Saturday, 21 February 2009

What to do when one child is away skiiing! (Part zwei)

The next morning came and we made our way downstairs to our buffet breakfast at the hotel. This consisted of a selection of pastries, cold meats and cheese, cereal, boiled eggs, various juices, coffee or tea, and some cream filled chocolate cookies (which Meg says were ‘Yummmmmmy but way too strong for breakfast’). We grabbed the things we would need for the day and asked reception to phone for a taxi on our behalf. It had snowed overnight and was still quite cold but the day looked lovely. Within a few minutes the taxi had arrived and we were whisked away (once again at very little expense) down to the Zweibrucken railway station.

Having spent some considerable time the night before looking through brochures and reading up on the area in the travel guide to Germany which had accompanied us on this trip, we knew what we wanted to do. The tricky part was working out how to do it with only a limited knowledge of German. Failing to initially understand the ticket machine we went into the cafeteria where we discovered that the next train to Saarbrücken (the capital of Saarland) was about half an hour away. One of the ladies even came down and used the ticket machine for us. The outcome was that we ended up with a ticket that would take us anywhere in the territories of Saarland or the Rhineland-Palatinate, for 2 adults and up to 4 under 18’s, which would last us for the next 24 hours and was about €27. We grabbed some drinks and a newspaper and sat down to wait for the train to arrive.

When it did we were impressed with how modern and clean the carriages were, there were very few people on the train so we had a choice of seats and we sat back to watch the scenery go by. It is about 40 klms between the two towns so the trip wasn’t very long, even though we made a few stops at towns such as Würzbach, St. Ingbert and Hassel. One of the amazing sights for us was the rivers and lakes that we passed which were completely frozen over. We were in mid-February and things were supposed to be thawing, but obviously in this part of the world that winter had been particularly cold. During the Third Reich both towns were part of a very industrialized area on this side of the Rhine, however the destruction that took place at the end of the war and the reconstruction afterwards means that, here at least, there wasn’t a lot of industry.

Because of the similarity of their names you might suspect that Saarbrücken means ‘bridge over the Saar’ just as Zweibrucken means ‘two bridges’. However, the name predates any bridge at this spot by at least 500 years. Historically that name was actually ‘Sarabrucca’, derived from the Old High German word ‘Brucca’ which became ‘Brucken’ and translates to ‘rocks’ or ‘boulders’. The reason for its industrial heritage is its position at the centre of a great coal basin. Production in this town included iron and steel, sugar, beer, pottery, optical instruments, machinery, and construction materials. As the mining industry has become unprofitable these industries have been phased out, but the large railway station and items such as preserved old shipping cranes along the river commemorate this history.

As we exited the train there was a bit of debate because Brock felt we had travelled this distance so that he could buy a computer game, while Meg and Wayne thought we were looking at new things and experiencing new places. A compromise was reached as we walked down the main shopping mall; we would come back to one of the games shops that we had passed after we had had a better look around the town first. This stopped Brock lying on the ground and tantruming, although it didn’t stop him asking every 5 minutes if we had finished looking at the city yet. Eventually, Meg and Wayne just ignored this behaviour and got on with looking at the sights.

As you might remember, this region has been back and forth between France and Germany over hundreds of years, so there were influences from both countries impacting upon the architecture and design of the city. What is modern day Saarbrücken is actually a combination of two towns, Saarbrücken itself, and Sankt Johann which occupied that side of the river that we were now on as we walked from the train station toward the centre of town. Indeed, the other side of the river is referred to as Alt-Saarbrücken. The modern city of Saarbrücken was created in 1909 by combining the two, along with some industrial areas (hence the interest from both nations in owning the area). During the Second World War this was part of the Siegfried Line and suffered considerable damage.

One of the interesting things about travel in countries where English is not the main language is observing the different spellings of shop names. Having a chemist on Stadt Apotheke made lots of sense. As we walked down the cobbled stone mall we were fascinated to spot ‘Kult’ right next door to another store named ‘Christ’. Perhaps the fact that there was also a ‘Karl Marx Staße’ had something to do with it (given his opinions on religion), but you might have thought that there had been enough religious controversy in the region historically without thoughtlessly creating it in a juxtaposition of shops.

After a while we found ourselves in the Sankt Johann Market, a square not far from the church which gave this part of the town its name. This area had been one of many renovated by the work of Friedrich Joachim Stengel during the reign of Prince Wilhelm Heinrich, prince of Nassau and Regent of the region. It has remained largely untouched during two World Wars and, prior to that, the French Revolution which had seen the last of the Regents (Wilhelm Heinrich’s grandson) in exile. The architecture is largely baroque with one building even older (dating back to medieval times) and has been brilliantly preserved. To us the houses all looked like mansions, it is amazing to think that they were owned and used by merchants.

A short walk up a laneway was the Saar river and one of the many bridges which now cross it. From here we could see the Saarländisches Staatstheater which was one of the buildings given to the city by order of Adolf Hitler after the people voted for reintegration of the area into the German Reich. At the time it had Germany’s most modern stage technology, however, it was damaged during the war and the interior has been redesigned. The exterior is very reminiscent of the architecture of the Third Reich with the emphasis on striking, simplified neo-classical forms (lots of columns, but not a lot of other external decoration). Unfortunately, we did not have time to go inside and witness a performance of ‘Herr Puntila und sein Knecht Matti’.

