This post was scheduled in advance to appear today.
This post was scheduled in advance to appear today.
The original plan for today was to explore Ulm for a bit and then jump on a train to Heidelberg. The rain came early to Ulm (remember, the rain gods have a copy of my itinerary) so I was not inclined to stick around for long. I did walk along the Danube river for a couple of kilometers and circumnavigated the city centre for a while, but then I had the idea to visit Tübingen on the way to Heidelberg. Tübingen is a university town in on the Neckar river south of Stütgart. I was hoping it would be worth the time, and I was not disappointed.
I exited the train and header for the Altstadt (old city) which is on a hillside above the river. The streets are narrow, steep and winding and all of the buildings are in the half-timbered style of the Black Forest. Here, as in Ulm earlier, it was market day with stalls of produce and flowers in the main square. I climbed up to the high point of the city centre to a castle which didn’t really look worth the 4 euro admission fee, then explored for a while before looking for lunch.
The Lonely Planet guide recommended a place called Gasthausbrauerei Neckarmüller for excellent food and beer. I plopped down at a table on the patio overlooking the river and promptly smashed my fingertip in a loose part of the chair. After I recovered from the injury I ordered a lunch recommended to “go well with bier” (seriously, what doesn’t go well with beer?) — a Wurstsalat (sausage salad) and a large unfiltered dunkel bier. The salad was sort of a pile of bologna-like meat (but less slimy) with slivers of pickle and sharp red onions and some local bread. The garnish was several gerkins. Both the food and drink were perfect and I enjoyed my leisurely lunch by the Neckar river watching the punters float boats full of tourists back and forth.
Back on the train, I connected through Stütgart back to Heidelberg. In Stütgart I changed trains and climbed into the first class car. This car had the “private” compartments of six comfy chairs with a sliding glass door. After checking that I seat I had chosen had not been reserved I put the headphones on and listened to some Bat For Lashes, Florence and The Machine, and Portishead while prim and proper german businessmen boarded. Two of them entered the same compartment where I was sitting and checked the reservation board three times making sure they were in the right place. I was amused as they sat down opposite me and tried to determine why I was sitting up here in their first class compartment. You know I fit right in: they were in their gray teutonic suits with matching belts and shoes while I was wearing my clean-ish blue jeans, hiking boots and Rockies t-shirt (GO ROCKIES!). I watched with glee as the ticket inspector came in and they expected me to be booted out back to second class where I belonged… I could see the disappointment on their faces when the inspector checked my pass and went on his way.
The businessmen finally had some relief when we reached Heidelberg where I was departing. Just to mess with them a little more, I left a couple of parting gifts in the compartment before exiting the train — remember what I had for lunch?
I found my hotel to be very Sprockets-like and clean, but not very close to the Altstadt. I was about to get on a tram to the city centre when my cell phone rang with some bad news. Antionette took Lucy to the vet today to have her infected toe checked and while the infection was better the ulcer on the toe was worse. Bad enough, in fact, that the vet wants to amputate at least the toe soon, possibly before I get back. They’re going to check on it once more next week and then a decision will be made. I feel so bad for Lucy and wish that I could be there for her. I’ve already investigated coming back early if she does need the amputation before the 28th.
In a funk now, I tried to navigate the tram and bus system and eventually made it to the city centre, but I was not in much of a drinking mood. I had a couple of beers and headed back to the hotel where I slept restlessly.
I woke up in Hirschaid to gray cloudy skies again, but at least there was no rain — yet. I discovered a few more mosquito bites on my arms, legs and on the top of my left ear… you know this always starts your day in the best possible manner. I packed up and headed for the train station.
