June 30, 2009

Travel Log: Strasbourg, France (June 2009)

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Our stop in the Black Forest village of Gengenbach was just an hour train ride from Strasbourg, France - I heard good things about Strasbourg and it looked intriguing based on the brief research I did before we hit the road. Having finally mastered a handful of German words and phrases, why not mix it up with a day in France? We caught a morning train on Monday (June 29) and were there by 11:00. The Strasbourg train station was unique, the entire outside facade of the old station was wrapped in a huge modern glass bubble (protecting it & travelers from the elements, I guess).

Speaking of the elements, based on the forecasts posted on weather.com before I left Raleigh, the outlook was perfect - highs in the 70s, low's in the 50s, a few clouds, very little rain. Hence, I packed accordingly. Checking again before I left Heidelberg, lots of rain was in the forecast. Well, weather.com was way off. We saw virtually no rain (yay!), but it was hot - flirting with 90° in the afternoons. No lodging on our trip had A/C (which seems common in this part of Europe) which made sleeping a little uncomfortable (no fans in rooms either) and there was a lot of hand washing of shorts & t-shirts in the shower - I could have packed less. C'est la vie!

So Strasbourg was sunny & hot. Exiting the train station, one of my first sights (after the obligatory McDonald's) was a dude walking a poodle. Affirmative - we are in France.

The entire core of the historic and touristy section is wrapped inside canals criss-crossed with bridges of varying age, all of which added to the charm. Of course I wanted to take a boat ride through the canals and we heading into the heart of the city looking for the boat docks. I usually have an excellent sense of direction, but apparently not in France. There were too many twists and turns in the old city streets and the canal itself, so the search for boats was trumped by the need for food - which we found in large open square, at a place that served up panni-like sandwiches and Ben & Jerry's!


Ahhh, a little cone of heaven in France. Recharged with food, T started getting the itch to check out the shops. We meandered into the large & majestic Strasbourg Cathedral (construction started in 1176, completed in 1439 - and remained at 142m high "the tallest edifice in Christendom" until the 19th century). Aside from stained glass windows leading up to the huge vaulted ceilings, the church contained a unique Astronomical Clock, built by the Swiss (who else?) around 1547. It stands about 2 stories high.

Like a medieval contraption out of Walt Disney's It's A Small World, at 12:30 each day apostle "action figures" pop out of clock and one by one rotate past Jesus. We were there around 2pm.

But we did find some awesome french desserts and the boats! This turned out to be the highlight of the day. For about 90 minutes we were taken through the canals and out to the new/modern European Union buildings. Strasbourg is the home of "The Council of Europe" which today includes the EU Parliament, International Institute for Human Rights, European Science Foundation, and more. We passed numerous neat old buildings, I'll let pictures do the talking.


Before wrapping up the day, T wanted to do a little more browsing in the shops then the plan was to grab dinner and an 8pm train. On any trip, something always goes wacky. Last year in Venice I briefly lost my wallet. This time the department store stop ran long, dinner at a cafe near the train station was cut short, the waitress didn't realize we had to leave by a certain time, the train ticket machine didn't take cash or my credit cards and then I was looking for track 29 with 2 minutes to spare - which didn't exist!

From a distance, we watched our train pull out of the station. Headed in to customer service to catch the next train (which was leaving in ~15 minutes). Line was long, by the time we figured out how to catch the next train, it was pulling out of the station without us! Fortunately there was another train around 9:30pm. We wisely invested the extra time in a round of beers by the canal (okay, 2 rounds). It was a long dark walk back up to our hotel in Gengenbach, but made it around 11pm. We crashed hard with the sounds of running water lulling us to sleep.

Needless to say, we slept in the next day.

Next up... exploring the Black Forest.

June 29, 2009

Travel Log: The Black Forest - Gengenbach, Germany (June 2009)

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Four trains out of Heidelberg, we arrived in the little Black Forest village of Gengenbach on Sunday (June 28) early afternoon. One train transfer totaled less than 4 minutes, we made it.
Nobody, including my German friends, seems to have ever heard of this town. Its located halfway between Baden-Baden and Frieberg, just 2 short train stops east of Offenberg; basically in the heart of the Black Forest region. We were shuttled 2km to the other side of the village to the
Pfeffer and Salz Eventhotel (Pepper & Salt Hotel) - our home for the next 3 nights. After staying in the tight old city streets of Heidelberg, finding Pfeffer and Salz flanked with a couple farmhouses, some open land and flock of sheep was refreshing.

Despite being a little tired, we felt we should check out the town and get our bearings for our stay. We were glad we did. A short 20 min walk downhill and through the old city walls led us into a very quaint and picturesque village. Cobble stone streets were edged with mountain water was flowing freely toward the river.

