Friday, December 21, 2012

Long time, no post.

Long time, no post. Didn’t end up getting internet until Tuesday in Munich, but still didn’t get a good block of time to sit down and write. I’m writing this Thursday night in Berlin, but who knows when I’ll have a chance to post it... Perhaps I’ll be back in the US before I get internet again. We arrived in Freiburg late Sunday morning. Freiburg is very much a classic town-- the majority of the streets are still cobblestone, some with the original open sewers still there (though they’ve obviously had the sanitary connections blocked and are serving as drains), and nearly every business is closed all day on Sunday. It is also very much a mountain town. The city center is seated on the edge of the Black Forest, mountains to three sides, a wide plane to the other. The city extends in little tendrils up the valleys between the shoulders of the forest, almost as though it pokes through a massive gateway. As soon as we arrived, one of the shoulder straps on my bag snapped. Fortunately we were able to leave our bags at the hostel, though it was far too early to check in. We set out into the forest climbing a path of steep switchbacks up one of the mountains that sticks out into the town. At the summit there was a large observation tower that we climbed. The wind and light spitting rain made the experience more exhillarating. From there we hiked down to the valley, deeper into the forest towards the snow-covered peaks in the distance, up the next mountain, and then along its edge. After about 8 miles or so, we made our way back down into the valley that paralleled the mountain, where we followed a country road back to the edge of town until we came to the end of a streetcar line that we were able to take in to the city center. Freiburg also had a wintermarket full of delicious food, like Frankfurt’s. We ended up going back to the train station right before bed, to double check our timetables for the next day. Thankfully we did, as it turned out there were no Regional Express or Regiobahn trains to Mannheim and Munich, so we had to get reservations for ICE. Our rail passes allow us unlimted travel on any ICE, Thalays, S-bahn, Regiobahn, or Regional Express trains for any 6 days in a 2 month window, as well as discounts on Eurostar and City Night Line trains. The ICE and Thalays trains, however, require reservations. On our way back to the train station Monday morning the other shoulder strap on my bag broke. We gave up the idea of looking for a sewing kit to fix it, as we would likely need some pretty heavy-duty backing material for the PVC. We took an ICE train up to Mannheim, where we left my bag and most of the contents of Marissa’s bag in a storage locker before taking a Regional Express train out to Heidelberg. Heidelberg was simply stunning. About half the town is the old historic district, and there are fantastic views from Heidelberg castle, the cathedral, and the hills surrounding the town. We also walked the opposite bank of the river which, like the river in Freiburg, was flooding considerably from the warm snap causing snowmelt in the mountains. The origins of Heidelberg castle are unknown. It was first mentioned in writing in the late 1200s, but when and by whom it was originally built are unknown. It has been destroyed in rebuilt dozens of times since, having been captured and lost many times. It was one of the first places to suffer from the “ruin porn” phenomena, already being a major attraction by the 1800s-- there was some quote by a German author about an American soldier visiting the castle at the end of the war that had a strinking commentary on Gary and Detroit today, but I’ve forgotten it. From Heidelberg we returned to Mannheim via S-bahn, where we spent a couple hours wandering the city center. It amazes me how every single city we have visited, even tiny little Heidelberg, has a fairly extensive streetcar network. What’s even better is the multimodal integration of all modes of transit-- bus, streetcar, U-bahn, S-bahn, and intercity rail. Not only as functioning parts of a connecting system, but in graphical organization making it easy to understand how the components operate together. This is the single most striking difference from American transit, and I think it challenges how many of us think about transit, but I think that it is something the must change in the way we look at transit and plan future systems. Even the way in which fare zones are constructed-- not as concentric zones, but as a hexagonal grid-- so innovative! Sorry, tangent over. We left Mannheim on an ICE for Munich, getting in pretty late in the evening. Tuesday we took an S-bahn out of Munich to Dachau, the first large-scale concentration camp built by the Nazis. From 1933-45, over 200,000 we imprisoned there, with peak population at 30,000. There were 31,000 recorded deaths, but the actual number is estimated to be between 55,000 and 70,000. The camp was liberated on April 29, 1945 by the US. Today the rairoad spur leading into the camp is a pedestrian trail, lined with various historic markers. The camp itself features a fantastic museum that was quite sobering. One thing that did upset me a bit is that the former SS baracks and training grounds located next to the camp are used today by the Bavarian Riot Police as their primary base. It seems to me that the SS camp should either be preserved for historic purposes, or leveled. To have it still used today, particularly by military police, seems a bit insulting. We returned to Munich via Regiobahn. We spent the rest of