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 Saarbr├╝cken (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 Zweibr├╝cken. 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.

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