Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Kassel: City of Greek, German and Japanese

(Click here for a set of pictures illustrating my excursion to Kassel. Enjoy and use them to further understand the magic that was Hessen's great, yes great, northern city.)

As I packed and prepared for Germany I would often say I was off to study fossils and "Wanderweg Europe." That is, I wanted (and want) to make this continent my oyster. "Oh, yeah, Europe's great for traveling. The trains take you everywhere and it's all so close." By the time I climbed onto my plane bound for Frankfurt, I was convinced I would be able to flip a Euro into a friendly engineer's hand and travel from Lisbon to Moscow without spending more than a few more Euros on necessities like food, public restrooms and alcohol.

Unfortunately, this is not strickly the case. The trains and public transportation system connect the countries of the European Union in an incredible network of tracks and engines that would make the Romans salivate. Unfortunately, it ain't cheap. Many Germans drive because by the time you buy a train ticket for every member of your family, you might as well drive to your destination, even if gas hovers around $6.50 a gallon. That doesn't necessarily mean they drive large, gas-guzzling cars, but you get the idea. The trains are a bit expensive (teuer in German). The German rail system (The Bahn or "Way") recognizes the problem and offers some incredible deals if you are paying attention to the right website at the right time. They also have a less closely guarded secret called the Schönes-Wochenende Ticket, a deal almost too good to be true. You and four of your best friends can buy a 37 Euro ticket that will let you go anywhere in Germany for 24 hours. You also get free transportation on any bus or tram in any city you visit. That's roughly 8 Euro (10-ish bucks) to go anywhere. Because so many people were away visiting their host cities for the entire weekend, a group of us - Erin, Katie, Halley and myself - decided to have a "Great Weekend" and travel to Göttingen and Kassel, two cities reasonably close-by, but still expensive to visit without the sweet ticket deal.

Our adventure began in Marburg. We would take an hour-long train ride to Kassel then transfer and ride a further hour to Göttingen, a university town with a castle and such. It's the city where the second wave of Fulbright students will be having their orientation meeting, so it must reflect well on Germany. We would wander there in the afternoon, hop back on the train and visit Kassel in the evening. Unfortunately "the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry (as some are want to say). Our plan went awry in the form of a train that just didn't want to go on. After about 20 minutes we had to stop. The operator mumbled something that no one really understood, regardless of their mother-tongue, and we lost some time. Then we stopped again, the door opened and we were told this would be about a half-hour break to "fix the doors."

The fours of us piled out onto the platform at Treysa to take a breather, stretch and confer on what exactly we thought the intercom had told us. Then we noticed a girl in an electric-blue tuxedo and lank black hair stroll by. It is Germany, and fashion statements must be made, but she looked ridiculous. She was followed by a kid with long blond hair spiked at strategic points into a ridiculous halo. "Maybe the circus is on board?" Halley speculated. Then someone with a scythe hopped onto the platform. It then dawned on me. They were dressed like Animè characters from Japanese cartoons and comic-books. In case you've never been in this situation, waiting for your broken-down train to be repaired while mingling with people in school-girl outfits, capes and wielding weapons medieval and imaginary is probably the closest to Purgatory I will ever be in this life. Stay tuned in case this observation is contradicted. I'll let you know.

The Animè kids were clearly headed to a convention of some kind and we were curious to see which was their stop when the train finally got rolling. By the time we reached Kassel, it was 1 in the afternoon and we were starving. It looked like we would do this city first and eventually roll north if Kassel didn't hold our attention until 10:27 PM when the last train to Marburg left the station. We needn't have worried.

The city of Kassel was mostly bombed out in 1944 and leaving the city center a mostly post-1950 architectural affair, but if you hop on the No. 1 tram to the outskirts of the city you will find a massive garden built in the early 18th century by Wilhelm IX. The garden is fronted by a palace built in 1786, an affair partially funded by the fees collected by the British government when they hired a bunch of Hessian soldiers to help stifle the pesky American Revolution. We entered the park via a conveient tourist office where I learned many of the facts I have and will continue to regurgitate for you. At the office I also picked up as many brochures as I could. It's a kind of compulsion. A vital piece of trivia (an oxymoron if ever there was one) may be hiding in their well-organized pages. It makes me wish I was a scrapbooker so I could somehow justify my need to collect the things.

