Sunday, June 14, 2009

Rheinisch Roving

The first part of this photo album has images from the Rhineland as described below. The second part is from my visit to the former East to see Kes in her temporary home of Leipzig. More details to go with those pictures will appear tomorrow.

Now for a bit of change of pace, or at least location. It’s time to travel north from the sunny, olive oil soaked landscapes of the Italian Peninsula to the verdant asparagus fields of Germany. After two weeks with my brother, I had to buckle down and work on mammalian diversity at the end of the Jurassic. You are fortunately saved from a discussion of my difficulties with morphometrics by a one Kes S-.

Kes and I met in high school and shared a mutual love of Jim Henson’s Labyrinth, and more recently a mutual love of Carolyn (they’ve been friends since high school as well). In a crazy twist of destiny we also both found a deep and abiding love of dead animals and a way to study them in Germany. She’s interested primarily in human evolution and received a grant to study early human teeth at the Max Plank Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig for a couple of weeks. Naturally plans were made to meet and wander, two of my favorite activities of the moment.

Kes arrived late on a Friday night, but we share a common travel philosophy – Sleep when you’re dead…or on the ride back home – and we were up for a big breakfast and a train to Cologne bright and early the next morning.

Of course the major attraction of the city is the Dom and Kes was duly impressed by the Medieval and Renaissance art inside and the plentiful gargoyles and saints outside. One of the entertainment offerings provided by the Cologne Cathedral is a 509 step climb to the top of the southern the bell tower. I had been delaying this climb until a willing visitor arrived who really wanted to give his or her lower extremities a workout. Kes was onboard for the expedition.

We started in the church’s crypt, but quickly spiraled up several stories. Our progress was made more laborious – and maybe more dangerous – by an opposing flow of traffic as people descended once again. We hugged the right side of the staircase which meant we were dealing with a sliver of stone for a toehold and ladder-like pumping with our legs. Fortunately we could move to the left when traffic cleared. I’m glad I climbed those stairs now. If I had delayed it any longer I would probably need to give up the ascent due to faulty knees or hips.

We emerged from the stairs just below the lattice-work spire, looking out through paneless windows at the man-made peak above. The next flight of stairs was an open set of glorified steel scaffolding that rose to an observation platform at the top. Anyone with even a mild-case of vertigo would need to take a deep breath to climb such soaring stairs that are left open on both sides of the walker.

We topped out 150 meters above the city slightly winded but ready for a view. Really, getting close to the upper reaches of the cathedral was the best part of the climb where we scrutinized the delicate spires and gargoyles that are barely discernable from the ground. From 157 plus meters above the Rhine, I could practically see my dormitory. I could certainly see the Siebengeburg, the range of mountains across the river from Bonn that I run through when I have the time and a clear day. Laying all that geography at my feet gave me a sense of ownership over my home. Giving a tour to Kes helped, too.

I next took her to Früh, a Kölsch brewery near the Cathedral. They serve solid Rhineish cuisine and fresh, cold beer. As we approached the beer garden we could hear raised, angry voices.

FC Köln, the city soccer team whose colors are red and white, had a playoff game against someone who wore blue. A guy in a blue jersey was seated at a table with his girlfriend and about six other people. A guy in a red shirt was yelling at the Blue. His friends grabbed him by the arms and tried to haul him away, but he shook them off and jumped into Blue-shirt’s face. Garbled words were exchanged, collars were grabbed, and Blue-shirt grabbed a glass of beer and flung it into Red-shirt’s face. Red-shirt swore, shook himself, and swept his arms across the table, gathering all the glasses in his reach and flung everything – glass and liquid – at Blue-shirt. Blue-shirt grabbed an empty, rolling glass, and hurled it at red-shirt’s head. Then the waiters stepped in. The only casualty? One of the women at the table was nursing a sore spot on her head. There were no apologies.

There are two aspects of this scene I find important. First, everyone stood around and basically watched it all play out. Even the waiters who lost a couple of glasses in the exchange. There was an implicit understanding that these men from opposing teams had something to work out. This leads me to number two. There’s a common belief that American sport fandom is rabid and bar fights over football teams an immature way to vent frustration. This is true, but it’s not uniquely American. It’s an entrenched part of European football culture. Fights are supposed to happen. It means you’re actually a fan. I’ll let you muse on the maturity of each continent’s fans while I move on to food and castles.