Apparently the train station in Hirschaid had been closed for six weeks until today (which explains the reason for the bus connection the day before) but there was still a lot of construction on the line. If there had been any other connection option, an earlier train for example, I would have taken it. As it was I needed to connect through Fürth to Würzburg to catch the Romantic Road coach through Röthenburg. I had almost 30 minutes to spare in the original plan but that was not enough. I made it to Fürth just fine but found the connecting train was already 10 minutes late. As I waited, the status board changed to 15 minutes late. Okay, this is still doable I told myself with mock enthusiasm. On board, the conductor announced the train would be 20 minutes late into Würzburg. Still possible to exit the train and run out to the bus stands without missing my pre-paid bus tour.
A few minutes later an announcement told me the train would be 30 minutes late and in reality we were 35 minutes late… clearly I missed my bus. I sat on a bench and reviewed my options and came to the conclusion thatI should jump on the next train to Augsburg and salvage a little of the day by spending a little time there (it’s also part of the Romantic Road). When I arrived, though, other than a little architecture the city was pretty work-a-day and not very interesting. I admit I was not trying very hard, though.
At least the sun was out! I think the rain gods have my itinerary and had not been informed of my change of plans (they were raining on the bus). When I arrived in Ulm it was still sunny as I walked from the train station to my hotel next to the Münster, a 161m tall steeple/church combo. I wish there was something nearby to reference to compare its height, but it is a spectacular structure that overshadows nearly everything in the city. There is another tall steeple a few blocks away but you almost don’t see it because you’re craning your neck up at the big one.
I found the memorial to Einstein (he was born in Ulm) at the spot of his childhood home. It’s now in a pedestrian shopping mall a few meters from a MacDonald’s and a Burger King. This is just wrong.
I grabbed a snack for dinner and planned on heading out in the early night to take photos of the steeple, but my fatigue caught up with me and I slept hard and long that night.
Es regnet. It rains.
First, however, let’s talk about Leipzig. My preconceptions about Leipzig were along the lines of a gray, east-german style place with no character. But seriously, it’s been twenty years since the fall of the wall, and the sun has figuratively been shining pretty brightly here, despite the bleary cold skies.
It’s Monday, so almost all of the museums and attractions in the city (as in most cities) are closed. I found a few things that were available to visit: a statue of Goethe as a law student, the Nickolaikirche, the Thomaskirche and the Stassi museum.
The Thomaskirche is famous as the burial place of Bach. The inside of the church is okay, mostly timber-beamed with a few stained glass windows. The alter contains the grave, adorned with fresh flowers, and is fairly plain. A small shop sells t-shirts and hoodies, and a large statue of Bach stands outside the church under which a local plays classic Bach compositions on an accordion.
I was looking forward to the Stasi museum (the former east german police), but since it was one of the few places open today it was full of tour bus groups. I waited about thirty minutes in the hot waiting room before I decided to move along.
I found a Starbuck’s (I know, hard to believe!) and parked outside with a cuppa and utilized the wi-fi to check e-mail and upload some photos. The weather cooled and the wind came up a bit, so to stay warm I took a walk around the Swan Pond and the Opera House before heading back towards the train station. On the way, I did something very brave (or very foolish) and had a lunch of currywurst. Luckily, it did not come back to haunt me on the three hours of train travel to follow.
Did I mention that when the day started I put my backpack into the luggage lockers at the train station? Well, the lockers are over on the side of one of the platforms, in an area that would probably be off-limits in the states. On this platform, obviously unused, were several old east german locomotives and rolling stock. I snooped around and took many photos.
Eventually it was time to head for Hirschaid, outside of Bamberg. Another ICE train took me through some very lovely rolling hills and valleys (worth the trip alone) but I noticed the rain had followed me from Berlin. There were puddles in the fields as the train passed. When I arrived in Bamberg I had to connect to Hirschaid via bus. Since all of the busses had the same code (SEV) on them, I had to trundle through the pouring rain having the following conversation:
Gehen Sie zu Hirschaid?
Wo ist Hirschaid?
