Northern Germany doesn’t have much in the way of scenery and other than the uniqueness of passing by small towns with red tile roofs and tall cathedrals and sprawling farmlands, there’s not a lot to keep an eye out for. But eventually I got far enough south to find myself in the more industrial area of the country and then – the Rhine!
I know that I had seen the Rhine when my high school traveled here in 1986, but that was a long time ago and was seen though un-appreciative teenage eyes. But now I could see it for what it really is: a beautiful and wild stretch of water, bordered by ancient villages and guarded by castles on almost every hill top. The rail tracks followed the edge of the Rhine closely, sometimes dividing villages in half as we rolled through them. I wanted nothing more than to get off the train and onto a motorcycle and explore this area. But alas, I was stuck on the train and had to be content with merely watching the world go by.
When I got off the train in Heidelberg I was surprised that the station was so far from the old city. It took me a good 20 minutes of walking just to get to the edge of the old buildings – and I only had an hour and a half before I had to come back to catch my train. I started my usual tactic of meandering down alleys and side streets, going in a general direction but with no real destination. The town sits on the bank of the Rhine and is hemmed in between the water and the high mountains that cradle the river. The main Cathedral sits forlornly in the main square; small market tents gathered like parasites around the base of its walls. It wasn’t nearly as beautiful or exciting as I would have expected it to be, considering that the town itself came highly recommended by a few people. But then again, I was seeing the town in less than two hours, so my hurried review should not be taken too seriously.
I saw the old castle high on a hill at the other end of the town and figured that I’d head that way. Whew – it was a lot warmer here than in Munster and I was carrying my full pack. The hill leading up to the castle got steeper and before I knew it, a glace at my watch showed me that I had reached the halfway point. I had used exactly half of my “Heidelberg time” and needed to think about heading back. I looked up at the castle and realized that I would never make it and instead headed back through the town center and took in more sights and people watching. The houses along the base of the castle hill were beautiful and had exotic stained glass windows and intricately carved door ways. A playground on the side of the hill had a curved slide that dropped steeply and disappeared out of sight around a bush. It looked like fun and I probably should have given it a try, instead of walking the rest of the way down the hill.
Back near the Cathedral I found “Kathe Wolfhart”, a shop well-known for it’s year-around Christmas displays and kitschy tourist items. I did a quick walk through, fairly overwhelmed by the amount of “stuff”, but surprised at the apparent quality of most of it. I managed not to buy anything and continued my trek to the station, which I reached with less than 10 minutes to spare. I sat down on a bench and watched trains go by and people make their way through the station.
The sun was out and shining on the farmlands that dot the land south of Heidelberg. It was a quick trip to Freiburg and we pulled into the station right at 4pm. This was just as planned; as I told Dan and I would meet him at his hotel between 3pm and 4pm. What I hadn’t planned on was the fact that the hotel was so far away from the center of the city and the rail station. I skimmed the edge of the medieval city and then walked through some very nice neighborhoods as I ventured further north. The trees were in fuller bloom here, with magnolias and dogwoods in full color. It was slightly warmer as well, which I really noticed as the route I was on started to climb – and climb. It took me a full hour to reach the hotel and I was uncomfortably hot when I arrived.
The woman at the front desk immediately spoke English to me as soon as she heard my attempt to speak German. I realize that she probably felt that she was doing me a great service by demonstrating how easy she could make our communication, but I still felt slighted that she barely even let me try out my German. I told her that Dan is my husband and verified that he had checked in. I asked for a key to his room, but she would not give me one as I could not prove to her that I was his wife (we have different last names, so none of my paperwork matched his). I then asked which room number was his, but when I knocked on the door, no one answered. I went back to the front desk and called the room, thinking that perhaps Dan was napping from the long flight. Still no answer. It being a nice day, I decided to sit on the deck with a cold beverage and enjoy the scenery while I waited for him.
