Monday, 29 July 2013

Ridiculously super awesome European driving adventure – The Black Forest and the world's biggest toilet

July 9-10

Germany is made up of 16 regions or Land. Each region offers something slightly different to our standard German stereotype, and has its own unique attractions. From Frankfurt we drove south through the heart of the Baden-Württemberg area to experience four of its jewels.

To reach some of these places you take the ‘Romantic Road’ heading in the direction of Munich. This, of course, is not to be confused with the ‘Romantic Rhein’, which was north and west of Frankfurt. The Road was devised in the early 1950s as a way of bringing people back to Germany; it seems they had a problem raking in the tourists in the aftermath of the Second World War. It links many beautiful towns of historical importance in the southern half of Germany.

First stop was the university town of Heidelberg. Tourists were here in their droves, mainly to visit the rather expensive castle. Much more appealing to us was to sit in the castle grounds on the neat green grass and gaze in awe at an incredible juggler who was practising. Lovely views of the Rhein here, too – romantic would be a good word to describe them.

You may have heard of the next stop. Baden-Baden – so nice they name it twice according to Clinton – has been a European play area for the rich and famous for many years now. Monte Carlo it is not, but the small town sat deep in a valley is an elegant, quiet place with plenty of shops that would drain any bank account. Oh, and a casino, shown below.

People with lots of money live and visit here. This notion was proved emphatically to us when we saw one of the children I taught last year (in Kazakhstan, remember) ambling along a cobbled path. Of course, this is a world away from our current lifestyle of camping and bread & cheese, so we enjoyed a different aspect of Baden-Baden’s allure – the outdoors.

The town is situated at one of northernmost points of the Black Forest, and has some stunning views. The amount of energy expended when hiking to the top of one of the hills to see this panorama of dark green is worthwhile, if a bit exhaustive as you perspire under the beating sun.

It’s not really black, of course, though the sun can struggle to pierce through the dense evergreens that are the hallmark of this region. Speeding through the forest in Maxine has been a pleasure, though we have stopped from time to time to fully appreciate its beauty and hidden treasures. And sing ballads in the car, of course.

One such place is Triberg, which is essentially a village on a steep hill. A very steep hill. So steep and grand, in fact, that it is the home of Germany’s highest waterfall.

However, when I mentioned the phrase ‘Black Forest’, I bet some of you immediately drifted off into a dreamland of chocolate, cherry and cream. The Black Forest is synonymous with a particular cake: Black Forest Gateau.

Triberg is the original home of the first ever B.F.G. created, in 1915. That particular café is remarkably still in business, but had taken a day off on this given Wednesday. After a mild panic that I wouldn’t get my dream breakfast, we located another café that was definitely open, and definitely makes a superb, fluffy cake. The textures made the gateau seem to melt in the mouth. The owner told me that three artisans create the cakes each day from 7am in the catacombs of the shops (his words, not mine). I certainly appreciate their hard work.

Once this sweetest of snacks had been savoured (and the surprisingly strong taste of liqueur had been masked with a coffee), we once again weaved our way through the forest. We briefly stopped to stand in the world’s largest toilet (fortunately all you do in that loo is stand in it, though I was slightly disappointed about that), before driving to Europe’s third largest lake and one of the more interesting border spots on the continent.

Lake Constance sits on the border of Germany, Switzerland and Austria. One of their mantras is that you can wake up in Germany, cycle across to Switzerland and make it to Austria for tea, such is the close proximity to all offered by this water mass. We stayed on the German side, allowing us a hazy view of the Swiss Alps looming in the distance. The lake itself was very refreshing, though we spent a lot of time treading water due to the seaweed seemingly clawing at our ankles below.

So as you can see, there is a lot more to Germany than beer, sausages and football. The southern regions all possess stunning vistas, whether they are from the top of a mountain or on the side of a lake – even from a toilet!