Also visible was a memorial to the times when the city was largely reliant on river trade for provision of many of its goods. One of the old cranes has been reconstructed on the bank next to the Wilhelm Heinrich Brücke. At the end of its rope is an old style barrel, while the cantilever has a golden eagle perched upon it. These old buildings operated between 1762 and 1852 (and were another of the designs of Friedrich Joachim Stengel) even being replaced after they were destroyed by the flood of 1784. Eventually steel cranes replaced the largely wooden ones in 1852, however the coming of the railway and the building of a new port facility up river saw these cranes abandoned in 1865. During the construction of a new motorway through the town in the 1980’s the remains of this old wooden crane were discovered almost intact, and it was restored to its original position in 1991.

Another site which we would have loved to have ventured inside had time permitted was the Schlosskirche built in the 1470’s. Around the schlossplatz which fronts it there are numerous museums dealing with the history of the area and of course there is the palace (which is the ‘schloss’ in the name). In the pathway leading up to the main entrance to the palace is the ‘Invisible Monument Against Racism’ which was placed there in 1993. On the underside of all the paving stones are the names of all the Jewish cemeteries in Germany up to 1933. The church itself was a royal burial site from 1651 to 1768 (which saw the death of Prince Wilhelm Heinrich) and even after its redesign as a concert hall and museum, the crypt below the choir still holds their remains.

One of our favourite experiences since we left Australia took place next. By sheer coincidence we wandered into the Saarbrücken Tourist Information Centre as they were preparing to close for the afternoon. When we enquired as to why there was an early close we were informed that it was ‘Weiberfastnacht’ (the Thursday before Ash Wednesday) and therefore the beginning of karneval week. The confused looks of three Australians led to an invitation to the Opening Ceremonies conducted in the Rathaus and hosted by the Lord Mayor of the city.

The Rathaus (or ‘town hall’) is a beautiful old building opposite the Johanneskirche (a neo-gothic church completed in 1898 which has the tallest tower in the city at 74 metres). It was designed by Georg Hauberisser who also designed the Rathaus in Munich, basing both on the medieval Rathaus towers of Flanders. Around the exterior were featured statues representing, among others, St George and some of the trades once prominent in the town; miner, steelworker, farmer, brewer, merchant and tanner. Inside there were some beautiful modern stained glass windows, each representing a season of the year, but most of the interior design was much much older.

We were somewhat perturbed going in by the sight of a number of people wearing very, very fancy costumes, but when we reached the ballroom where the ceremony was going to be held we felt totally out of place. It was clear that this was going to be a good old-fashioned party, with balloons and streamers making it almost impossible to see the ceiling in places. Around us were, by the time everything was ready to begin, hundreds of the most prominent members of the city dressed in either their finest get up, with some decoration on hats, or in elaborate period costumes. Among the number was probably Claudia Kohde-Kilsch (who some of you might remember was a prominent female tennis player during the mid to late 1980’s) who is a native of Saarbrücken. There were 18th century French soldiers, a medieval lord and lady, people dressed as members of a circus troupe, even the photographer from the newspaper was wearing traditional German lederhosen. It was obvious that different groups or guilds had made an effort to dress alike, there was even one group of women dressed as french maids (we guessed that they might have been real estate agents).

We tried to place ourselves discreetly out of the way at one end of the ballroom, as far away from the stage (where a traditional German band were pumping out folk songs) as possible. Around the walls we had been able to spot the normal decoration which was richly decorated painting on cloth with lots of gold, representing scenes from the history of the city. Once again the windows were stained glass, this time much older (we later found out designed by Alexander Linnemann). As the room filled we moved behind a table, only to find that, when everything was about to begin, the table was a key feature of the ceremony when the Mayor (and we presume his wife) stood at opposite ends pronouncing the opening of Karneval throughout Saarbrücken. Mortified by the lack of suitability in our dress for this sort of our event, as soon as possible once things seemed to be declared official we ducked out of a side door. What has almost more upset Wayne, in doing some background research before we wrote this, is finding pictures of Adolf Hitler (standing in the identical spot we had stood) back on March 1st 1935 (you can find this as well as other photos outside the Rathaus, back then and today, at this link).

Wandering back up through the mall toward the train station we saw more and more people dressed in costumes wandering the streets, and it was clear that what we had seen was only the opening of something which would continue through (at least) the rest of the day. After a few detours into games shops, some lunch, and a quick stop at the Post Office to send postcards back to our parents and Callum, Declan and Ethan, we hopped back onto a train. Rather than taking us back to Zweibrucken we had decided to see as much of the region as we could. At one point we had even speculated on making our way up to Luxemburg (which isn’t that far away) but negotiating the timetables to get us back at a reasonable hour into our hotel looked to be difficult. Instead, we opted to take the train as far north as Trier.