The view from the Mercury Panorama Hotel was quite nice, looking southwest across the main city of Freiburg, the Munster-Freiburg Cathedral standing prominently in the middle of the town. I sat down on the deck shortly after 5pm. By 7pm it had grown dark and cool outside, so I moved in to the lobby area. By then, the staff at the front desk had changed and one of them asked if I had been helped. I explained that my husband had the room key and that I couldn’t get in. She asked which room number and immediately turned and pulled a key out and handed it to me. I should have tried that tactic before! I hauled my bag down to the room and let myself in. Just as I suspected, there was a note from Dan on the desk. He was having dinner in the town with some co-workers and wouldn’t be back until “after dinner”. Yes, I realized this now. I went into the hotel restaurant for dinner and Dan showed up just as I was finishing my dessert. The dinner was anything but ordinary, with an amuse-bouch of Heart of Eel, marinated orchid flower and duck breast on tomato.
The next day, Wednesday, Dan had to attend conferences and dinner, so I was on my own. In fact, I was pretty much “on my own” until his last conference at noon on Friday. It was time to explore. I walked back into Freiburg and meandered around the city center, following my typical method of essentially getting lost within a set boundary. It was great. The structures in the city had mostly been rebuilt because of bomb damage during WW II, but I would have never have guessed that based on the buildings that I saw around me. It was refreshing that the culture embraced its past rather then to tear it down and build something “bigger and better” on top of it.
I spent the day walking around inside of the old walled city. A few of my friends had warned me about the “open canals” running through the streets but I found them not to be a problem. They were about a foot across and maybe 6” deep; one just had to pay attention to where one was walking. There was an open-air market in full-force around the base of the famous Munster-Freiberg Cathedral and I perused the stalls with interest. Wooden toys, fresh fruits and vegetables, cut flowers, potted plants and herbs, hot bratwurst, fresh pastries, even packets of spice were available. I soaked up the sun as it tried to overpower the clouds above and I circled the cathedral, enjoying the immense variety of gargoyles that decorated the roof line of the church. I expected only a variety of monster-like creatures to direct the rain away from the building, but some of them surprised me. For instance, there was a sculpted man who poured the rain out his bottom end, and I wondered if it was an original design or if it was added much later. There were also simple animals, and more common-looking people, each one designed to distribute the rain water in a manner appropriate to the character, although most of them were simply wide-open mouths.
Eventually I entered the cathedral; it was enormous! The incredible amount of work that went into creating a structure like this was overwhelming. Rich, elaborate paintings decorated the walls, stained glass towered above me and gold gleamed from nooks and crannies everywhere. I tried to imagine the people of 500 years ago, cramming their way into the open space at the back of the church, the more well-to-do sitting on the hard and unforgiving benches. Would the sound carry well? Was the air stifling and hot in the summer and bitter cold in the winter? Why did people feel compelled to come here? Once again, as I looked around me I though of the great good that could have been done with the wealth that had instead went into building such an edifice to some far off super being. But what was done was done and I enjoyed the beauty around me.
I munched on a tasty “Muster Wurst” as I strolled down side streets and looked in windows. I ventured to the two remaining city gates and was appalled that “McDonalds” had emblazoned its name across one of them. Then I explored beyond the old city and into the University section, but the more modern buildings held little sway with me and I turned back to the cobblestone streets and open canals.
I found a kitschy tourist store right next to the Cathedral and went in to look at cuckoo clocks. I was determined to bring one home with me, not only as a souvenir as the trip, but also because I grew up with one in my grandfather’s house and they were always special to me. I wanted a good one, however. I wouldn’t settle for some cheap imitation. If I was going to buy a cuckoo clock from southern Germany, you can be sure that it would be an authentic one. I went inside the store and looked at their clocks on display. I saw a couple that I liked, but was confused by the various prices. I asked one of the women working there if she could point out the differences. The first thing she did was to point out that they were Hone clocks – made just a few miles away in the mountains near Titisee-Neustadt. I had to stop her right then. I had already made plans to visit the Titisee area the next day, having read about the beauty of the lake and mountains. If I could buy my clock straight from the place it was made, that would make me very happy. I left the store knowing that if things did not work out on Thursday, then I’d have time on Friday to come back and buy a clock from them.
I was looking for something other than “civilization” and soon found a trail through the woods that wandered to the top of a nearby hill. It was a lot more work than I was expecting, and the lookout tower at the top (which I had no idea was even there) added a few more steps to the 300+ I had already taken to climb the final set of stairs out of the woods. It was a great view, being able to look down onto the walled city and see how it was laid out. I could also see our hotel, peeking around the trees on the next hill over.