We then found a lovely cafè for lunch where I ordered a very German meal of sausage and potato salad. As we ate, the our waitress came running from her corner where she was talking to the regulars, brandishing her cell phone. We turned and saw she was snapping pictures of this: The Animè convention was in castle and the adentents were checking out the sites too...dressed as a monk and a bridal stripper. I won't judge. I will observe though that her shoes were hardly adequate for the kind of hiking we took on that day and she was probably a mite cold as the Hessian weather finally ushered in a cool Autmnal day.

We went to the first castle which also houses the worlds finest wall-paper collection (it had to be somewhere, I guess) and a variety of Greek and Roman antiquites. It also provided an incredible view of the garden and the Oktagon, the monument that bears a massive statue of the demi-god Hercules on its summit. Hercules is about forty feet tall and he's a speck at the top of that tower. We had a long and arduous hike, but we wanted to see how a rich king blows his extra cash, so we started up the hill/mountain (Language note: The Germans have a word that encompasses both "hill" and "mountain." It's "Berg." To me a hill is hardly more than a bump and a mountain is quite the opposite. There isn't much in between. I think a Berg fills in this gap pretty well.).

It was an epic quest past massive fake Roman aqueducts that were built to look like ruins, but now three centuries later, are legitimately starting to fall apart and across The Devil's Bridge. The whole endevour kept reminding me of Fantasia as the centaurs and pegasuses (pegasusi?) romp through an idyllic Greek garden. We kept turning around as we climbed higher, admiring the view of the city and snapping a picture. An example: But, as you might assume, the higher we got, the better the view. We finally reached the foothills of Hercules monument at a massive fountain with Neptune holding court. I think the whole structure is probably even more striking in mid-Summer when the fountain is running, but it was still quite a sight: I think it's important to remember that the statue up on the top is huge and it still barely registers in the picture. Getting up there was quite a challenge (despite the fact that elderly women, small children and family dogs seemed to get to the top without much hesitation) involving probably 700 steps and nearly 500 m in elevation change. Not a bad Saturday afternoon stroll.

When we finally reached the statue, we were either belting "I can go the Distance" from Disney's Hercules, humming the Lord of the Rings theme (maybe that was just me) or trying to massage our tights back into action. But it was worth the view:
The Big Guy, Hera's bane and Zero to Hero, in his full glory. The above scenery shot was from the parapet you can see in the lower right corner. This is the best view of the statue we could get. I guess I'll need to go back when the reconstruction winds down. Considering they've been messing with the structure in some way for the last 300 years, I'm not optimistic I'll ever see it.

For more images (and less words) don't forget about that link at the beginning of this entry. When you reach the summit, there are three things that greet you at the top of the last step. 1) a mess of construction as the Kasselers shore up the pediment holding the offspring of Zeus. 2) The naked butt of the strongest man to ever live. and 3) a cut-out of the statue sans face that you can poke your own head through and have your picture taken as the mighty hero "in repose" (as every brocher I carried pointed out). The third was honestly the most exciting.

After taking a bunch of pictures we headed back down the hill and to the Lowensberg, or Lion's Mountain, a medival castle also reconstructed by Wilhelm. Where we wandered through the requisite castle maze, met even more well-behaved dogs, and caught a bus out of the park and towards our next destination.