Once again, our experience of public transport in Europe was fabulous. The train was extremely clean, very quiet and, perhaps because we were prior to peak hour and at the beginning of Karneval, not at all crowded. Among the first of the things that we saw from our windows was the Völklinger Hütte, this is actually a UNESCO Heritage Site. The giant steelworks covers an area of 10 000 square metres and allows visitors to experience (as the guide book phrased it) ‘the fascinating world of iron smelting’. There are 6 huge blast furnaces and a large blast house with its giant machinery. However, it also contains a Theme and Adventure Park for old and young alike, the Science Center Ferrodrom and a concert an exhibition centre. If only we had known to get off the train there would have been something for everyone. Instead we stayed on board and got to view some of the fabulous scenery alongside the Saar.

While not as big as the Rhine or the Moselle (both very nearby), there were a number of similarities in the way industry worked along the river bank. Many of the fields running down the steep bank of hills to the rivers edge were being used to grow grapes. On the tops of those hills stood stone castles (some in ruins, others much better preserved), or beautiful houses, or occasionally a church. The bend in the river known as Saarschleife, near Mettlach, was a fascinating experience speeding around in a train, as it felt like we were going in a complete loop. Smaller towns and villages were either flown through or, occasionally, stopped at and there were always things to look at all the 80 klms up to Trier.

Trier is one of the oldest cities in Germany, being founded in or before 16 BC. It sits outside Saarland in the Rhineland-Palatinate, 15 klms from the border with Luxemburg (indeed it is closer to Luxemburg’s capital than any sizeable German city) and on the banks of the Moselle River. Trier is also the oldest seat of a Christian bishop north of the Alps. In the Middle Ages, the Archbishop of Trier was an important ecclesiastical prince and one of the seven electors of the Holy Roman Empire. The land under the Archbishopric of Trier stretched from the French border to the Rhine and was strategically important. It was also the home of Saint Ambrose, one of the Latin Doctors of the church, who went on to become Bishop of Milan and whose body is still able to be viewed in the crypt of the church there, and Karl Marx.

Today Trier is best known as a university city and our arrival there saw us venture onto a platform filled with young people of approximately university age. Not to our complete surprise many of them were wearing fabulous costumes, although many of these did not have the historical touch of those we had encountered in Saarbrücken, such as lady beetles, cowboys and vikings. Because it was late in the afternoon we decided on a short stroll down Theodor-Heuss-Allee as far as Simeonstraße and then back again so that we could catch another train back to Saarbrücken and home to Zweibrucken at a reasonable hour.

Once again we were very impressed at how well kept was so much of the historical architecture, buildings and monuments. Unsurprisingly, we saw a number of tributes to Saint Ambrose but also statues to other people, including one to swine herds that reminded us strongly of the similar display in Zweibrucken. Perhaps given that it is a student town we weren’t so surprised to notice a coke bottle jammed into the loop in one of the pigs tails on the way back. While we didn’t get to see any of the main university buildings, the Trier Cathedral, or Karl Marx House (all of which are listed as places worth visiting in Trier) we did make our way to the Porta Nigra and took a brief look around.

The Porta Nigra (or ‘black gate’ for those of you whose Latin is a bit rusty) was our second world heritage site for the afternoon, is a large Roman city gate built out of sandstone between 180 and 200 AD. It got the name during the Middle Ages in reference to the colour that the stone had become by then. It was originally part of a system of four gates within the walls of the city (the others were the White Gate, the Middle Gate and the Famous Gate, none of which is still standing). After 1028 AD the Greek monk Simeon lived in the ruins of the gate and after he died and was sanctified a monastery was built adjacent to the Porta Nigra while it was used as a church. Under the rule of Napoleon Bonaparte, the church in the Porta Nigra and the monastery at its side were dissolved in 1802. While local legend claims that he originally wanted the whole thing torn down, during his visit to Trier, in 1804, Napoleon ordered that the Porta Nigra should be converted back to its Roman form. Only the apse was kept, and the eastern tower not rebuilt to its original height. It is still massive and amazingly impressive that something so old should have lasted so long. As Meg touched the walls she could only imagine what other hands might have touched a similar place dating back almost 2 000 years.

Looking down the street into the town centre two things were clear. Firstly, the celebration of Karneval had begun with a bang in Trier just as it had in Saarbrücken. Secondly, if the students of the city had their way (let alone other inhabitants) that celebration was going to be continuing for a significant portion of the night. Rather than stay and see Brock corrupted by the wild goings on, Meg and Wayne hurried him back to the train station. They needn’t have bothered. On our carriage was a group of young men, all in various stages of costume and costume removal, who had previously been indulging heavily in some of the (probably Karlsberg, given that they are the local brewer) beverages on offer. One gentleman in particular had significant difficulty staying upright, and kept making his way to and from the bathroom (this was a different style carriage to our previous ones, having two levels and being significantly older). At one point, not long before they disembarked, he managed to run headlong into the door and knock himself out, much to the hilarity of his friends. Brock is still talking about it.

