Tuesday, July 28, 2009

An interesting breakfast in Germany

It wasn’t widespread in Germany, but we did encounter some of the rules-based society that we’d have expected. At our hotel restaurant in the Black Forest, we came downstairs one morning for the buffet breakfast. We filled our plates, took seats at a nice table by the window, and began to eat. In a few minutes, a waiter came by and wished us good morning. He asked for our room number, and when we told him, he said, “I’ll show you to your table now.” He indicated a table far off in a dark corner. All of the tables were equivalent: the same number of seats, and the same number of place settings. We told him, “We’d prefer to sit here by the window.” He got a strange expression on his face; not angry, just dumbfounded. “But that is your table,” he said. We repeated, “Thank you, but we’d prefer to sit here.” He left, and we didn’t see him again that morning. Of course, he also didn’t ask us if we wanted coffee or tea.

The next morning, we were a little more prepared. When we came down to the restaurant, there was a hostess waiting. She said, “I’ll show you to your table,” and took us to the same dark corner. We told her, “Yesterday, we sat over there. Is it all right if we take the table by the window?” Again, the same dumbfounded expression. The hostess must have had a little more decision-making authority, because she finally gave an elaborate shrug (which said more plainly than words, “But what else can you expect from those crazy Americans?”) and seated us by the window. A few minutes later, the waiter from the day before came by and again wanted to take us back to the dark corner. We told him, “Oh, the hostess seated us here.” No further problems.

Ah, those cultural differences!

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Playing Cards

I mentioned briefly in one of the previous blog entries about different styles of playing cards in other countries. You can see pictures of them at


The Spanish deck is 48 cards, but traditionally the 8’s and 9’s are left out to make a 40-card deck. The German deck is 36 cards, but traditionally the aces are left out to make a 32-card deck. This all sounds a bit arbitrary, but think of all the arbitrary rules in card games that you’re used to playing!

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Great European Vacation: The Alps

We saw a lot of very pretty places on this vacation, but I must say: the Alps are the prettiest place that I’ve seen. Ever. Anywhere. This is a very strong statement from someone who’s been to Yosemite, to the Grand Canyon, to Zion….but I stand by it. The Alps are much greener than the big American mountain ranges I’ve visited. Also, they are generally much steeper and craggier. I think that the Alps must be younger, geologically speaking, than the Rockies or California’s Sierra Nevada. See the pictures at:


We’ve only been to the Jungfrau area of Switzerland and the Dolomites of Italy, but I’m eager to see more. Incredible mountain vistas…and so very peaceful and restful. In these areas of Europe, hiking is a much more civilized activity. There are cable cars to take you to the top (or very near the top) of the mountains! You hike (or in our case, wander slowly, admiring the abundant colorful flowers and butterflies) to a restaurant and have a lovely lunch at the top of the mountain, or in the middle of a meadow. I’m sure there are more remote areas where the serious mountaineers go. But without going to too much trouble, there’s an awful lot of nice scenery available. There was much spinning in flower covered meadows (eat your heart out Julie Andrews!), but we never managed to figure out which one of the flowers was the Edelweiss. We had cloudy weather and afternoon thunderstorms for most of our stay, which meant that we had to get up and going to take advantage of the morning weather to go hiking. We didn’t take the cable cars to the tops of the mountains in Switzerland; they were all fogged in, and there was no view. But we plan to return, hopefully in September.

A nice addition to our hiking experiences was the music of the cowbells. Yes, cowbells. Many of the cows in the area are belled, and the resulting random notes create a lovely background symphony as you hike the trails. These aren’t the harsh rectangular cowbells like the ones I’ve normally seen in the USA; these oval-shaped bells create a beautiful, pure tone that is a real pleasure to listen to. Tonya bought a couple of different-sized bells that we’ll use as wind chimes to remind us of the Alps.

Driving from the Jungfrau region back down into Italy, we had to cross right over the backbone of the Alps. I was really looking forward to the vistas we’d get as we went over Grimsel Pass (2,165 meters or 7,100 feet high…and that’s just the pass between the mountains!). In one of the great tragedies of the era, it was raining heavily for the early part of the drive, and we were socked in with fog as we got up to the pass. At the top, the visibility was about 50 feet. Sigh. As we were coming down the other side, the clouds cleared up somewhat, so we did get some nice views. But I felt a bit cheated.

One unexpected treat was in Bolzano, Italy (or Bolzen. This area of Italy is German-speaking, so all of the towns have German and Italian names. The Italian names were a project of Mussolini, who took the reasonable attitude that Italian cities should have Italian names.) You may remember some years back that there was a human body recovered from the ice in the Alps, and it turned out to be 5,000 years old. (For more information, go to http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C3%96tzi_the_Iceman.) The Ice Man (Otzi) is in a museum in Bolzano, along with much of the clothing, weapons, and tools that were found with him. It’s a fascinating glimpse into how people lived in the ancient Alps. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures in the museum. From the examination of the body, it appears that Otzi died a violent death. There is some scope for imagination here; I’m surprised that no one has attempted to write a historical fiction based on it.

The Great European Vacation: Germany

It has been a dream of Tonya’s to visit Germany ever since high school, when she studied the language for two years. The dream has finally come true. You can see the pictures at:


We crossed into Germany from the Austrian Tirol area, entering the southern area of Bavaria. We continued on to the lovely medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber, across to the Mosel and Rhine Valleys, then down the French border to the Black Forest. Germany is a pleasant country, but it was pretty much flattened in WWII, so much of it has been rebuilt within the last 60 years. Tonya acknowledges that her German dream has come true. She also says that she doesn’t feel any particular need to go there again.

For us, the main attraction of Bavaria and the Mosel and Rhine valleys was the castles, particularly along the Rhine. Back in the middle ages, any nobleman who could scrape together enough money to extend a chain across the Rhine could then halt commercial traffic and extort….excuse me, charge….tolls from the passing merchants. This was a big source of income. Unfortunately, it also slowed the economic development of Germany for many centuries. After the slow disintegration of the Holy Roman Empire (which, according to one historian with a sense of humor, was neither holy nor Roman nor an empire) in the 1400’s and 1500’s, Germany fought the nasty Thirty Years’ War (1618 to 1648), which left much of the area in ruins. It remained a patchwork of little kingdoms which wasn’t unified as a country until Bismarck did the job in the late 1800’s.

My favorite castle was Neuschwanstein, built in Bavaria by Mad King Ludwig. When you read the history, it turns out that Ludwig may have been unfairly named. “Ludwig the Odd” was probably more appropriate. He was declared insane in a power grab by his ministers. Now, Ludwig’s younger brother Otto was truly the crazy one; he didn’t last long as king.

The medieval city of Rothenburg ob der Tauber was a victim of the Thirty Years’ War. It had been economically prosperous up until that time, but was conquered and plundered several times during the war. Over the following centuries, it never recovered. While other cities such as Frankfurt and Munich were modernizing and becoming powerful, Rothenburg limped along with its old medieval buildings. At some point, “old and run-down” became “charming and medieval”, and Rothenburg enjoyed an economic rebirth as a tourist destination.

Our last destination in Germany was the Black Forest. It’s a very pretty area, and we had several nice hikes. Still, it may not have been smart to visit it on the same trip with our Alpine hikes; it sort of pales in comparison. The most interesting thing was an open-air museum with a number of 17th and 18th-century farm buildings which had been physically moved to the site. Some of the buildings had still been occupied as late as the 1960’s.

One interesting side note: I think I’ve written that Spain has a different deck of playing cards than America. In America, we actually use the French deck: 52 cards with suits of spades, clubs, diamonds, and hearts. In Spain, they have a 48-card deck with suits of gold, cups, swords, and clubs (which look more like cudgels). It turns out that Germany has still another style: a 36-card deck with suits of hearts, bells, leaves, and acorns. I’ll be darned. Naturally, we had to buy a deck. A friend loaned us a book with a variety of card games from different countries, using the different decks.

Friday, July 17, 2009

The Great European Vacation: Italy

Italy was really not the main objective for this trip; we passed through to spend a few days with our friends in Florence, and then we dropped them off in Milan. We then returned to Milan a few weeks later for our flight back home. Still, even in that short time, we had some nice experiences in Italy. (In all fairness, part of our adventures in the Alps was in northern Italy…but the Alps will be the subject of another blog entry.) See the Italy pictures at:


A note for traveling in Europe: make sure you have a small car. I insisted on an automatic transmission which is not very easy to rent in Europe. So unfortunately, an automatic for 4 adults and luggage was a much larger car than we would ever want to drive in Europe. Actually, it would have looked about average on an American highway, but we’re in a different world here. We named it Gigantor. (Who’s willing to date themselves by admitting that they remember the Gigantor cartoons?) We ran into more than one sticky situation driving that car. I will never forget the evening we were coming home from Florence (we were staying outside of town in a Tuscan villa that was updated in the 1500’s; the same family has occupied the villa since the 1700’s). We were driving down a road that was little more than 6 inches wider than the Gigantor, with another car trying to pass us going the other direction. Size and determination finally won. The other car backed up to a wider section of the road so we could pass each other.

Milan is not Rome; it is not Florence; it’s a large industrial town, mostly built in the 1800’s. Not normally a top-tier Italian destination, although it has a nice cathedral (duomo). Still, the big draw of Italian cities is the art. In Milan, and we were treated to a couple of Leonardo da Vinci paintings. There is a lovely “Madonna and Child” at the Sforza Castle, and “The Last Supper” is nothing short of spectacular. I hadn’t realized how large “The Last Supper” is; it’s really a fresco rather than a painting, and covers most of a wall. It’s best that we visited it now, rather than a couple of years ago. They’ve recently finished major restoration, removing five hundred years of accumulated grime and candle soot and over-painting to reveal what’s left of Leonardo’s original work. And what’s left is quite impressive. Sadly, we couldn’t take pictures there. A very indignant guard swooped down on a tourist who dared to ignore the “No Photography” sign, and forced him to delete the images from his digital camera.

As we were exploring Sforza Castle, there were lots of the normal historical information signs. It was a bit depressing to read them in this case; Italy was in a state of political turmoil pretty much from the fall of the Roman empire until modern times. There wasn’t even a single country called “Italy” until the mid-1800’s; it was a patchwork of city-states and Papal territories in a state of continual war. Milan changed hands many times over the centuries. We read about the Lombard invasion; the Spanish occupation; the Austrian domination; the French occupation; the civil war. Nasty.

Leaving Milan the first time, we headed north along the shore of beautiful Lake Como, getting teasing glimpses of the Alps ahead of us. We had traded in Gigantor for a much smaller car (we named this one Little Dent), which made for a lot calmer driving.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

The Great European Vacation: France

Wow. What else can you say about five weeks driving through western Europe? This has really been one of the aims of the Spanish adventure; to take advantage of the opportunities to explore Europe. And this may be the only opportunity we ever have to do all of this.

Life is good. The vacation was wonderful, but five weeks is a loooong time to be on the road. Or maybe not, by European standards; other friends of ours have been doing comparable trips. There are just so many wonderful places in the world to see. This time we tried to balance the cultural sites with nature. Cities are great, but museums, cathedrals and the like can get old after a while, even when you enjoy them. There is so much to write about that we’re going to split it between a number of blog entries. You can see the first set of pictures at:


We started the vacation with a night train to Barcelona, and then a quick train across the border to Perpignan, France. We rented a car and tootled our way north and west. By now, we’re old hands at navigating our way across Europe; we don’t need no stinkin’ GPS.

Our drive began in Languedoc, home of the medieval Cathars or Albigensians. This area wasn’t part of the kingdom of France until the 1200’s, when Pope Innocent III declared a crusade to eliminate the Albigensian heresy (and, of course, to assist France’s King Louis VIII in a land grab). It took 20 years to conquer and annex the area. Looking at the rugged mountains and the isolated castles, you can see why it took so long.

We continued north and stopped to see the Cro-Magnon cave paintings in the Dordogne Valley. Fascinating, it is amazing the detail. They used the cave walls much the way one might see a picture in the clouds. In the dim, flickering light, the pictures have a three dimensional quality and even seem to be moving.

We met some friends in Paris, and spent a week touring around the city. A trip to the top of the Eiffel Tower is more than worth the wait. Versailles, the Louvre, Monet’s gardens…one can drown in Paris. Although, I am not sure what all the hoopla over the Mona Lisa is. The “must see” Da Vinci´s are in Milan.

After Paris, it was on to the French Riviera for a few days. From there, we went on to Italy, but that will be the subject of the next blog entry.