Because Dan would be busy with conferences and dinner, I picked up some fresh rolls and fruit to eat once I got back to the hotel that night. I then meandered through the charming neighborhood just north of the old city. I could see myself living in a place like this. The houses were beautifully kept, the yards were an interesting combination of flowers and trees and grass and the streets were narrow and quiet.
Much to my disappointment, Germany had not maintained their public fountains like Switzerland has. It was sad to see these beautiful relics of a by-gone age neglected and empty, especially when I was thirsty and wanted for some cold and refreshing water. Such was the case as I hiked back up to the hotel, the warm sun now at my back and my hands full of fresh food. But now I knew of a shorter and easier way up the hill and wasn’t nearly as out of breath as I was the previous evening. Besides, I had a key to the room this time!
Thursday I got up and looked at the dreary sky. I hated the thought of going somewhere specifically for “outdoor beauty” knowing that it would most likely be marred by rain. But it was the plan for the day and I knew that it would be interesting regardless of the weather. I made the long walk back to the train station and caught a local train to Titisee. This ride wasn’t covered under my Pass, but it was a fairly inexpensive ticket and a great way to see more of the area. The train passed through the southern neighborhoods of Freiburg and then out into the lush farmlands at the base of the mountains.
Then the train started to gain elevation as it wound its way up through the Hell’s Canyon area, an incredibly narrow and rugged gateway through towering cliffs. The main road was always near us, usually slightly below the rail bed, and I could see the trucks and cars making their way. Periodic clusters of buildings would center themselves around a relatively flat spot between the train tracks and the road, not all of them easily identifiable as to their use. After half an hour or so, the conductor called out the stop for Titisee. It was an overcast but dry sky that greeted me as I disembarked from the train and I immediately felt the colder air of the mountains. Since I wanted to buy one anyway, I went to a just-opened store in town and perused their selection of scarves. The proprietors were still setting out their wares and I think I was the first tourist to come through that day. Based on what I’d seen for the past week, decorative scarves were the height of fashion in Germany. I had my white silk scarf, but I wanted something more colorful – and warmer. I chose a nice thick scarf from the rack and wrapped it around my neck. Mmmm – cozy!
Now that I was properly dressed for the chilly wind that blew across the lake, I could look around and enjoy what I saw. This was obviously a resort town, as indicated by the reviews I’d read online as well as the numerous boats for hire on the shore and the gift shops that lined the streets. But March was too early for many people to take advantage of the lake’s recreation, and it was early in the day as well, so I pretty much had the place to myself.
The shore was nice and sandy where I was, but it soon became thick with vegetation and the infrequent dock the further you got away from this end of the lake. I could easily appreciate that Titisee still looked very natural, not like most American “destination lakes” where every foot of shoreline has a vacation home, boat house or restaurant. I could see another village tucked in among the trees at the far end of the lake, but almost nothing between here and there. A lone fisherman was out on the lake and a couple of workers were cleaning off the sidewalks. It was very peaceful as I traced the north end of the lake before heading towards the main area of the town.
I stopped at the visitor’s center to confirm that there are indeed trails that go over the mountains to the town of Neustadt. The nice woman behind the counter even pulled out a map and pointed out “Hochfirst”, a nice lookout about mid-way along the route. I hadn’t planned on any stops, but it looked like a nice diversion – assuming that it didn’t rain.
The trail led out of town along the lake, passed under a main roadway and then climbed up into tree-covered mountains. I was alone and took my time. I was already at an elevation I wasn’t used to and making my way up even further was taxing my lungs. For once I was glad that Dan wasn’t with me, as he tends to bully his way up mountains and stops for no one. Instead, I stopped to listen to the silence around me, inhale the scents and appreciate the forest. I eventually made it to a ridge line, the trail having converted from a car-wide track to a narrow single track and framed in clumps of dirty snow. I could see in the distance the Alps, but they were faint and far away. Pasture sprawled out before me and large Swiss-style farm houses dotted the scene. Or at least as much of the scene as I could see, for the land fell gently away from me before dropping down and out of sight. More climbing and then I caught glimpses of Titisee, laid out far below me now, the houses smaller than toys and the train tracks wrapped around tree-covered hills like a model enthusiast would create in his basement.