Love you all


Sunday, 28 July 2013

Ridiculously super awesome European driving adventure – Frankfurt and the IronMan

July 5-8

Some of my friends from home joined us for the next leg of our trip. More specifically, we were all coming together to support my friend Jon, who was attempting to become an IronMan.

No, not that IronMan. This is an extreme form of triathlon, which requires immense mental strength and resolve in addition to months of intense training. 

2.4 miles of swimming…

…followed by 112 miles of cycling…

…with a marathon to finish.

Needless to say, most of us will never do one of those arduous tasks, let alone having the desire to string those challenges together. Jon, however, has wanted to accomplish an IronMan for a while, and had entered himself in one of the biggest races of its kind in the world, in Frankfurt.

A popular driving route to Frankfurt is along the Romantic Rhein, a gorgeous stretch of road running low alongside the vast, pacy river. It is dotted with typical villages and some beautiful castles. Soon enough, however, the roads become clogged with traffic as you make a beeline towards the location of one of Europe’s busiest airports. That’s all I knew about Frankfurt, anyway, as well as the big race.

Of course, the rest of us had no need to train or prepare, so enjoyed the brilliant sunshine offered in one of Germany’s more international cities over the weekend. Though rather artificial and business-orientated in comparison to Düsseldorf and Köln, it does have some pleasant areas along the Main River which scythes through it.

 We had rented an apartment in the suburbs to the south of the river, which seemed a world away from the hum of the city centre. It was interesting to note that there were more pubs than supermarkets in the area – good to see German priorities are in the right place! For the record, the local brew is Binding, which tasted similar to Kölsch. Their speciality poison of choice is actually called Ebbelwei – apple wine. Or to our pallets, flat cider that didn’t taste particularly nice.

Having a car allowed me to take Jon around the cycle route for his race, and in the process see some of the villages to the north of the city. The hills that we needed to scale often seemed steep even in the car, emphasising the unenviable task facing the athletes. It seemed that the quaint hamlets, with their Tudoresque buildings and cobbled pathways, were the reward for the climb.

There were also some breath-taking views to be seen at the highest point of the course, before we snaked back down to Frankfurt.

Sunday was Jon’s big day. After a 3:45am wake-up to collect him and his girlfriend, we drove to a lake south of the airport, where everything was due to kick off at 7am. Professionals, who start 15 minutes earlier, try to complete these races in around 8 hours, so they take up most of a contestant’s day.

The start of the mass race is quite a sight. It actually looks more like a flock of gulls skimming across the water. All you see are red hats bobbing around and lots of arms flailing and splashing in chaotic harmony. It was obviously difficult to spot Jon from the rest of the pack, so I took leave at this point to return to the centre, getting a free hat for my troubles.

We headed to the centre and found a grassy bank from which to support him during the run, the final discipline. Once again, people can look very similar as they struggle along the banks of the river, resulting in us almost missing Jon run by on the first of his four laps.

This race, however, was not the only major sporting evening occurring on this Super Sunday. We had done some earlier scouting and found a place that delightedly informed us that they would show the Wimbledon final. It was thus rather annoying when this place was showing the triathlon, cycling and football from the previous season, before subsequently realised that they didn’t have the correct channel to show the tennis on.

After having a slight argument with the owners about the ethics of selling alcohol to people who are solely at a venue to watch a sporting event that they consequently will not show (the handcuff gesture from one of the waitresses resulted in us paying) and scampering across the centre, we found an Irish bar showing tennis, and joyously watched most of Andy Murray breaking one of British sport’s biggest hoodoos. I say most – we missed part of it to cheer an exhausted but smiling Jon over the finish line. An incredible feat.

As for Frankfurt, it’s a place that I imagine is pleasant for business folk, but in reality lacked the X-factor to make it a truly wonderful and appealing global city. It was lovely to have a bed for a weekend, but it was time to return to our tent and return to the road.

