25 January 2011

Where to go in Germany part 6: Lower Saxony & Bremen

Sorry for the delay in this series; a bit of life intervened.

The city of Bremen is actually a city-state. (There are three independent city-states in Germany: Bremen, Hamburg, and Berlin.) It also includes the town of Bremerhaven, which just means "Bremen's harbor," at the mouth of the Weser river at the North Sea, I've been told it's a very typical northwestern German city, with typical German architecture.

Bremen is in the northwestern section of Lower Saxony. In Lower Saxony, the dialect is Plattdeutsch, or flat-lands German. The dialect spoken in the westernmost region is very similar to Dutch, which is unsurprising, as modern Dutch is an outgrowth of the old Low Franconian languages. It's tantalizingly similar to English, but not understandably, unless you also know German. The wikipedia entry is also available in Platt.

Most people have probably heard of Hannover. It's the state capital, home to several universities, and full of culture.

Braunschweig was recommended by an acquaintance who lived there. It's over in eastern Lower Saxony, in the direction of Saxony-Anhalt. Many places called Brunswick are named for this city.

For the folk tale aficionados, Hamelin is a hop from Hannover, and the Pied Piper is enacted weekly in summer.

The third major German automotive company (after Mercedes-Benz in Stuttgart and BMW near Munich) is Volkswagen, which is headquartered in Wolfsburg. The city itself was founded to be the home of the VW factory, and it's still the main employer. The main thing to see is the open-air automobile museum.

Next up: Schleswig-Holstein and Hamburg.

17 January 2011

Where to go in Germany part 5: The Rhine, NRW

We're heading back west to visit the Rhine and North Rhine-Westphalia (NRW).

Taking a Rhine cruise is enjoyable in nice weather. It runs the whole way from Mainz to Cologne, but you can get on or off at any of the stops in between. The Mainz/Rüdesheim to Koblenz stretch features castles galore, the remains of various kingdoms, fiefdoms, and assorted people who wanted to collect taxes from people traveling down the Rhine. The hostel at Bacharach is inside one of them. (Reserve well in advance if you want to stay there, and be aware that it's often filled with groups of schoolchildren.)

NRW borders both Hessen and the Rhineland on the south. As you may guess from the name, the Rhine flows through. The Ruhr, Ems, and Weser do as well. The southern and southeastern region is mountainous, but the northern part is flat lowlands.

The one city I've been to in NRW is Cologne. There's not a whole lot of interest in Köln, but there's a famous cathedral. It's easy to find: go out of the train station (following signs) and look up. Marvel at its size, take a tour. That's about it.

The former capital of West Germany, Bonn, is also in NRW. Beethoven spent some time in Bonn, and there was an elector of the Holy Roman Empire based there. There's a palace you can tour.

Münster is in the northern lowlands, the Münsterland. It's home to a Romanesque/Gothic transition cathedral, a castle, and a university.

Aachen (Aix-la-Chapelle, for the Francophiles) is in far western NRW, somewhat near to Köln, by the border with Belgium and the Netherlands. Charlemagne (Karl der Grosse) built a mansion there, and Otto I was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in the cathedral Charlemagne ordered built, as well as subsequent Holy Roman Emperors.

The Ruhrgebiet is in west-central NRW and is the largest industrial-metropolitan area in Germany.

Düsseldorf has a lot of culture and nightlife, and I'm told it's more interesting than Cologne.

Next up: probably Niedersachsen/Lower Saxony.

15 January 2011

Where to go in Germany part 4: Bavaria

When most Americans think about Germany, they picture Lederhosen, buxom barmaids, and picturesque mountains. That's found mostly in Bavaria.

There's a joke that Bavaria is kind of like Texas: big states, largely rural, more conservative and religious than other states (though Bavaria is mostly Catholic, while Texas is protestant), would secede into their own nation if possible. Bavaria is formally known as the Free State of Bavaria, and in the wars of German unification, led by Kaiser Wilhelm I of Prussia, the Bavarian kings resisted and sided frequently with neighboring Austria over their more aggressive northern neighbors, unless long-standing rival France was involved.

The Thirty Years' War raged across Bavaria in the mid-1600s, pitting the Protestant north against the Catholic south.

Nuremberg is a lovely town in north-central Bavaria. The imperial castle overlooks the city, and you can walk around the former moat, now dry. Probably most famous for the trials of war criminals held there, Nuremberg also has the Plaza of the Declaration of Human Rights, which has each of the articles engraved on a pillar in multiple languages. Nuremberg has a lot of very strange statuary throughout the city, including a creepy dead rabbit and an allegory of Death.