I stopped for photos when I realized that I was near Hoch First and I could see a look out tower a little further up. Before I went to the tower I stopped in the tiny restaurant, temptingly advertising warm Apfel Strudel inside. I went in and found the owners – an older couple sitting at what appeared to be “their” table, news papers sprawled out before them as they relaxed with their coffee. They looked up when I walked in and greeted me, but didn’t leap out of their seats. I looked around at the dozen or so wooden tables and many knick-knacks decorating the place. The woman got up and offered me a seat and took my order. Neither of them spoke any English, so I was finally able to use my feeble German in a real-world setting. I understood the menu, they understood my order, and after savoring the warm apple strudel, I checked that the tower was open and what it cost (1 Euro).
I left the restaurant building and crossed the yard to the metal-clad tower. The wind was blowing hard and I could feel the sting of rain. Better make this quick! The inside of the tower was noisy with the wind howling around it and I climbed the 125 steps to the top. I poked my head out, mittens on my hands (yes, I happened to have a pair of mittens in my jacket) and took some pictures as the rain moved in from the west; so much for fantastic scenery. I put the camera away, trotted back down the stairs and headed downhill.
The rain had grown serious and didn’t let up at all, although the cover of the forest kept it from bombarding me. I made quick work of the remainder of the trail to Neustadt. The entire length from Titisee to Neustadt was about 7.5 km and with the easy pace I had taken, it took me about 3 hours to cover it, including my meal break. I could now see the next town across from the main road. It didn’t look very inviting to me, as I tend to prefer the look and layout of the old medieval walled cities. But it wasn’t completely unappealing and had clean streets and well-kept buildings. And of course, it was raining even harder now so there was little desire to linger and explore more. Instead, I found the Hone factory near the train station. It was a simple white building with the name austerely painted on the wall. I walked up to the door and saw no posted hours and no visible signs that anyone sold anything here at all. But I went inside anyway and was immediately in a very small lobby area with a locked inner door. I could see that beyond the door was another lobby area with a desk behind it. I had gotten someone’s attention when I tried to open the second door and I could hear a buzz – he was unlocking it for me. I entered a rather empty but neat and clean area but saw not a single clock. I asked the man behind the counter if I could buy a clock from here and he said yes and indicated yet another door. He buzzed again and I opened it and went into the room beyond. It was wall-to-wall cuckoo clocks.
It took some time, but I finally settled on a clock and made the purchase. Naturally it didn’t fit into my backpack I’d brought just for this purpose, but he gave me a paper bag to put it in. This would have worked out much better if it wasn’t raining hard outside and I hadn’t intended on walking around the town for a little bit. The handles gave up quickly and I ended up carrying it around under my arm until I relented to the rain and headed back to the train station. Unfortunately for me, I’d misread the time table and was an hour early for the next train back to Freiburg. With the rain and the box, I was in no mind to continue my wanderings, so I sat on a bench inside the station and watched people come and go. The train ride back to Freiburg was uneventful, with even less to see now that I was raining.
When I arrived in Freiburg, I sought out a large store to see if I could find a more suitable bag for my clock box. When I finally did find one, I was amused that they charged me the equivalent of a nickel for it. That’s one way to reduce needless plastic consumption. I made the long trek back to the hotel, box in bag and my backpack holding some tasty treats I’d picked up for the evening.
Friday was planned so that I would meet Dan at the train station just after noon. I slept in, took my time in packing my bags and then wandered down to the station to wait for Dan. I had his ticket ready and it was an easy wait for our train to Zurich. We had planned to visit his cousins there and would spend the weekend with them.
After a pleasant visit with family and friends, as well as some beautiful weather and views of the mountains from the city’s waterfront, it was time to go home. Because I had to fly out of Frankfurt, I left before Dan did, hopping back on the train to head north for five hours before catching my 8 hour flight home. Dan had most of the day to himself in Zurich before he flew out of the Zurich airport. Conveniently, our flights landed in Newark within 5 minutes of each other, which made for an easy trip home together in our car we’d left parked at the airport.