Buses in cities that I don't have fully mapped in my head stress me out, as previously noted, because they have the ability to get stuck in traffic and run late or randomly shut down in the middle of the route. The latter occured and we had to pile out and find different stop to pick up a different bus to take us back to the city center. Our new coach eventually rolled up and we were off to central Kassel where we discovered the beautiful city hall (or Rathouse, so named because "Rat" means "council" not because city politicians are large rodents, though some may disagree). Next was the Orangerie where the nobility could enjoy the finer things and modern tourists can oggle at their oppulance. Here there was another garten, this one a bit flatter, with a wide field that just begged for an ultimate frisbee game, a touch-football game and a few kites. Erin and I, the two Ohioans, taught Halley and Katie how to salute the Fatherland at important monuments then rolled on to the duck-pond as the sun set. I think this is one of my favorite pictures I took that day as we walked along another tree-lined path to another gorgeous local where I can only dream of going for a run on a cool Fall night (preferably with a large, mild-mannered hound at my side): I also took a horizontal picture of the path. It's in the album. Which do you prefer? Anyway, with the sun down, our wandering was over and our stomachs were rumbling. We wandered aimlessly and found ourselves in the middle of the shopping district where fountains showered the central square and food was out of our budget.

We slipped down a side street and found "Zeus" a Greek restaurant that provided the perfect ending to our Hellenic-themed day. I got to briefly play menu authority as I racked my brain for the names of all the fantastic dishes I had when I visited Athens. In true Greek fashion, the wait staff took their sweet time getting our orders and bringing them out to us. We had to awkwardly flag down the waitress, by which I mean I got up and hovered in the middle of the room as she chatted with a table of more relaxed guests, so that we wouldn't miss our train home. We were given free shots of Ouzo as we scampered out the door and sprinted to the square to catch a tram to the train station.

We made it and found seats. As we rolled along we slowly acquired German teenagers decked out as their favorite Animè characters. More and more piled on and I sensed we were nearing the epicenter of the Japanese-inspired convention. Three stops from the station we stopped outside a large building with a banner proclaiming: ConMochi. We were inundated by people in massive, spiked wigs, samurai swords and knee-socks. I feld closure to the day. I was exhausted in the way only a day of exploring a new place can exhaust you and I was surrounded by great friends and people that have the kinds of friends that will accept you even when you strap on a couple extra limbs or look like this: I love this country. I hope you love yours (even if you need to pay a lot to fuel up the car for an adventure).


Deutsche Heutewort: ändern - to alter

Kannst du mir Hilfe? Ich brauche dich meine Würde zu halten für den Tag.
Can you help me? I need you to hold my diginity for the day.

P.S. I don't in any way want my teasing of the Animè peeps to be seen as derisive or mean. I am a proud nerd. I dressed up like Luke Skywalker when I saw the midnight showing of Revenge of the Sith and as Victor Krum when Goblet of Fire came out. I love seeing dorky, passionate people, especially when they get together and share their dorky, passions with each other.


Michael Jaung said...

Yay for the T and not having a car :) Did you hear about Hurricane Ike that hit Ohio? Crazy stuff.

Carolyn said...

Maybe I didn't grow up eating Skyline, but I think I can prove my Cincinnati roots by saying that I comfortable with bus systems as a result of riding the Metro alone from an early age. That said, I think I will make your mother's Skyline recipe for the people in my program.

Matt said...

I might argue the riding the Metro simply proves you lived near a major metropolitan area. Loving Skyline proves that major metropolitan area is Cincinnati. Every city has buses, only one city is addicted to chili on speghetti ;) That said, I hope the chili goes over well (especially in a nutritionist crowd). I may try to make it next week. Send tips my way (especially those learned the hard way).

P.S. The other reason I don't like buses in strange cities: I never have the city mapped in my head. I'm perfectly comfortable taking a bus in Cincy because I know when I accidentally get on the wrong one or I reach the end of a route, I know where I am and I can figure out what to do next. In Kassel or San Francisco, I'm nervous that I may work myself into a corner. The bus line shuts down and I have no way of leaving some ill-begotten part of town for another three hours when the next bus decides to come by. Trains have a more reliable route and timetable. Station maps and route maps are very different creatures for a visitor to deal with. That's what I think any-hoo.