the evening walking the city center. Wednesday, after walking the city center some more, we took the U-bahn up to the old Olympic grounds from 72. Very beautiful buildings and landscaping. The observation tower offered great views. We walked seemingly forever through the Munich suburbs to Nymphenburg palace, which was much larger than I had expected. The grounds were comparable to Versailles. From here we were able to take a streetcar back into the city center, where we once again started out walking, this time to the south. Ended up back at the main train station, where we caught our night train to Berlin. We arrived in Berlin around 8am today. The main train station in Berlin is like a dream. Level after level of train platforms, ahhh underground HSR! Our hostel is a good distance into East Berlin, meaning we had to take one S-bahn and one U-bahn to get to it. But really the location isn’t too bad-- the little restaraunts here are about half the price of those in the central parts of West Berlin, and we’re a single-seat U-bahn ride out of Alexanderplatz. After checking in, we walked around the area a bit. East Berlin certainly is interesting... It’s not depressed or anything, but you can tell it has been through a lot and has seem a lot of disinvestment. Less transit, lots of very wide boulevards, but still a very comfortable place. Took the train into the city center and walked a long distance through the central part of town. Unfortunately the big parkway from Alexanderplatz to the river Spree is all torn up for a U-bahn extension (whatever happened to TBMs???), but it was pretty nonetheless. Walked through the Brandenburg Gate (!), Museum Island, past the Riechstag, and then through the huge park to Charlotteburg and through the shopping district down there, before making the long 2-transfer U-bahn trip home. Until next time, --Drew

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Germany, Round 1

So I guess I’m deciding mid-trip to start posting here again. We’re on the ICE from Frankfurt to Freiburg, and Marissa is writing in her journal and I guess it’s inspired me to start writing things down. That, and I remember how much I’ve enjoyed going back to look at what I wrote while in Rwanda, now over three years later, and how great it is to remember things I’ve forgotten. This won’t be good writing-- I’ll just be putting things out pretty much straight with no editing process. I set out from Chicago last Tuesday-- flying to London with a layover in Dublin. The flight from Dublin into Heathrow was delayed a bit due to freezing fog in London. Thankfully I just had to deal with about an hour delay-- the two prior Dublin to London flights were canceled entirely. Marissa met me at Heathrow, and we took the tube into the city. We walked through Hyde Park and past a large canival that was set up there, then down Oxford Street past all of the big department stores with their Christmas displays. We cut north and ended up at St Pancras with plenty of time to spare. It was freezing in the open-air station. That’s one of many ways in which Germany beats England-- no diesel trains means warm stations! The East Midlands train up to Nottingham was pretty cool. It was my first high speed train... If you know me well at all, you can imagine how excited I was. They’re diesel, with a max speed of 125mph, not too unlike the regional HSR being built Chi-Stl and Chi-Det back home. Very comfortable trains. We were on one of the newer trainsets. I was very impressed with Nottingham. I was expecting it to be a much smaller town than it is. Truth is it is a fairly small town, but the density of it makes it feel much larger in the city center. Didn’t get a chance to ride the streetcars, but the bus system is phenomenal. Their standard routes have the same ammenities, if not more, than Metro Transit is trying to put on their new arterial BRT service! Spent a good deal of time walking around the University of Nottingham campus while Marissa was in class Thursday. Nicely landscaped, but very much a scattered-buildings-in-a-park kind of feel, much like Luther. Not exactly my style. There were a few small snadstone caves on campus... This excited me a lot. In town they have a fairly extensive pedestrian shopping district anchored by a couple small malls. I thought it was pretty nice. Travelling up and down hills on the edge of the city center there were a lot of bricked and fenced off entrances to old sandstone caves and mines. I had to confess to Marissa that if I were in Nottingham another night I would have had to try and get a connection to someone local through DC... Seems so much like the Saint Paul underground. Castle Rock was amazing. The honeycombed sandstone on the bluffsides was just unreal. I’ll be posting photos later on Facebook when I get home (unfortunately getting jpegs out of raws on the Chromebook is too time consuming to make it worth doing), but rest assured that any sandstone lovers out there will have their minds blown. We visited a pub that was built into old sandstone caves. I imagined it to be like the one I’ve heard of along the MN-WI border, but this place was much cooler-- about a half dozen dining rooms that were open, extending back quite a ways on three different levels, all in old sandstone caves lined with spraycrete, but not the utilitarian spraycrete we see up in MN. This stuff had some agregate in it and had been smoothed down to make it look a bit more pleasing to the eye. We left Nottingham Friday afternoon. Our East Midlands train into St Pancras was delayed about 15 minutes, and we thought