We enjoyed a few glasses of Kölsch – it’s served in 0.2 L glasses to ensure it’s always cold and “a few” really doesn’t amount to much – and our wurst with sauerkraut. Then it was time to move downriver. The Rhine River, between Cologne and Mainz is littered with castles. Local landowners would fight for precious real estate along the river, leaving each other’s homes as Romantic ruins to be rediscovered by tourists centuries later. Near the city of Koblenz, at the confluence of the Mosel River and the Rhine, sits the near perfect fortress abode of Burg Eltz. My parents visited the castle (per Rick Steves’ recommendation) back in April and made me promise I would make the trip.

We got off the train in the tiny town of Moselkern and hiked through the village and into the woods in search of our Fairy Tale destination. The signs ran out right when we reached a fork. We chose not to cross the bridge towards a small restaurant and started slogging up a steep hill. This was supposed to be an easy hike, but we were getting winded. It didn’t help we had climbed 509 steps earlier.

A couple decked out in Germany hiking/battle attire with hiking poles and short-shorts appeared above us on the trail. “Excuse me, is this the way to Burg Eltz?” The man looked like I had grown an extra head. “No, Burg Eltz is over there!” He waved vaguely down slope and to the right. Down we went, needing one more pointer. “It’s behind the restaurant.” Oh, naturally. The Germans would set up a cute café along a hiking trail.

After ducking behind the dumpster, we found an idyllic stream and knew we were on the right path. Through a break in the trees ahead of us the 1,000 year old castle finally appeared. Over the years member of the three families that share the property have tacked on new additions, but not once was the place conquered. Many have tried and on the tour they showed us battered armor to prove it. The castle was the perfect example of what life in a “normal” castle would be like. I’ve taken tours through huge imperial palaces, but here a local lord worked his serfs and political savvy to hang onto a strategic trade route.

The interior was outfitted with ornately painted frescos and fine woodcarving. It wasn’t all opulent. More utilitarian. Castles were fortresses and this one held off catapults and cannon fire through the centuries. We made sure to take plenty of pictures of the ideal mediaeval castle come to life. Sure King Ludwig II built Neuschwanstein as the quintessential Fairy Tale castle, but Burg Eltz wasn’t constructed by a Romantic with too much cash. It’s an authentic, beautiful window into a lifestyle that died off with the dragons and chivalry.

We hiked back into town, hoping to find a quaint winestube somewhere in the village. None was available in one of the most productive wine regions in Germany, so we decided to head out and eat back in Bonn. Of course there was an accident on the rail lines, and we were stranded along with a twenty-person cycling team. They dejectedly walked towards the village in their spandex and riding shoes while pointing us in the direction of a cabbie near the station. She would drive us to Koblenz to catch a train home, and the German Rail system would reimburse the expense for the inconvenience. The check for the cab fare arrived last week as a testament to the blazing efficiency of the Germans when they really put their collective minds behind infrastructure management.

By the time we finally got back into town, the restaurants were either packed, or not serving food anymore. We were starving and ended up at “Taco’s” a German/Mexican restaurant. I’m generally leery of the combination, but my burrito was actually really good, if not particularly spicy. I still needed to get some Rheinish wine into Kes before she headed East again. We would have to wait until morning to see if Riesling was in the cards.

At the top of our list the next day was an excursion to the Rheinisches Landesmuseum in Bonn, a small but very modern display of all things found and done in the Rhine Valley over the last couple of millennia. One of their prize objects is the skeleton of the first Neanderthal ever discovered and described. It was yanked out of the Neader Valley near Düsseldorf in 1856, right before Mr. Darwin’s best selling book hit the shelves. When you’re showing an aspiring paleoanthropologist around Bonn, you need to show her the guy that started it all.

The museum also features a collection of art and sculpture and a temporary exhibit on battles and architecture through the last millennium. Scale models of castles and cities were on display, populated by literally thousands of tiny figures, each in the midst of action. I can’t begin to comprehend how many hours were spent sculpting each tiny figure and painting it with historic accuracy, but it certainly held the attention of two bone-focused paleontologists for about an hour.
A tiny shopping district in 13th century Damascus. The figures are roughly two inches tall.

Crusaders setting sail for Jerusalem at a minuscule scale.

After a walk past Beethoven’s scowling statue, and a quick peek into the Münsterbasilica, we finally settled into a café with an extensive Rheinish wine list. With plenty of seasonal greens in our stomachs and wine in our heads, we said good-bye on the platform, promising to try to meet one more time before Kes headed out of town. Fortunately, I had the next weekend free…
The photo album again with plenty of views of the Burg.

No comments: