Saturday, November 7, 2015

Day 16: A Touch of Class

Mindy's flight home this morning was at 10am, so I saw her off to the airport shuttle at the hotel (a large part of why we stayed at the NH Hotel Niederrad the last couple of nights), and then I went back to bed.  I suppose I should have made better use of my final day in Frankfurt, but with no Mindy here to pay my way, I spent a lazy morning in the hotel room.  When I lost the room at noon, I had the option to either continue to hang out in the hotel lobby, or proceed to the airport early.  While a hotel room can be a comfortable place to relax and get some work done, a hotel lobby doesn't really compete with the Maple Leaf Lounge for Business Class customers on Air Canada.  Thanks again Mindy and SQM for setting me up with this upgrade! Though I have been in Germany for the week, the Maple Leaf Lounge is the first place I am enjoying apple strudel, so quintessentially German.

A pleasantly uneventful flight home - with the continued perks of Business Class - and I landed in Toronto at 7pm this evening.  According to the clock, that is a mere two hours after I took off in Germany.  No matter how often I travel, the effects of time travel never cease to amuse me!

Tonight, we are spending our last night in a hotel near Pearson Airport, for the convenience of our separate arrival times. Tomorrow we are back to home and routine. I am rather looking forward to it after two weeks away.  Time to start running again, too.

Another amazing trip!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Day 15: Wine and Rhine

Our last full day in Germany, so we decided to do it up in style: a full day tour of the Rhine Valley – a UNESCO heritage site – including lunch, a river cruise, and wine tasting of the local German wines! The vast majority of the day lived up to expectations, though the wine-tasting and lunch left something to be desired.  Details in good time…

The tour had a rather inauspicious start when we found the office where we were to be picked up.  Remember that sketchy part of Frankfurt near the central station? The tour office was right in the middle of it, and I briefly wondered whether we had been the victim of some sort of online scam when booking the tour.  The arrival of Mike, our tour guide, and his luxury mini-coach with leather bucket seats assuaged my concerns.  His entertaining banter as he commented on our respective homes – Canadian politics, Californian drought, and French demographics – gave me full confidence we were in for a good culmination to this vacation.

Our first stop was an optional chair-lift to descend into the Rhine River Valley below. About half the group took the lift while the rest of us – 6 people – spent time with a herd of reindeer, and came to the river’s edge by coach.

The restaurant for lunch, Anker, was the ultimate in kitsch. Not only were the expected trinkets and knick-knacks everywhere – anchors, miniature ships and the like – but every metal surface was enhanced with decorative leaves, lights, and every manner of adornment. In a word, it was hideous.

I’m starting to grow accustomed to German abruptness, but I was immediately unimpressed by the restaurant service, as well. I can forget, if not forgive, a “mis-interpretation” when I ask for a glass of water to drink, and instead get a $4.00 (small) bottle.  It’s an unscrupulous habit, but the restaurant is not expecting repeat business from these tours.  When the server brings me a meat dish, and I say “Oh, I asked for vegetarian”, I am not expecting the response “No, they only told us four vegetarian meals”. She left the plate in front of me, as though I might change my mind. (Had she been reading this blog, she might know that is a legitimate possibility, but not for some uninspired chicken.) Eventually, I received a vegetarian meal instead, though I was vaguely surprised that didn’t occasion another surcharge on the meal.

My eagerness for the subsequent wine-tasting – usually a favoured experience – was subdued when I learned it was being hosted by the same restaurant, though we had to exit and re-enter through another door.  This room was equally kitschy, though Mindy and I made the best of it with our own table.

Four thimbles of wine were set in front of each of us.  You know the disposable shot glasses that hold exactly one ounce when filled to the brim?  That’s what we had for wine-tasting, with each plastic cup filled exactly one-quarter full. In an attempt to salvage some feeling of wine tasting, I managed to spread each quarter-ounce over three sips; needless to say, there was no opportunity to examine the wine, consider its aroma, or anything else that comprises a traditional structured wine tasting. Though we were the only patrons of the restaurant, the staff were too busy to involve themselves in the wine-tasting at all.  Mike, our guide, walked us through it based on the number of times he has witnessed it as a guide on this tour. I must admit, he didn’t do a bad job, given what was at his disposal.

The redeeming aspects of the wine tasting included the fourth sample – German ice wine, which was really quite good, and the fact I felt absolutely no compulsion to purchase any of the wine we had come to taste. Not only is that latter point good for the wallet, Mindy and I have already reached our collective allowance of liquor to bring home through customs!