Cafes and small bier garten courtyards checkered the town. Four story buildings contained shops at street level and windows adorned with flower boxes above. In the open square in front of the Rathaus (city hall) a traditional band was beginning to play for the crowd. With gelato in hand, we ventured over to enjoy the band which was wrapping up a Wagner piece (I think that's what they announced based on deciphering a few words in the announcement), then to our surprise they began belting out Abba's "Dancing Queen", followed by "Mama Mia" and another Abba track.

They were pretty good and we enjoyed this random German treat. Later I learned that the band is traveling around and this was the 1st weekend they played in Gengenbach.
We circled rest of the town center, did some window shopping, saw a bunch of "cow art" on display (somehow the band was associated with this cow-art), strolled along the river, made sure we could find the train station on our own and headed back up to the hotel.
One pleasant surprise in Germany - at this time of year, the sun sets very late. Dusk kicks in around 10pm; so we enjoyed the extra daylight. We dined under the huge umbrellas on the Pfeffer and Salz patio. Julia, the owner, performed most of the tasks at the hotel (front desk person, concierge, hostest and waitress), fortunately she had a reasonable grasp of English. This comes in handy when things like the menu are all in German. I opted for the house special (Pfeffer and Salz rumpsteak), T gambled with a Greek salad - and lost (lesson learned). Unfortunately the hotel did not have an internet connection - so blog updates are far from real-time on this trip.
With a full agenda on the schedule for Monday, we crashed with the sound of running water outside our window.

Next up... a day trip to Strasbourg, France.

June 28, 2009

Travel Log: Heidelberg, Germany (June 2009)

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Just 4 weeks and 1 day after returning from the coastline and jungle of Belize, it was time to venture beyond the familiar confines of the USA again. This time the destination is Heidelberg, Germany for 2+ jam packed days with colleagues literately from all corners of the world (UK, Russia, India, Argentina, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, Romania and more). It was a fantastic opportunity similar to our international "summit" in Heidelberg in Sep 2006 and Milan, Italy in April 2008. Last time in Heidelberg I was only in town for 4 nights, this time I decided to make the most of it - and spent a lot of late nights in 4 short weeks preparing for the summit as well as mapping out an extra week of exploring southern Germany with T.

In Heidelberg, I stayed with most colleagues in the
Kulturbrauerei - a hotel in historic old town with a brewery - How cool is that? (would have been cooler if the rooms had a/c or at least a fan; several of us can attest that voices carry well between the walls of the narrow streets - particularly late at night; this hotel was good, but would be great in cooler weather).

After work wrapped up on Thursday I enjoyed a ~7 km run along the Neckar River, power nap, quick dinner and caught up with coworkers still in town for a half liter at "The Distille"; followed by an obligatory trip to The Cave. What happens in The Cave, stays in The Cave!

It took a little extra effort to get rolling Friday morning, but did - and connected with Steve from the Toronto office. We trekked up the Neckar River ~28km through a couple little towns, past some more castle ruins, through a corn field, ship yard en route to our destination - Hirschhorn. I must confess we had to push our bikes up a steep hill to reach the Hirschhorn castle. Wonderful view. We zipped back down the hill & caught a train to Heidelberg - we were feeling beat, plus there was a good chance Therece (aka "T") was going to be arriving on the 3pm train (she didn't arrive until 4:30 - and via bus, not train! - that's another story for her to share).


I shared the sights and tastes I've become familiar with in old town Heidelberg w/ T. Highlights included dinner (w/ Steve) Friday evening in the Rathaus (city hall) square, photo ops on the old bridge, a Sat morning rainy tour of the castle ruins (the French literately blew the defensive fortifications apart in March 1693, and burnt 99% of Heidelberg to the ground for good measure; lightening took care of the castle living quarters in 1764; after 400+ years of growth, it was never inhabited again),
window shopping along HauptStraße, a cruise on the Neckar in a solar powered boat (largest of it's kind) and a late dinner by the old bridge at "Goldener Hecht" with 2 jovial musicians entertaining the crowd while we washed down some bratwurst, potatoes & saurkraut with Heiferweisen ("hecht" is pike in German, I didn't see any pike on the menu!).

In all, we had a great time. Heidelberg is a beautiful historic town. As I learned through 2 visits and T in 2 days, it is a great place to get inducted into the German culture - while there is still ample English available to help you along.



After another traditional German Frühstück (breakfast) with breads and sliced meats at Kulturbrauerei Sunday morning, one last trip to the old bridge and stroll through the cobblestone streets, we caught a cab to the train station for our next stop... The Black Forest!

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