One of the coolest things to do in Nuremberg are the Felsengänge, a series of interconnected tunnels under the city, which were built in the 14th and 15th centuries as beer fermentation cellars and were used as air raid shelters during World War Two. As much as 75% of the city center was destroyed in Allied bombings, but Nuremberg had a lower death rate than similar-sized towns because of the beer tunnels. ("Das Bier hat uns das Leben gerettet.") Check the website for times and prices and advance ticket purchase. Highly recommended.

On the topic of Allied bombings, Sankt Sebaldus Kirche was largely destroyed, except for the main supports on the corners. When I was there in 2005, they had a display of immediate post-war pictures inside. Some of the original sculptures and windows remain, damaged, of course. I found it very moving, but I'm predisposed to the rebuilding from rubble/ashes type of story.

The Romantic Road runs through a lot of quaint towns in Bavaria. For the fit and energetic, it's possible to bike the length of it. The rest of us can take the train. One of my favorite stops on the Romantic Road is Rothenburg ob der Tauber, the only city, according to locals, with its medieval wall largely intact. (Rebuilt, naturally, after having been bombed to smithereens.) Rothenburg has an enviable position on a hilltop with a cliff on one side and the Tauber river on the other. It was also at the junction of several trade roads, but after the Thirty Years' War was broke. The Black Death didn't help matters any, either. When other cities were taking down their walls, Rothenburg didn't have the money to follow the fashion. This would work to their advantage several hundred years later, when romantic poets and painters went to visit and told their friends about this quaint walled city in southern Germany. There's a lot of kitsch, but it's worth a visit. You can see everything there is to see in a single day. Take a trip up the city hall tower to get a view of the city, and walk along the wall. You can take it almost the entire way around. Get a Snowball at Diller's. Take a tour with the Night Watchman. Have dinner and a drink in Hell. Get your Christmas ornaments at Käthe Wohlfahrt.

The Romantic Road ends in Füssen, your starting point for a trip to Neuschwanstein Castle. The town itself is scenic and has some typical German architecture, as well as restaurants to feed you after a nice hike back down from the castle itself. It's an easy day-trip from Munich, and fully accessible by public transportation. Buy your ticket at the ticket center before hiking up the mountain. It will give you an entry time/group number, and you wait in the courtyard of the castle for your group to be called. Neuschwanstein is the most touristed place in Germany, for good reason. When Mad King Ludwig was building the castle in the 1880s, Pöllat Gorge was known as a romantic hiking and picnic spot. A bridge behind the castle crosses the gorge and gives you a great photo op of the castle.

If you want to hike the gorge (good weather only!), do it on the way back. You might miss your tour if you hike up.

Do I need to say much about Munich? No tour of southern Germany is complete without a stop in the city most Americans have heard of. From there, you can go to Neuschwanstein, as I mentioned above, and Dachau. In central Munich, the Altstadt, you can visit the Viktualienmarkt (a huge open-air market that sells victuals, largely sausage, bread, cheese, and fruit, as well as souvenir folk art), Marienplatz (where the Gothic town hall with the famous bell tower lives), towers, cathedrals, and various statuary. Outside the city is Nymphenburg Castle, where you can find some particularly mean swans in the water gardens. The German Museum (Deutsches Museum) is home to some seriously cool technological artifacts: original steamboat engines, a U-boat, an ENIGMA machine, and several really old computers.

The train ride from Munich to Füssen is gorgeous. Off to the south, you can see the Bavarian Alps. It's rural, so you have to take a regional train, which stops at every little burg on the way.

There's a lot more to Bavaria than this handful of places, but they're the big ones, and I've spent a lot of words on this handful. Next up: a trip back west to the Rhine & North Rhine-Westphalia.

14 January 2011

Where to go in Germany part 3: Baden-Württemberg

Baden-Württemberg the the southwestern-most state in Germany. It borders France, Switzerland, and Bavaria. It is a mountainous state and home to the Black Forest. It's the place people think of, along with Bavaria, when they hear "Germany." (Culturally, the Swabians & Franconians and Bavarians are quite different.)

Deep in the southern mountains lies the Bodensee, or Lake Constance, which touches Germany, Switzerland, and Austria. The Danube has its source in the Black Forest.