 Love you all


Ridiculously super awesome European driving adventure – Luxembourg and the 10 questions

July 4
Bonjour and Guten tag!

I’ll admit that it is an ambition of mine to visit every country in the world. However, I try not to be of the mindset of ‘ticking a box’ and moving on. I remember being told about a man who was attempting to visit every country in the world within a year without flying. A lovely and novel idea, but I believe you would miss out on so much. Where do you go in America, for example? Do you miss out on seeing the Statue of Liberty because you’re hot-footing it across a border? Do you ignore the seals and sights of San Francisco because the bus to Mexico leaves soon?

I like to achieve or do something in a country before I say that I have visited in. I find it difficult to state proudly that I have been to Mexico when I popped to Tijuana on an afternoon trip with my family from San Diego. Did I really experience Mexico? I went to Egypt for 12 hours, yet saw the pyramids, bartered in a market in a market and saw a belly dance that would make any young teenager slightly uncomfortable. I say I have been to Egypt.

The point of me saying this is that there is more to travelling than simply ‘travelling’. I will admit, however, that my philosophy gets tested with certain countries or principalities – mainly the ones that are really small. So if I said that I was going to Luxembourg, a perfectly legitimate response might be…why? I wouldn’t have been able to tell you, instead optimistically retorting: why not?

Actually, there is a reason. Before going, I knew NOTHING about Luxembourg aside from it being a small country with a royal family and a royally rubbish football team. We thus derived ten questions which had to be asked to locals during our time in Luxembourg, NB we only got seven questions answered, the ones that are starred may have involved my good friend ‘Internet’.

My answer would have been ‘small’. Alas, Wikipedia can do this better, and reliably informs me that Luxembourg is 998 square miles – smaller than the smallest state in the U.S.A, and the 179th biggest country in the world.

The answer we were given was ‘since 1945’. However, it has been a Kingdom before that, and declared independence from the French Empire in 1815. Bad year for the French, that.

June 23rd. Possibly to do with question 4, though I can’t honestly remember. The three ladies in the bank did discuss its reasoning for a little while.

As I keep referring to question 4, it seems that Luxembourg’s liberation from Germany in 1945 was a very important event.

“No idea,” said the man in the tourist office. I would have thought that this would be the very popular royal family, whose palace can be seen below. Guards were obviously on a break when we arrived! Alas, we were told the most famous Luxembourgian is actually J.C. Jay. Not a rapper…but the Prime Minister.

Cue more headscratching in the tourism office. Eventually we were told Kachkeiss, a cheese, could be the national food. We didn’t find it, primarily because we couldn’t locate a supermarket. Shops close very early in central Europe, which caught us out on this day, resulting in a dinner of a croissant and crisps from a petrol station. Luckily I had earlier located and devoured the mouth-watering waffles I had hunted for in Belgium, so wasn’t particularly peckish. The beer is called Bofferding, and seemed fairly average.

Collecting nice cars could have easily been the answer here. I do also faintly remember Luxembourg embarrassing Great Britain at tennis in the Davis Cup. However, we were told that nine-pins is something that the locals enjoy to watch and participate in. Though the amount of time it took the girls to make a decision suggests that it may not be the universal choice.

Well, they compete. Wikipedia tells me they have competed at 28 Summer Olympiads since 1912, winning a solitary gold in 1952. Take a bow, Josy Barthel. Interestingly, a runner in the 1930 Olympics won a medal for France, but was later found to have been born in Luxembourg.

Luxembourg City, the capital, is an appealing if slightly artificial place to visit, particularly when the sun glistens off the grand castle perched imperiously over the valley. Its narrow alleys have many treats hidden within them, but most will weave their way back to one of the open, bright plazas. The answer we were given, however, was the sturdy stone fortress that surrounds the centre of town, and with good reason.

I’ll take this question. The most interesting thing I learnt was that, at least for a day trip, Luxembourg is a lovely and worthwhile place to visit!

Love you all