pictures of our day trips.

Monday, April 28, 2014

Easter bike trip: Take 3

For the third year in a row, Joe and I did an Easter bike trip. With snow on Easter Sunday during both of our last trips, we'd discussed flying to Sicily or taking the train to the south of France for our Easter trip this year, but we were finally rewarded with good weather and we stayed in Germany. We biked down the Moselle River, one of the oldest wine-growing regions in Germany, to its confluence with the Rhine. Then we biked up the Rhine to the town of Mainz.

We took the slow train up to Trier on Good Friday ("Karfreitag"). It involved 6 different trains, but was a lot cheaper than paying for two adult tickets and bike transport on a fast train. Trier was a major Roman settlement, and the Black Gate ("Porta Nigra") is an obvious reminder of that heritage. We also encountered some Roman soldiers still defending their conquest near the old stadium. Following our late start, we biked about 30 km downriver and rented a room in a private home in a town called Detzem. We managed to scrounge up a schnitzel for dinner.

The next day we got into some of the beautiful scenery that the Moselle is known for: steep valley walls with every arable inch covered in vines. We got sidetracked in Neumagen, where an old Roman signpost gave us the mileage back to Trier. We made it to the tourist hotspot of Bernkastel-Kues, where we stopped for lunch, and saw what is possibly the world's thinnest half-timbered house ("Fachwerkhaus"). We stopped for the evening in the town of Zell, and took a walk above town through it's vineyards, and found views of the old towers that fortified the town wall. Unfortunately, Joe forgot to bring the camera on our walk. Zell is famous for it's "Black Cat" Riesling, which we'd never hear of, but tried anyway.

The next morning on Easter Sunday we pedaled out of Zell under sunny skies and great views of more vineyards. Apparently this bike route hits its peak in autumn when all of the vines are leafed out in vibrant colors, but we get Good Friday and the Monday after Easter off of work, so it's always a good time to get away. We got to Cochem and had a picnic with a view of the castle there, then off for more pedaling. We encountered lots of Easter Sunday festivities along the way - mostly small festivals with an oompah band and a few food stalls set up. We ended up getting all the way into Koblenz, the town where the Moselle and the Rhine meet. It was a big day - 100 km. We ended it with a hearty meal at a brewpub in Koblenz.

The next morning we rounded the Deutsche Eck in Koblenz, the corner of the confluence, complete with a gigantic statue of Emperor Wilhelm I. We then headed up the Rhine, where we raced the riverboat "Goethe" for a ways before we good and passed it. Two years ago we spent the day aboard the Goethe with my parents when they came to visit. After awhile, the Rhine gets pretty boring. It is just castle after castle, one about every 2 km, punctuated by famous rocks, which all Germans love to sing about.

We made an early day of it and spent the night in Bingen, where Hildegard from Bingen founded her convent sometime around 1100 AD. It was a great place to explore. Between the bustling riverfront parks, restored castle, historic Altstadt, and confluence with the Nahe river, we had great views of castle ruins across the river in Rüdesheim and Assmanshausen. Joe convinced me to stay the night in the youth hostel (Jugendherberge). I was very skeptical, but it turns out that some German youth hostels are more like conference centers, and this one was one of the nice ones. We could even take our meals there, and although it was a bit institutional, it was in a beautiful building high above Bingen with some great views.

The next morning we packed up our things, took the ferry across the river, and made our way to Mainz for a noon train back home. The weather had turned cloudy by that point, and we'd emerged from the steep-sided valley into flat, more industrial geography. We both agreed this was our favorite Easter bike trip so far, but it seems the weather plays a disproportionate role in determining the rankings!

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Iran to Turkey because I was Hungary

Joe and I have tried to make the most of living in Europe in terms of opportunities to travel to new places. Over Christmas and New Year we took a 2-week trip to Aegean coast of Turkey, which included a 1-week German language bus trip and one week at a seaside hotel. We plan on going back to Istanbul at some point. It's taken us awhile to get a post up, but here are some highlights of our first week.

Pamukkale and Heiropolis

I was really looking forward to the travertine deposits, but I had no idea an ancient city was built on top of them. You got nothin', Mammoth Hot Springs! Heirapolis was inhabited from the 2nd century BC to the 14th century AD. There is an extensive cemetery as the hot springs were thought to have healing powers, so lots of sick rich people came, and died. The structures in Turkey are fairly well preserved, as they used good building material for the arid climate(limestone, marble, travertine); the earthquakes have certainly taken their toll.


We spent Christmas in the resort town of Bodrum. It is pretty posh by Turkish standards, and building code requires that all structures are painted white. It just so happens this looks stunning against the Mediterranean backdrop. Bodrum is also the site of the world's first Mausoleum, the resting place of King Mausolus, with construction directed by his widow. It seems the concept of a mausoleum took off after that. Paul, of Bible fame, also came through what was then Halicarnassus (now Bodrum) on his travels. And, the city was conquered by Alexander the Great in 334 BC.

A mean, old wave attacks Joe.
Remains of the mausoleum.

Tombs near Demre, Turkey

Looking back on it now, much of the ancient structures we saw in Turkey were monuments to the dead. These tombs carved into the wall along a river in Demre were definitely the most unique. We took a boat tour to see them, and ended up on a small sand island where the river meets the sea. Our lunch that day was freshly caught crab.

Our seaworthy vessel.
Juxtaposition of ancient and modern burial practices.

The Sunken City at Kas

Our next stop was an ancient city that sunk following an earthquake, so the remains are under a few feet of turquoise water a boat ride away from town. Gosh, it would have been nice to see that, but it wasn't included in our tour, and our guide was always a bit sketchy and underhanded about the "extra side-trips" he was offering. So we stayed on shore and explored some un-sunken ruins. More tombs, it seems.

Church of St. Nicholas in Demre

Also in Demre, we visited St. Nicholas' church in the city formerly known as Myra. The church is in ruins, but retains the tomb of St. Nicholas, as well as some beautiful artwork. Some of the artwork depicted a Roman times when Christians met in hiding. Father Christmas seems to be pretty popular with Russians, as we saw a lot of Cyrillic.

Pere Noel's tomb.

The final day of our bus tour was spent in Antalya, which is known primarily as the gateway to the Turkish Riviera, but actually has quite a nice old city. We went on a cheesy pirate ship tour of the harbor, and tried goat's milk ice cream. Then we had some time for shopping in the bazaar and witnessed a protest.

This guy used his long stick to whip the cone out of your hand just as you grabbed it. Getting ice cream meant "enduring" his performance, but it was fun.
Protests against President Erdogan in Antalya, Turkey.