This is the state with a lot of cities you've (maybe) heard of: Stuttgart, home of Mercedes-Benz; Heidelberg; Mannheim; Freiburg im Breisgau; Baden-Baden; and some you may have not, like Tübingen. I'll start with the places I've been.

Heidelberg is a smallish university town in northeastern BW. The Neckar flows through the center, and there's a ruined Gothic-Renaissance castle up on the hill. In the castle, you can get a taste of the local wine as well as visit the German Apothecary (Pharmacy) Museum, which is actually kind of cool. The town is quaint, but there's quite a lot of tourists.

A little bit further up the Neckar, and near Stuttgart, is the similarly quaint and less touristed university town of Tübingen. There's a lovely island in the river where you can walk, and the old city walls are still partly visible, though built on. The castle houses part of the university and a museum, which is a great place to go if the weather's awful. (German weather in spring is unpredictable.) It also provides a great overlook of the river valley. The town hall has an elaborate facade. For the bibliophile, you can visit the antiquariat (used book shop) where Hermann Hesse worked.

Down in the bottom of the Black Forest is Freiburg im Breisgau. It's the quintessential Black Forest town, complete with a medieval church and timbered houses. It's the gateway to the Black Forest. I admit I was kind of bored there, but if I were looking for a getaway with gorgeous scenery, where I could relax or pop off to take a walk in the woods, that would be the place to go. It's also reportedly the warmest, sunniest city in Germany. 78 F for the average high in July is downright balmy to this North Carolinian! That's springlike for me ;)

Places I haven't been in BW: Stuttgart, where you can take a tour of the Mercedes museum and the Porsche museum and see the house where Hegel grew up, as well as your usual complement of cathedrals and castles.

Baden-Baden. If you take a guess from the name, it's a place where there are baths. Around the time Londoners went to Bath to take the waters, Germans went to Baden-Baden for the same purpose. It's still home to mineral spas and cure resorts.

Next up: Bavaria.

13 January 2011

Where to go in Germany part 2: Rhein-Pfalz

The Rheinland-Pfalz is west of Hessen, and easily accessible by train from Frankfurt. It's the home of German wine, along the Rhine and Moselle valleys. Similarly to Hessen, the Pfalz is a hilly region with river valleys. The Pfalz is the ancestral home of a lot of German-American communities, including the Pennsylvania Dutch.

My first trip to Germany was in 1992, with my high school German club. It was a three-week exchange with a school there, in the town of Schifferstadt, which is a sister city with my home town. There's an old house built by a settler from Schifferstadt.

Speyer was founded by the Romans and is home to the Cathedral, a UNESCO heritage site. Various diets during the Reformation were held here. A much more famous diet was held in Worms.

Mainz is home to the Gutenberg Museum, which has a variety of antique printing presses and old books. Mainz was also founded by the Romans. The Rhine-Main region was strategically important for them.

Easily my favorite place in the Pfalz is Trier, the oldest city in Germany. It was founded by the Romans, and there are still ruins you can visit. The Black Gate, the baths, and an amphitheater are available for your viewing *without* having to go to Italy. Trier is home to one of my favorite juxtapositions: the palace and basilica. Trier is extremely out of your way, unless you're going to Luxemburg, but it's worth going if you can squeeze it in.

The Palatinate Forest, south of Kaiserslautern and southwest of Worms, is a nature park, and there's hiking and that sort of thing. We went to Bad Dürkheim while I was there.

Near the Rhein-Pfalz is Saarland, which is largely industrial and not very touristy to my knowledge.

Up next: Baden-Württemberg.

Where to go in Germany part 1: Hessen

People ask me this a lot, and I rarely have enough time to answer thoroughly (and if it's on Twitter, I don't have enough characters), so I thought it would be fun to write about some of my favorite places.

I'll start by recommending the Lonely Planet series of travel guides. They've never steered me wrong, and they have recommendations for inexpensive places to eat and sleep, which is great for the budget traveler, or pretty much anyone who thinks paying $100+ a night for a hotel room is ridiculous. There are also e-versions of them, and you can buy individual regional chapters. If you have a smartphone, this is a great way to save paper and carrying things.

Most of the popular tourist areas are in southern and west/central Germany: Bavaria (Munich, Nuremberg, the Romantic Road), Frankfurt, the Black Forest, the Rhine. So if you have a limited time in the country, you can see a lot of sights by getting off the plane in Frankfurt (second busiest airport on the Continent and a hub for many airlines) and hopping trains toward Munich and back.