Once the students had left the rest of our journey back to Saarbrücken was relatively tame but still beautifully scenic. By now it was dusk and the lights, their reflection in the river, and the impact that had upon the countryside was lovely to look at, but difficult to photograph from a moving vehicle. Our transfer from one train to another to enable us to get back to Zweibrucken was relatively uneventful, however by now the train was much more crowded. Eventually we were able to be seated just in time for the ticket inspector to come around. As if we were locals we produced our ticket when prompted and wished him a hearty ‘gute nacht’. Unfortunately, the young girl behind us was not so lucky, receiving a fine for not having a ticket. Had we have known we could have included her in ours, our family pass applying to 2 adults and up to 4 children, although whether we would have done (or been able to communicate it in German) is probably a moot point.

Our arrival in Zweibrucken saw a rapid transfer into a taxi and an equally rapid ride back up to our hotel. By this time it was beginning to get very cold and we felt certain we were going to have more snow. We quickly assembled the dinner (here’s one I prepared earlier) that we had bought in Saarbrücken, consumed it, and intended to read and chat for a little while before falling asleep. Given the distance that we have covered that day, noone will be surprised to hear that we all fell asleep much earlier than we had expected or, indeed, intended.

Because of the limitations of the times flying in and out of a smaller regional airport we had a relatively early departure the next morning. Once again we benefitted from the buffet breakfast (although Brock was surprisingly late in arriving and didn’t feel overly hungry when he was there), grabbed our luggage and asked the reception desk to hail us one final taxi for the short journey to the airport. Wayne felt that we probably could have walked the distance, but it had snowed overnight, was still very cold in the morning and he was outvoted. In the end this turned out to be a good thing.

We had organised ourselves to arrive with a bit of time to wait before the flight, but a few unforeseen issues made this more stressful than we had originally anticipated. Paperwork was the first of these issues, the German authorities proving much more rigorous with their application to this than any of the other countries which we had visited. Even though Wayne had a roll on deoderant, which was smaller than 100 grams (the specified limit) he was forced to remove it from his toiletries bag and place it into a separate plastic bag, for which he was then expected to pay €0.50. As we were complying with this a ‘final call’ was put through for passengers flying Ryanair to London Stansted, despite the fact that there was still an hour till the plane was to leave. We managed to find a seat in the terminal happy in the knowledge that we had pre-paid for priority boarding (although we had neither needed nor used it on the way over). However, as the crowds rapidly built on the other side of the rope and the airport staff gathered together in a frightened huddle in front of the door it did seem like that investment was going to have been wasted. However, to their credit (and despite angry mutterings) we were allowed on to the aircraft and enabled to find a seat together before the plane (which was completely booked) was too crowded.

Once on the aircraft, the journey home was comparatively relaxing, both on the flight and in the car back from Stansted. We had all loved Germany and wanted to see more, even more of Zweibrucken, Saarbrücken and Trier, let alone the rest of the country. The food, the friendliness of (the overwhelming majority of) the people, the concern for their history and their desire to embrace the global community, all of these made our trip to Germany a fabulous experience. As with every one of the places we have been so far, we really want to go back. This could become a problem one day.

Thursday, 19 February 2009

What to do when one child is away skiing!

In some parts of the world people have had to fight to have their own country, or to be part of another one. However, the federal state of Saarland in Germany has twice been presented with the opportunity to determine its own fate. The first of these was on January 13, 1935 when a League of Nations mandate giving ownership of the region to France expired and 90.3% of the population elected to return to Germany. After the Second World War, it became an administered part of France once more and in 1954 a plan was put forward to establish an independent Saarland. However, the people rejected independence, asking to be returned to Germany, which took place on January 1, 1957. However, because of the anomalies over its existence it competed at the 1952 Olympics (it didn’t win any medals) and in qualifying for the 1954 football World Cup as an independent protectorate.

Across the border from Saarland, in the federal State of the Rhineland-Palatinate, the USAF instituted the building of an air base on what was part of the Siegfried Line just south east of the town of Zweibrucken. From 1953 to 1969 it was staffed by the Canadian Air Force, while from August 29, 1969 the US Air Force took control until 1991. During Operation Desert Storm it had its final use as an operational base before closing later that year. Rather than let the buildings and other facilities go to waste the air base was converted to a civilian airport in 2007. At the end of 2008 the Irish airline Ryanair starting sending flights into Zweibrucken from Stansted Airport in England. So while Quinn was spending his half term break skiing with the school in Italy, the rest of us decided to go to Zweibrucken and see the area.

Wednesday morning saw us up early and travelling up to Stansted, parking at the medium term car park and catching the bus to the airport itself. Unlike the last time we had been to Stansted the whole place was not covered in snow and because we had elected online check-in we arrived early enough to grab a milkshake before boarding the plane. However, when we went to pick up our boarding passes we were informed that, because we were not EU citizens, we weren’t eligible to choose online check-in. Instead, if we wished to fly, we had to cough up another £68 and this involved waiting in a queue for 43 minutes, by which time we had to run to catch the train down to our terminal and run some more to make the flight. We were the last to board, however, because the flight was only 50% full, we still had our choice of seats and lots of room.