Underwhelmed and not sufficiently tipsy from the wine, I was starting to wonder whether the whole tour would be a disappointment.  As we walked from the restaurant to the pier for our river cruise, things started to pick-up. The boat coming round to pick us up looked a far sight better than the restaurant we had just left…

…and there was a castle perched on the far side of the river, already in sight!

The cruise through the beautiful Rhine Valley carried us by several more castles and quaint villages; the castles were the vestiges of the robber-barons who once controlled this valley, and the villages were the successes that persisted once those barons were stripped of their power.

Where there was no town hugging the shores of the Rhine, the hill-sides leading to the river were lined with vineyards – the leaves turning yellow and deep red in the autumn. Periodically, we saw blue nets lining the grape-vines, protecting the grapes in hopes of a winter harvest for ice-wine. (While conditions for ice-wine in Canada seem pretty reliable, last winter Germany did not get sufficient days of cold temperatures for ice-wine until February, by which time many of the grapes were beyond salvation. Perhaps that accounts for the steeper price of German ice-wine, up to 120 Euros – about $200 CAD – per small bottle.)

The Rhine River is over 1500 kilometres long from its source in Switzerland to where it meets the North Sea, and we only cruised a few kilometres.  Nonetheless, we saw part of what is generally accepted as the most picturesque part of the river valley.  Given Germany’s drought this past summer, water levels along the Rhine are so low that ships are having great difficulty navigating the more shallow parts of the river, so it’s possible that even with more time we wouldn’t have cruised much farther. A minor disappointment for tourists, the shallow waters are wreaking havoc on barge shipping in Germany.  Barges are only able to accommodate a portion of their usual loads, and are suffering the economics of losing scale.

As the cruise concluded, we resumed our bus journey to the statue Germania, a monstrous monument to the founding of the German Empire in 1871, overlooking the Rhine Valley.

By this point in the tour I was starting to grow tired of the persistent tardiness of one diva in our group, and so I enjoyed some quiet satisfaction when at the appointed time Mike started up the bus and began pulling out of the parking lot, with Ms. Diva still wandering.  Some people, it seems, are more patient than I am, and when a chorus of voices called out to Mike to stop, that we were missing someone, he looked truly embarrassed and confused. “But this is the time I asked everyone to be back on the bus…?” I could see the German in him didn’t understand this.  I told myself that I would have let him know she was missing once we were a few hundred metres down the street….

Last but not least on our tour, we stopped at a little town that hugged the Rhine for some souvenir shopping.  Mindy and I were off to find chocolate and booze, as I was still suffering whatever is the opposite of buyer’s remorse, due to the lack of wine-shopping earlier in the day.  We found the chocolate, but not the booze – at least, none that was both appealing and at a reasonable price-point. More than a consolation, as the sun set, the view along the river was magical.

Though we didn't buy souvenirs, we certainly got an amusing memory as we walked around the town eating our chocolate.  We found a barber's shop that, apparently, includes refreshments as part of the deal.  I guess you'd want to drink from the bottle, as a half-litre glass may catch bits of hair...

Back on the bus, Mike brought us safely back to Frankfurt, lulled into a snooze by oldies in English on the radio. (To be clear, we were the ones lulled into the snooze.  I have every reason to believe that Mike was awake and alert while driving.) Having subsisted largely on chocolate and cheese through the afternoon, Mindy and I decided to revisit What the Food for our last meal in Germany.  In a perfect world, I would be eating traditional German(-like) fare at Bodhi on our last evening, but as Bodhi was in another city many hours away, WTF made for a very close second.  Besides, the lighter food was really what I needed.

Back at the hotel for our last night, our room was a hive of activity as we divided the heaviest and bulkiest souvenirs for packing, and prepared travel documents.  There was a moment of panic as I spoke to someone in the hotel lobby, who told me that the Frankfurt airport was on strike and all flights were cancelled.  When I probed, I learned that he meant all Lufthansa flights were canceled, as the strike was specific to Lufthansa. Phew!! Having confirmed the airport shuttle for tomorrow morning and set aside clothes for the day, we settled in for our last night on this trip.  While I won’t be sleeping in my own bed tomorrow night, a hotel in Toronto will feel decidedly more like home.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Day 14: Heidelberg by Day, and Frankfurt by Night

A bus ticket to Frankfurt this afternoon, and the likelihood that we won't be returning to Heidelberg anytime soon, if ever, made for good motivation to get out of the hotel in good time this morning, and head back to the historic downtown of Heidelberg.  We made mental notes of key attractions along the main thoroughfare of the old town as we hurried back to Heidelberg Castle for a view by day.

The sun was rising behind the castle as we made the courtyard, with the old town stretching out beneath us.

Turns out there is an entry fee to the castle that we appeared to have...missed....last night.  10 Euros to get in and get a tour of the inside of the castle.  While we waited for the next tour, we revisited some of the sights we had seen the previous evening.

Our tour of Heidelberg Castle was conducted by a woman named Heidi.  No kidding. Prior to exploring the castle rooms, she showed us a model of what the castle once was, prior to the attack that caused its ruins.

Extensive gardens, and a fortress-castle housing the German Wittelsbach family, member of the Prince Electorate.  In fact, King Ludwig not only held authority in the selection of the king; further, he operated as the king's deputy, and supreme judge if the king were to be deposed. This truly was a seat of power. The original Heidelberg fortress was built in the twelfth century or earlier, with subsequent building and repair work introducing more modern elements, right until the Renaissance period in the seventeenth century. Subsequently, there has been more destruction than development, with French armies twice storming the castle. The second time, they assured that Heidelberg would no longer be a strategic asset for defense by blowing up the primary defensive towers. The model below shows the castle in its current form.

In its heyday, the castle boasted the most modern technologies, and - being the seat of power in the region - hosted a number of extravagant feasts.

The "flush" toilets (seen from below - top of the picture) were advanced technology once upon a time.  When built, these toilets opened to the dry moat below.  Once the terrace where I am standing was built, the toilets were no longer used. Before judging too harshly, I am forced to remember that European train toilets open directly onto the tracks even today.

When the Romans feasted for days on end, they made good use of vomitoria - rooms dedicated to emptying one's stomach in order to have appetite for continued feasting.  It is believed that this nondescript opening in the wall of what was once a dining room supplied the same service. 

Our tour proceeded through tunnels meant to discretely move defensive armies

...and through finely decorated rooms to impress guests.

A true fortress, much of Heidelberg was built with defense in mind.  All spiral staircases turn to the left when going down.  In the event of an attack, this would give the defender - presumably on the upper portion of the stairs - full range of motion with his sword, while limiting the abilities of the attacker coming up the stairs at him.

Not all of it was built with defense in mind, though.  The largest wine barrel in the world was built in the cellars of Heidelberg to fuel the estimated 2000 litres of wine consumed every day at the castle.  As water was often polluted, wine was used for bathing as well as drinking, and due to the low alcohol content, there was no concern about children drinking their fill as well. To reduce the labour of servants going to and from the cellar, this wine pump was installed to pump the wine directly from the barrel into the kitchen adjacent to the main dining hall.

This is not the large wine barrel in the cellar, despite appearances.

This barrel can hold approximately 200 000 litres of wine.

The barrel was filled each year through a wine tax on the local farmers.  Though the region is best known for its white wine, both white and red wine (and everything in between) were mixed in this barrel to produce the castle's wine. Today, there is wine-tasting beside this barrel, showcasing the wines of the region.  We didn't try it, but I presume the wine for tasting is a little more discriminating than a simple mix of everything available!

As we returned to the town in the valley below, we stopped again to enjoy the magnificent sights of the old town before heading to our Flixbus bound for Frankfurt.

Though my expression belies this, I had done very little tasting in this liqueur shop...

Thankfully the bus-ride to Frankfurt was brief. Any longer and I might have been compelled to dig into my new Heidelberg liqueur! The bus smelled when we got on, which was only exacerbated by a passenger who decided the on-board washroom was an appropriate place to smoke her strong European cigarettes. Throw in some traffic and relentless coughing from the passenger behind us, and I was desperate to disembark in Frankfurt.

While Heidelberg was pretty and picturesque by night, the immediate vicinity of the Frankfurt central station was downright uncomfortable.  The streets were littered with homeless panhandlers; not the best place when encumbered by backpacks and luggage! We passed by a hotel we had considered - then decided against - after the reviews warned that the neighbourhood was not safe.  I understand the reviewers' perspectives.

Making our way to the front of the central station, the neighbourhood considerably improved, and we found the restaurant WTF (What the Food) for a stellar dinner.

When we found our hotel, it was in a much safer (safer-feeling, at least) and cleaner part of Frankfurt. Our final home-away-from-home in Germany. Bittersweet, as I am looking forward to returning to routine, and to not dragging my luggage around, but I can't say I'm looking forward to ending this vacation!