Soaking wet, I climbed aboard and rode to Hirschaid. Something I had not anticipated was that the bus would not stop at the train station in Hirschaid. My directions referenced a starting point of the station, so I was a little bit lost. I went into a restaurant to ask directions and the woman managed to tell me the exactly wrong way to go. I’m also sure, from the reaction of the people in the restaurant, that they were soon on the phone alerting the entire village: “There’s an American in town!” I got the feeling that tourists are rare in Hirschaid.
Luckily I happened upon a building with a town map and I oriented myself so that I could find the Braueri Kruas Gasthaus. I walked up to the door to find a sign that said (in german) that they were on vacation. Eventually I found a back door near the loading dock where people were working in an office. Through my bad german and their complete refusal to speak any English, I managed to inform them of my reservation. A worker showed me to the room and as I unloaded my gear I noticed everyone leaving for the day. Some of the workers were grabbing a bottle or two from the loading dock to take home for dinner. Since the guest house was closed, there was no dinner at the brewery and NO BEER! I walked around the village for about an hour in the rain looking for any restaurant that was still open (apparently Mondays in Hirschaid are the local closing day) so I ended up finding the only person in the village willing and/or able to speak english… at the SubStop. I took my salami sub and a Coke Zero back to the room. Bonus find at 3 am: mosquitos in the room that bit me in the face. Awesome!
I woke up early today and headed down to the hotel restaurant for Frühstuck before checking out. I headed back north on Friedrichstrße to the Franschöischestraße U-bahn station where I planned to head north to the Freidrishstraße station where I would catch the S-bahn to the Hauptbahnhof (I had learned my transit lesson the day before) — but I discovered that today the east-west S-bahn lines were not running. I don’t know if this was regularly-scheduled maintenance or if this was a result of a widespread brake inspection problem that was in progress due to a problem discovered with the S-bahn coaches, but the result was the same: I had to find an alternate route to the Hauptbahnhof. I found a sign that explained S-bahn travelers could use the RegionalBahn train instead, so I waited until the next westbound train came through the station. In hindsight, it may have been just as fast to walk.
My plan had been to put my backpack into a luggage locker in the train station and explore more of Berlin during the day, but I soon discovered the meager allotment of luggage lockers were already full. There is another left luggage facility but it is not self-service, requiring queuing up and dropping off your bags (basically like checking your luggage for a flight). You’re given a claim ticket which myst be paid before claiming your bags (5 euro). My backpack checked, I jumped on the U-bahn to the Bundestag.
The Bundestag is the german parliament building (formerly the Reichstag building) and one recent addition is a large glass dome from which you get a great panoramic view of central Berlin. Although I arrived relatively early, it was Sunday and the line to access the dome was already snaking out the front door of the building and well onto the grounds outside. Perhaps next time…
The cool cloudy weather that had rolled in the previous evening was still present, and by the time I walked the short distance to the Brandenburg Gate a slight drizzle had started up. I managed a few photos of the plaza before the skies opened up. Apparently, the rain gods were unhappy…
In the end, I dodged downpours all day long. I would walk a while and just as I was about ti see something interesting, down came the rain. The museums, already busy with Sunday crowds, were even more popular as sanctuaries from the driving rainstorms. I personally did not find the conditions too harsh: the temperature was in the upper 50’s/low 60’s and the wind was not blowing that hard, but there were frequent gullywashers that soaked everyone caught out in them. My poor ball cap was soaked through early in the day, however my Denver University Soccer warm-up jacket was mostly water-proof and warm, which was a pleasant surprise. Even those with umbrellas were not safe from the wind-whipped rain, and many people looked very unhappy.
I knew that with the rain it would be difficult to get good photos of famous landmarks, and the crowds taking refuge inside of the museums and other attractions were going to make sightseeing tough, but I did not let that put me in a bad mood. I strolled when the rain allowed and hid out in souvenir shops, cafes and under trees when the rain pounded down. I hung out in a park on a bench and watched tourists for a while until the clouds became very dark and threatening, at which point I decided to head back to the train station (it was getting close to time for my trip to Leipzig, anyway). As I walked back the skies opened up once again and proceeded to dump rain on everyone for about half an hour. I managed to find a large tree under which o take shelter but even the tree had a limit to how much water it could handle before it was waterlogged and the rain began filtering through the branches in larger amounts. I took off and ran a few blocks to take shelter in a doorway.
By the time I reached the train station, I was completely soaked (the jacket was only damp, however). After retrieving my backpack and validating the Eurail pass for first use, I found my platform and discovered that the reason I needed an advance reservation for this particular train was that it is an InterCity Express (ICE), a high-speed supermodern spacecraft in the guise of a train. I had splurged for a first-class train pass, so I found myself in a spacious seat by the window with enough leg room to cross my legs comfortably. At one point I looked up at the status screen and observed our speed was 180 kmh as we speed across the germany countryside. I realize it’s been twenty years or so since the fall of the wall, but the old East Germany didn’t look that strabge or foreign. I saw modern roads and many nice autos — I guess my preconceived notions had involved beat-up Trabis and soviet-style trucks. Much of the trip between Berlin and Leipzig was through rural agricultural areas with fields heavy with rain. The rain gods were following me…
Arrival in Leipzig was uneventful, and the train station (allegedly on of the largest in the world) is quite a site. It’s a beautiful station and one is invigorated when exiting the train platform. I highly recommend, however, that to keep this wonderful image of this beautiful station in your memories, immediately exit the station and be on your way. The other levels of the station are just a large, crowded and tacky shopping mall. Unless you came to Leipzig to eat at MacDonald’s or shop for jeans, avoid this area at all costs.
My hotel could not have been easier to find: the A&O Hostel/Hotel is directly across the street from the station. I originally had concerns about the noise of the trains, but this was no issue at all — the real issue was the road noise from the highway that runs between the station and the hotel. I suppose if your room or dorm was on the back side of the building, you may not notice the road noise, but my room was on the front.
I opted for a private room, which at 34 euro was quite a bargain compared to other private room options. The room was modern and clean, and I eventually tuned out the road noise and even sleep with the windows open. The only downside of the place was the expected wi-fi I was going to use to update the world of my travels was BROKEN! Whatever shall I do? I decided to wait until Monday morning and use the T-Mobile hot spot in the train station to check e-mail and upload some photos. A 30-day pass for the T-mobile hot spots nationwide is less than the cost of 24 hours of service at the Marriott in Berlin! I suppose it’s all relative…
Friday started early, as I had a 7:45 flight and a 4:50 reservation with Super Shuttle. The ride to the airport and check-in was uneventful, and I was on the plane with no major issues. The pilot started the engines and started to taxi for a takeoff when he suddenly shut down the engines and informed us that he was seeing a malfunction in the starboard engine. We were towed back to gate and the mechanics came out to see where the problem was located. After about 20 minutes, we were cleared to leave again (we never heard if they fixed the issue or not) and were on our way to Newark.
I had over four hours to kill in the Newark airport, so obviously my first stop was a bar near my departing gate. Did I have a few whiskeys? Of course! I also tried to make a few phone calls while I had some time to kill. Be warned, I’m about to go off on a rant here:
Goddammit AT&T! It should not take 15 attempts to make a single call! From a major airport! Seriously? WTF are you doing over there? You’re certainly not trying to run a mobile phone network! I tried for over 40 minutes to download my e-mail on my phone and I think I eventually uploaded one photo, even though I kept getting “network connection reset” errors. When the iPhone moves to another carrier, so will I.
On board the plane to berlin, I found myself sitting next to a mid-40s couple from Berlin. They were very nice and we had a nice long conversation about many things. The only thing that ruined the flight for all three of us was an older couple in the row in front of us… yes, they were Ugly Americans. Apparently the man and his wife were in a competition to see who could slam their seat back the most times in one flight, and they also competed in such events as How Many Times We You Go to the Lavatory and my favorite, My Seat Sucks So Trade Places With Me.