We had been told that the weather was mild in Germany at this time of year and although the first part of our flight saw us climbing rapidly to avoid the low cloud over England we were not anticipating any problems. As we cleared the channel the sky also cleared and we could see the coastline at the border between France and Belgium. As we got closer to our destination a few things stood out. That there were a couple of very large nuclear power stations under our flight path was the first thing. The second was that, despite the weather forecasts there was considerable snow cover over much of the countryside. On our final approach to the airfield we noticed piles of snow on either side of the runway and after quick a heavy touchdown we also skidded on ice when the pilot first applied the brakes. Fortunately, everything was fine and we pulled up at one of the smallest airports we had ever seen (Wayne compared it to the Aeropelican site south of Newcastle for size).

Leaving the aircraft we made our way to the tin shed terminal and had our passports stamped by one of the two guards in a booth just at the entrance. We had only brought carry on baggage but by the time we were inside all of the luggage had already been on the carousel and most of our fellow passengers had already left. In fact, as we left the airport for the short walk up to our hotel most of the staff at the airfield were also leaving, for ours was the last plane to land until 19:30 and so once it had taken off again the airport shut down for the afternoon.

While it was only a short walk (just under 3 kilometres) what we hadn’t anticipated was just how cold it would be on the ground. At -5°C with quite a strong breeze blowing we were all soon feeling the chill, with our ears in particular suffering. However, once we got to the Apparthotel Europa the welcome was warm; we checked into our room (which to Brock’s delight turned out to be adjoining rooms) and made sure we were well wrapped up before making our first trip out. It is obvious that the expectation is that the area will grow for, as well as the large industrial area that we walked through and the hotel itself, across the road was an iceskating centre and next to that, a large fashion factory outlet (like the DFO in Brisbane) called Designer Outlets Zweibrucken.

We made our way across to check out the shopping and were somewhat surprised by what we found. There were lots of brands that we recognised (from England, Australia and other parts of Europe) but despite the fact that it was nearly 10:30am many of the shops were not yet open. Perhaps the fact that it was a Wednesday might have influenced the number of customers but we soon discovered that the opening time for most of the shops was actually 10:30am. As Meg perused inside (and Wayne and Brock did things like visit the bathroom and look at the expensive exterior fittings) she noticed that, despite advertising proclaiming up to 70% off, things were not particularly cheap. In the end we put this down to the economy, for we had been told that Germany was a more expensive place to live. Nonetheless, there was lots of parking so they obviously expect a growth in customer numbers over time. We grabbed some brunch then headed back to the hotel to explore hiring a taxi to get us down into Zweibrucken itself.

To our great delight, the taxi we took only charged by the distance travelled, so it actually cost us less to travel the 2 or so miles to Zweibrucken than it would have for the three of us to take the local bus (as well as being quicker and more comfortable). We reached the centre of this small town in the early afternoon as the students were finishing school (around 14:30) and set out to have a look around. The independent territory was at first a county, the counts being descended from Henry I (Heinrich I.), youngest son of Simon I, count of Saarbrücken (d. 1182). This line, the Walramides, became extinct on the death of Count Eberhard (1393), who in 1385 had sold half his territory to the count palatine of the Rhine, but kept the other half. Louis (d. 1489), son of Stephen, count palatine of Simmern-Veldenz, founded the line of the dukes of Zweibrücken. In 1559, a member of the line, Duke Wolfgang, founded the earliest grammar school of the town (Herzog-Wolfgang-Gymnasium), which existed until 1987. Duke Wolfgang also in 1557 converted his country to the new Lutheran faith. Consequently, one of the big features of the first central square that we came to in the town was a protestant church, Alexander-Kirche (founded in 1493) which houses the tombs of the former dukes.

Just off the square, on the north-eastern side was the ducal castle, a very impressive building also, which is now occupied by the chief court of the Palatinate (Oberlandesgericht). Again we were struck by the care that so many places in Europe put in to both preserving and recording their history. Scattered around the town were wonderfully informative signs connected to the Zweibrucken Walking Tour. These were printed in French, German and English and contained illustrations as well. While Zweibrucken may not be the most famous place we have come across, it certainly is lovely. Looking back, even though we were to do some more amazing things in the next couple of days, Zweibrucken is still the highlight of this trip for Meg.

One of the things that Meg had been determined to do on this trip was to have a haircut. As we walked around the square she spotted a hairdresser just near the Alexander-Kirche with the delightful name, ‘Hairkiller’ and decided that it would be the perfect place to get her hair done. While she went in to make an appointment, Wayne continued to explore the town while Brock nervously sat and waited inside (perhaps worried that he might be forced to have his own hair trimmed). Unfortunately for Meg, the hairdresser told her that her hair was glorious and would not take off as much as she wanted. All up she spent 2 hours there, was used as a demonstration model for a student and walked out at the other end with just a slight trim (and minus an earring). Very little English was spoken by anyone at the hairdressers and as neither Brock nor Meg speaks any German it was an ‘interesting’ experience.

Meanwhile, Wayne had walked all the way up to Herzogplatz in front of the Town Hall (or Rathaus as it is called in German, if only all countries were as honest about what happens in their political buildings!). The Herzogvorstadt (ducal suburb) which surrounds the square, designed by court architect Hautt, is the oldest group of buildings to survive in Zweibrucken - even the devastating 1945 bombings were unable to harm it. The duke’s higher-ranking office bearers such as valets and court gardeners resided here in the vicinity of the palace from 1770. To provide financing for any gap sites remaining the duke came up with the idea of a compulsory lottery (hmm, how to get somebody else to pay for the building? I know, a new tax which I will call ‘lottery’) for all public servants, municipalities and guilds. The lottery winners then became homeowners, no doubt much to the delight of everyone else who had been forced to pay for their building. They have however been beautifully looked after.

Opposite the Rathaus (which also doubles as the tourist information centre) on the other side of the square, at the beginning of a path which leads up to the Rosenkarten (the rose garden in Zweibrucken is famed, but was without many flowers at the time of year that we were visiting) is a statue of Otto von Bismarck. This is a fairly common sight in Germany, for Bismarck was a key figure in the unification of Germany and a major political figure across Europe at the end of the 19th Century. Germany had existed as a collection of hundreds of separate principalities and Free Cities for well over a thousand years, although various kings and rulers had tried to unify the German states without success. That Bismarck was able to bring all the separate forces and parties together was a tremendous feat and enabled Germany to become a major force in Europe. This is also one of the reasons why the English speaking world has been somewhat reluctant in their praise of him, for unification also made possible the role that Germany was to play in two World Wars.

This was not the only statue around, for along the way Wayne had noted the number of statues and other pieces of public art. As with most European places that we have been, statues and other decorative pieces are prevalent. Favourite of these was the group of statues featuring a swineherd and his pigs which was just the other side of the Schwarzbach river from Herzogplatz. Others included a large decorative lion (much as one might see during Chinese New Year celebrations, and a man sitting with a suitcase in the shadow of the Alexander-Kirche (while waiting for Meg to finish in Hairkiller, Wayne sat for a while next to this statue, but eventually the stone got too cold). Public art may not be practical in our increasingly pragmatic society and it also is capable of provoking much controversy in the choice of the art pieces to use, but it certainly communicates to visitors much about the country that they are in. It also provides focal points in places which might otherwise be much more uniform.

After Meg had finished having her hair done, we all went to a local toy shop where we were delighted to find a board game involving travelling around Germany. We had previously acquired one of these in Switzerland and have found that our knowledge of countries and the places that make them up increases when we are able to learn more about them while playing a game. Unfortunately, while the Swiss version was in multiple different languages, we discovered when we returned to the hotel that ‘Deutschland Reise’ is completely in German. The internet has enough translation materials that we will be able to overcome this setback, and the basic game play will be consistent, but it would have been nicer for such a game to be produced in other languages in order to encourage tourists to visit more parts of the country by teaching them more about them.

We purchased some basic foodstuffs to provide ourselves with dinner and then caught a taxi back to the hotel as it was beginning to become dark. Surprisingly, it was more expensive to get back than it had been to travel to Zweibrucken in the first place. However, this can possibly be explained by the presence of different daytime and evening rates or perhaps by the slightly more convoluted route which we took to get back from the city. Our initial suspicion was that this was one of the taxi driver tricks that you sometimes expect, however when we travelled the identical route the following day we decided that it was simply part of the process by which one best avoids the one way streets which are often a feature of European towns. A good nights sleep lay before us before the next day of our trip where we planned to explore some more of Germany.

Monday, 16 February 2009

Without the children

It had been an unusual fortnight at Hailey Hall after we returned from Denmark. The amount of snow meant that school was cancelled on Monday and Tuesday. Some of the students were able to make it back in on Wednesday and Thursday but the appearance of more snow (and some really bad ice forecast for the roads) meant that the boarders were sent home Friday morning and most of the staff were either unable to make it in, or were sent home upon their arrival. There was uproar in the media about how badly England coped with snow, and particular focus was made of how schools made life harder for parents by closing. Of course, if a school had stayed open and someone had been killed trying to get to school (as happened earlier in the year when a teacher was killed because her car skidded into the path of a train) the opposite would have been said, but that is the media for you.

Monday saw another closure, but the weather started to clear later that day and things returned to normal for the final week of half term, until Thursday night. Once more enormous quantities of snow were forecast to fall. This was potentially terrible news for Quinn, as he was scheduled to leave the following morning for a trip to Italy to go skiing with the school over the week off for half term. However, the snow did not eventuate and we were able to get Quinn to the bus on time Friday morning and wave him off on a big adventure (he has been told that he needs to write a blog entry for us about that week, he is quite intimidated). Consequently, come Sunday morning with Brock busy on the computer preparing for a couple of days of his holiday where he was to go in to school to complete coursework, Meg and Wayne decided to get out of the house by themselves.

It had been a while since we had gone off without the boys, so that was exciting in itself, but we needed to fix on a destination. We wanted somewhere new and different, but not too far away because Meg had been unwell for most of the previous ten days, and had not been to classes since the Wednesday of the previous week. Looking at the counties around Hertfordshire; we had been to Essex, Cambridgeshire, Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Kent, and Berkshire. Bedfordshire was the obvious place to go, and if we were going to go to Bedfordshire, we might as well go to the town for which it is named, Bedford. It is just over 40 miles away, so would take about an hour to drive, so at about 10:30am off we went.

We drove up through Stevenage then turned on to the A1 heading north through Baldock and Biggleswade. Having seen most of the snow around our area melt over the previous week it was fascinating to see that much of this area, not that far north of us, was still blanketed in white. At the delightfully named Sandy, we turned onto the Bedford Road (or the B1042 as it is less attractively named). This took us into Bedford through Mogglehanger, Willington and Cople and meant that we got to see both sides of the river and the central campus for Bedford University as we passed into the main part of the town.

As is frequently the case in every town in Britain of any size (Bedford has approximately 80 000 residents, while the wider borough has 153 000 in total) parking anywhere near the centre was a significant issue. We had hoped to be able to find somewhere near the Bedford Town Bridge, because much of the interest in Bedford is to be found in this area, but it looked like we were to be unsuccessful. However, as we swung around St Pauls church and headed out to the north Meg spotted a free Council Car Park just near the Great River Ouse. We had timed our run perfectly, because driving around the cars that were double parked or otherwise parked illegally a gentleman was just pulling out and we swung smoothly into his place.

We had previously crossed the river on our trip to Sandringham, where we had seen the lower part of the river as it approached the sea through the fens in Norfolk. The river has always been the centre of Bedford, even providing the name (Beda - the Saxon who provided the Ford - a means of crossing the river). Sometime before the 1180’s the ford was replaced by a bridge, which even had a chapel built upon it, at least in part to encourage people to contribute to the upkeep. By 1671 there was also a prison built upon the bridge, for after a damaging flood it was agreed that the prison should be rebuilt. The current bridge was built in 1810 and it had a toll on it till 1835 to help pay for its construction. On the day of our visit the water level was very high because of the recent snow thawing and there was no sign of boats out upon the water despite the fact that it had been navigable since 1689. We walked along the river bank (through a light drizzle) up to the bridge.

Right in the centre of town we encountered Bedford's principal church, St Paul's Church, Bedford, in the square of the same name. The spire atop is one of the main features of the town and can be seen from a considerable distance in all directins. There was a church on the site by 1066 and work on the present structure began in the early 13th century, but little remains from that period unlike the other main churches (St Peter’s and St Mary’s) which have remains which date back to Saxon times. However, the famous preachers John Bunyan (of whom more will be said) and John Wesley both preached in St Paul’s. More importantly, during the Second World War (from 1941 to the end of the war) the BBC's daily service was broadcast from St. Paul's.

It certainly is an impressive structure, although it was a little disconcerting as Australians to see a statue of John Howard at the front of the church. We were greatly relieved to note that this John Howard (having been high sheriff of Bedfordshire) was so disturbed by conditions in the prison that he became a nationwide campaigner for prison (and health) reform and was responsible for improvements in those areas; almost the opposite of the Australian experience. He wrote a book called ‘The State of Prisons in England and Wales’ which pushed this cause along. At a time when travel was not the (relatively) easy experience that we have had, Howard travelled nearly 80 000 kilometres, including trips to Scotland, Ireland, France, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, Spain, Portugal, Denmark, Sweden and Russia, to research imprisonment in other parts of the world. Indeed, it was while in the Ukraine that he contracted typhus and died in 1790. In 1866 the Howard League for Prison Reform was founded in his honour.

Speaking of John Howard, his son James, having had experience in the foundry business, set up the Brittania Iron Works manufacturing the ‘Champion Plough of England’ and attracting other industries to the town, prompting a boom in manufacturing in the 19th century. In 1832 Gas lighting was introduced, and the railway reached Bedford in 1846. The first Corn Exchange was built 1849, and the first drains and sewers were dug in 1864. Many of the lovely buildings and decorations from this period remain and we were able to admire some lovely features, including a golden bull over the clock in the High Street.

Having done a little reading about the town before we left home, we had determined to eat lunch in the Swan Hotel, which was redesigned by Henry Holland for the Duke of Bedford in 1794. Part of the building is a staircase which came from Houghton House which was the inspiration for the ‘House Beautiful’ in John Bunyan’s famous allegory, ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’. The house was built by Mary Herbert, the Dowager Countess of Pembroke at nearby Ampthill at the end of the 16th century, and while living there she prepared the works of her late brother for publication. This brother was the favourite poet of Elizabeth I, Sir Philip Sidney, and he had received a state funeral upon his death. Houghton House was such a successful creation that in 1621 Elizabeth’s successor, King James I stayed there, but on the death of the Countess it fell in to disrepair with all of its fittings (including the staircase) being removed. You can still see the remains of the main buildings on the hill overlooking Ampthill itself.

The Swan Hotel is certainly an impressive building in it’s own right, not only functioning as a very elegant pub, but also providing accommodation and some very elegant function rooms. On the northern side of the Ouse it has some lovely views from it’s windows as well, but we were most impressed by the beautiful interior and the quality of the food. No doubt this has changed somewhat since an earlier version of the hotel acted as a prison in the late 17th century. It had chambers set aside for the judges when the County Assizes was in town (one of which could have been the room in which we ate, as it is clear that extra building on the hotel simply incorporated older parts of the building into the new). It was here, while imprisoned, that Bunyan wrote ‘A Pilgrim’s Progress’, when he was not preaching, reading, or weaving shoelaces. We had a wonderful lunch (slightly more expensive than we would otherwise have had) in a beautiful atmosphere where, if we had been dressed in appropriate period costume, we could imagine sitting at any time over hundreds of years.

After lunch we walked a little in to the shopping district before exploring a little more of the history of this beautiful town on our way back to the car. One of the most fascinating buildings that we came across was the Old Corn Exchange which had a statue and plaque dedicated to the famous swing band leader, Glenn Miller. He and his band were based in Bedford during the Second World War and many of his recordings were made here at the Corn Exchange (no doubt the proximity to the BBC recording unit based at St. Paul’s contributed to this, or vice versa). Miller’s aircraft was lost before the war finished (on December 15th 1944) and Bedford has become a part of the tribute to this musician, hosting regular Miller themed concerts and tributes. Meg and Wayne found the whole town charming.

When we arrived back at the car, we admired once more the Great River Ouse (in which John Bunyan was baptised, Bedfordshire really does value his impact on history) and the notices which said we were not to feed the waterfowl. The older members of our readership might remember the 1970’s television show ‘Some Mothers Do ‘Ave ‘Em’ starring Michael Crawford which was filmed in Bedford, whose streets and river occasionally played a prominent part in various episodes. This is not the only well known piece of filming to take place in the city, a number of scenes from the 2005 motion picture Batman Begins were filmed at the Cardington Hangers in Bedford and featured extras from Bedford. Last year the sequel, 'The Dark Knight', was also partially filmed at the sheds using the fake working name 'Rory's First Kiss' and members of the production cast stayed at various hotels around the town. It isn’t hard to come across people who had some sort of contact with the productions.

Indeed, for what is really quite a small town Bedford boasts its fair share of famous people. Harold Abrahams, the 1924 Olympic 100 metres champion and character in the film Chariots of Fire was born here (although his grave is actually not far from us in Hertfordshire. Others from Bedford include the late Ronnie Barker, actor and comedian John Le Mesurier. While British athletes Paula Radcliffe and Eddie ‘the Eagle’ Edwards (ok, so we are using the term ‘athletes’ somewhat loosely here) are both associated with the town. Paddy Ashdown (the former leader of the Liberal Democrats) attended the Bedford School, while Christopher Fry (a playwright) and English cricketer Monty Panesar, both attended Bedford Modern School. As we were driving north out of the town we passed the house where Le Mesurier was born, on Chaucer Street, and noted the wonderful succession of street names which included Dickens, Milton, Spenser, Sidney and Shakespeare.

We headed up Paula Radcliffe Way (aka the A6) through Clapham and Milton Ernest to another place that Wayne wanted to show Meg, the town of Rushden in Northamptonshire. There is a football team in Rushden known as ‘Rushden and Diamonds’ (after a merger in 1992 between Rushden Town and Irthlingborough Diamonds) who played for a number of years in the football league but who currently inhabit the Nationwide Conference (the level just under). The merger of the two sides was the brainchild of Max Griggs, the founder of Dr Martens Boots, who bought the club in 1992. One of the stands is called the Airwair Stand (after one of the shoe types) and the club store used to be called ‘The Doc Shop’. Possibly the nicest part of the story is that, in 2005, Griggs sold the club to the fans for the amazing fee of £1, but despite this he continues to support the club and frequently makes donations to them.

Our final visit for the day (although we did not stop there) was the town of Kettering in Northamptonshire. Again, this was one of Wayne’s weird sport related obsessions because Kettering is the home of another football team from the Nationwide Conference, Kettering Town. On 24 January 1976, Kettering became the first British club to play with a sponsor's name printed on their shirts after signing a deal with local firm Kettering Tyres, however this created a furore in the Football Association which ordered them to remove the advertising or face a fine. The following year name sponsorship was legalised, partially thanks to Kettering Town. In another controversial move, since 2007 the players have had the words ‘Palestine Aid’ displayed on their shirts to increase awareness of the humanitarian crisis in Palestine. Kettering Town also saw the first foray into management of former England footballer Paul Gascoigne (although it only lasted 39 days). For those of you not interested in football, Kettering was also the hometown of a gentleman by the name of John Profumo, a British politician who was Secretary of State for War under Prime Minister Harold Macmillan in 1963 when the scandal broke which has been linked to his name ever since.

All that was left was a trip back down the M1 across on the M11 and the A414 to get back to Hertford and home. It was a lovely day out and, as always, we hope to return to Bedford and its surrounds another time. It really was a beautiful little place.