I'll start with the middle: Hessen. Hessen has many rivers, including the Rhine and Main, and is very hilly throughout and mountainous in the south. Hessian Mercenaries fought in the American Revolution on the side of the British, and in my hometown there still stand Hessian Barracks, which are home to the Maryland School for the Deaf.

Frankfurt am Main is a major financial center. I've never spent much time in the city itself, just the airport and train stations. There's a shopping district, museums, and the like.

I spent my junior year in Marburg an der Lahn, a medium-sized town about an hour northish of Frankfurt by train. It's scenic, and the central old town, the Oberstadt, has some funky cool old buildings, including the oldest Gothic cathedral in Germany and the oldest Protestant university in the world. The Brothers Grimm studied at Uni-Marburg, and Rapunzel's Tower stands in the mountains nearby. The landgrave's castle high up in the Oberstadt (ober means above/over) commands an amazing view. If you have time to spare, swing by Marburg.

Fulda, in far eastern Hessen, is a name that should ring bells for anyone familiar with the Cold War: a gap in the mountains at Fulda was the proposed route for a potential Soviet/East German invasion of the west. It had been used for various invasions over the centuries, so why not?

Hessen has a lot of quaint towns that are less touristed than those in neighboring states, as well as lots of hiking in the mountains. I grew up in the shadow of the Blue Ridge, and the geography of Hessen was comforting.

Next up: Rhein-Pfalz, where I took my first trip to Germany (and barely remember).

07 January 2011

Things I'm working on

Blah blah, new year, resolve, etc.

I'm trying something different this year to get my act together. I spend far too much time fooling around on facebook, twitter, and other places on the internet and too little working on things I need to do, like revising The Novel. So on multiple friends' recommendation, I'm trying a planner from DIY Planner. I spent most of Tuesday afternoon mucking around with templates and designs, and I'm going to start implementing my daily trackers next week. Maybe having a physical record will keep me honest and accountable.

I also plan to work harder at taiji this year. I'd like to become a teacher, and there's a lot of study required before and during that training. I have no idea if my teacher would allow me into the teaching class, but I'll ask him the next time I see him. I've enjoyed working in small groups in class, with newish students, and I think I'd enjoy teaching a full class. No doubt it would improve my personal practice significantly.

Another aspect of that is keeping notes on forms, postures, and the like. Partly to help me put it back together if I lose any of it, and partly because I've never been a contemplative learner. I learn something, and I accept it, and I move on. (This means, unfortunately, that a career in research academia is completely out of the question. I'm not wired for research in the scientific sense.) I pick up taiji forms very quickly, and I hit a bit of a plateau, I think is the right word. I don't improve, because as far as I'm concerned, I'm doing it right. I can try to incorporate the principles I've learned (breathing, whole body movement, etc), but if I'm practicing the long form Chen style, after the first 5 minutes of a 20-minute routine, the breathing goes out the window.

This serves a larger, longer-term goal as well. I want to move to Berlin. I'm sure this surprises exactly no one. I've looked into what it would require to become a pharmacist in Germany, with my American PharmD, and from what I can tell, I'd need a) a course in medical German, b) 1500 hours of internship (oh joy, I can repeat my fourth year of pharmacy school), c) a course in German health care law etc, and d) to sit the license exams (in German, of course). While (a) could be fun, and (c) is something I'm interested in, (b) and (d) are in no way something I want to go through again.

So what other things can I do? Hey, I love taiji, and I think I'd enjoy teaching it. There are several taiji schools in Berlin, and I figure I could contact them in a few years and become acquainted and eventually ask if I could be an associate instructor at their school. I could offer classes in English for other expats, even. I love my school and its focus on fundamentals and philosophy. The difficult part of this idea is that the various ways I've learned my forms may not be the same as theirs. So it's not going to be extremely easy, but I think I can do it.

I could also become a tour guide. That seems to require having been resident in the city for a period of time and being extremely knowledgeable about the city's history, or an aspect of it. And since Cold War Berlin is one of my favorite topics, I could read books about that all day.

And, naturally, I plan to continue writing.

I need to convince Ben that the extreme complicatedness of the situation is manageable. All these little details, like doctors, dentists, insurance, jobs, furniture... they're all on the internet now. We can look it up! It's not going to be terribly soon, at any rate: I won't be able to teach on my own for quite some time, and we'd need to save up money for moving expenses, among other things. I've wanted to move back to Germany since I finished my junior year of college. I've waited 15 years. What's 10-15 more?