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.

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