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.