we would miss our Eurostar connection. Fortunately, we did not, and made the connection just fine, though a bit of sprinting through the shopping concourse at St Pancras may have been invloved. We’ve been getting a fair amount of our food at grocery stores and farmer’s markets, so I brought a small multitool and a set of camping silverware. I checked online beforehand, and blades less than 3” are permitted in Eurostar carry-ons. However, I was forced to empty out my entire 30L drypack that I’m living out of and have the inside of my bag and most of my items swabbed and analyzed for explosive material. We still made the train. Eurostar was pretty cool, though it was very crowded, dark outside, and we were pretty tired after a very stressful afternoon. The trainsets are definately showing their age. We arrived in Brussels around 9pm. It was a good ten degrees warmer than England had been, which was very welcome. What a mess of a city. The whole place is covered in tags literally everywhere, including the upscale shopping districts, the streets are all wonky and poorly laid-out, clearly having their roadway configurations changed a dozen times in the last century, half the metro stations in the city center are closed, and there are almost no street lights. We managed to see a good portion of the city center including an old chateau and several very attractive government buildings, even though we left town by 6am. Perhaps my impression of the city would have been more positive if I had seen it in daylight at all, but it certainly felt like a city that has been in decline for a very long time. The twentieth century, between the end of colonialism and both world wars, hasn’t been very kind on Belgium. Our ICE train to Frankfurt was beautiful. The max speed on the route is 187mph, and our ICE 3 trainset certainly made that happen. Very clean and sharp looking-- LED displays, sliding glass doors between sections, ect. I watched the sunrise just before crossing the Belgian-German border, while Marissa slept. The German countryside, at least in this part of the country, isn’t all that different that home. The vegitation is very similar to what you would see in north-central MN, and the small towns look very similar in vernacular architecture to a lot of the older river towns in the Midwest. The larger towns are of course very different, full of twentieth centry moderist apartment blocks and such. Frankfurt was a sharp contrast to Brussels. While Brussels felt like a city long in decline from its height as a colonial capital 130 years ago, Frankfurt feels very much the modern financial center that it is. The city’s streets and transit are very well laid-out and maintained, and the skyline is ful of gleaming modern office buildings, dotted by the steeples and clock towers of old churches and government buildings. We were able to check in at our hostel when we arrived around 9am-- well before the official check-in time, which was great, as we were free to walk around without our heavy backpacks. We were about a half-mile outside of the city center, which is ringed with a linear park forming a C-shape that meets the River Main on both ends. We were out walking for about 6 hours in the morning/afternoon and about 4 more in the evening. Central Frankfurt has a massive pedestrian district, which is only penetrated in a few places by streetcar lines. We visited several churches and a large conservatory, but spent most of our time during the day walking the city, covering all of the pedestrian district, both sides of the river, the park loop, and a few residential neighborhoods north of downtown. Frankfurt is quite possibly the most well-planned and beautiful city I have ever visited. I doubt I could ever leave the Midwest long-term, but if there were an international city that I would love to live, it would be Frankfurt. The transit here is great-- they have a system of streetcars, as well as a light rail system (U-Bahn) that run at-grade further out and in subways downtown. The commuter rail systems in Germany are called S-Bahn and run fairly frequently. They are all electric, and share trackage with the Regio trains that run between smaller towns in the country. ICE trains are the high-speed lines connecting major towns and cities. They typically operate on their own tranckage outside of station approaches, where they share with Regio and S-Bahn. So far we’ve only taken ICE, as well as one U-Bahn ride, when we managed to walk about 4 miles to an observation tower which ended up being closed, so we rode the light rail back. We should be taking a couple Regio trains tomorrow to get to Mannheim and Heidelburg, and S-Bahn in Munich. So hopefully by the end of the trip I will get the chance to ride each type of service! Frankfurt also had a massive festival set up in the pedestrian district. When we walked through during the day it was mostly shut down, but when we came back it night it was packed. Much like the state fair, but winter and German. All sorts of traditional German food made us go a bit over our budget for the day-- snitzel, brautwurst, currywurst, rindswurst, and of course German beer. The festival went on for about 10-12 blocks and featured a very ornate 2-story carousel, a steam train, and a big band playing on the roof of City Hall. Quite the experience. We left Frankfurt on an ICE to Freiburg around 9am, and should be getting in soon. Not sure when I’ll be actually posting this. Supposedly our hostel in Freiburg has internet. We will see. ---- Now, 3 days later in Munich I finally have internet. Such is life.