Upon landing at Berlin Tegel Airport, I changed some dollars for euros and grabbed a transit card so I could take the TXL bus to the main train station, where I had planned to take the U-bahn (subway) near to my hotel. I made a bit if a mistake while looking at the transit maps, as I thought there was a U-bahn line from the Hauptbahnhof to Friedrishstraße station. It turns out it’s an S-bahn line (commuter train)… I had been traveling for the better part of a whole day and was sleepy, so I spent a while walking around the Hauptbahnhof looking for the U-bahn line I needed. I finally figured out thet the only U-bahn line there runs only to the Brandendurg Gate (it’s the beginning of the U-5 line that’s still under construction.). Eventually I made my way and got to Freidrichstraße station, and then to the U-6 line south to the Stadtmitte station, A short walk later I was in the hotel.
Hurrupmh. I know I used Marriott points to book a free hotel stay and saved at least 140 euro, but I don’t get the point of charging for internet access — it should be part of the cost of the room. Both the in-room connection and the wi-fi in the lobby were pay-only services, and at 16.95 euro per 24 hours it was not a bargain. I decided to skip it here and will upload from Leipzig. Just because business people are likely to expense this cost does not make it the right thing to do.
I’m getting older, and slightly wiser, so I have started planning a little wiggle room into thew beginning of my trips to allow for some time to acclimate and sleep off the jet lag. My first travel day started at 4 am in Denver and ended the next day at about 10 am in Berlin (with only a little sleep on the airplane during this time). 10 years ago, this would not be a problem for me, but the extra nap time today at the hotel was very welcome, I took a shower and laid on the bed by the open window for a few hours because you never really sleep well on a plane. My original plan for today was to go out and explore Berlin, but in hindsight this was an overly ambitious plan. Luckily, tomorrow (Sunday) was going to be a day where I took as quick train ride to the Polish border (because I was so close) and then back to Leipzig, so instead I will just do some exploring in Berlin and take my scheduled train from Berlin to Leipzig in the late afternoon.
After a few hours of napping, I went for a walk around the neighborhood. A cool front had blown in and the skies at 5 pm were gray with a brisk wind whipping from time to time. It felt very comfortable to me, but many people were wearing jackets, coats and even scarves. I headed east and found Checkpoint Charlie, still full of tourists at this hour on a Saturday evening. I turned north and walked up Friedrichstraße to Unter den Linden and east to the Fernsehturm. By this time it was dark, and I came to a realization: I need a better camera.
For the longest time, I’ve been content to use a Canon point-and-shoot camera due to its small size and relatively excellent picture quality. However, I realized that many of the shots I wanted to take in the fading daylight along Unter den Linden just did not turn out at all. There were many good shots of building lit in various dramatic ways that turned out blurry or worse due to the low light conditions. Any movement of the camera while the shutter is open are amplified in low-light conditions so most of my shots become undecipherable blobs. The one question I have to ask myself is: Am I willing to be “that guy,” an obvious tourist walking along with an expensive SLR hanging from my neck and a collapsable tripod in tow? Perhaps I’ll leave the photography to the experts.
I headed back to the hotel, fully intending to grab a bite to eat along the way. Surprisingly, there were not many restaurants open and the few I did see that were still serving were italian and thai places, not “german.” I made it back to the hotel and hit the bar for a Berliner pilsner and some chips (fries), which was really all I needed before crashed for the night. I expected I would need to rest up for tomorrow…
As you read this post, I should be flying through US airspace from Denver to Newark, and then on to Berlin. I will be on holiday for the next two weeks in Germany and the Czech Republic.
Most of the places I am staying are supposed to have wi-fi available, so I plan to upload photos and make a few blog posts along the way. I do have one post per day pre-scheduled with the names of the cities where I will be that day in the title.
This post was scheduled in advance to appear today.
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