Thursday, July 31, 2014

Waterfalling in the Lauterbrunnen Valley

The other great thing to do on rainy days in the Bernese Alps is to go see some of the dramatic and fantastic waterfalls. There are 72 waterfalls just in the Lauterbrunnen valley. Rob wanted to see this one, which we could view from our room in Wengen across the valley. It's called Staubbach Falls. It drops about 1000 feet and looks like spray by the time it reaches the ground. We walked up this hill thinking that it would take us to the bottom of the falls . . .
. . . but instead it took us behind them. Here we are looking at the back of the "liquid dust" as it's called.
Goethe was here for a few days in Lauterbrunnen, and he wrote a poem called Gesang der Geister über den Wassern inspired by Staubbach falls. Later, Schubert set this poem to music five times. Here is a translation of the poem.
Song of the spirits over the waters 
                          by Goethe
The soul of man
 Is like the water:
 It comes from heaven,
 It returns to heaven,
 And down again
 To earth must go,
 Ever changing.
 When from the high,
 Sheer wall of rock
 The pure stream gushes,
 It sprays its lovely vapor
 In billowing clouds
 Towards the smooth rock,
 And lightly received,
 It goes enshrouded,
 Softly hissing
 Down to the deep.
 Cliffs tower,
 Opposing its fall.
 Annoyed, it foams
 Step by step
 Into the abyss.
 In a flat bed
 It slinks down the grassy vale,
 And in the waveless lake
 All the stars
 Feast on their likeness.
 Wind is the wave's
 Handsome suitor;
 Wind stirs up from the depths
 Foaming billows.
 Soul of man,
 How like to the water!
 Fate of man,
 How like to the wind!

There! That's what it looked like to us. Way down at the bottom you can just see the little section carved out where we were hiding behind the falls. Rob was amazed by the Swiss flag hanging there in the cloud and mist. The Swiss don't seem the least bit fazed by their geography or geology. They take it in stride and then tackle it as an engineering puzzle.
Next we headed off to Trummelbach Falls up the canyon. These japanese anemones were beautiful and I found out they're a favorite of Rob's.
This is why sometimes you have to travel without an entourage of 30 -- you find stuff out! 
Once we'd paid the admission, I found out we were taking an elevator to see these falls. Actually more of a funicular. And that there were ten (ten!) different viewing platforms. But it wasn't until I'd experienced it that I understood why. Trummelbach falls is the drainpipe for all of the runoff from the three Bernese Alps. And as the water sluices down the mountain and has for centuries, it erodes the rock and has actually worked its way back into the mountain.
Again, the Swiss took me off guard. I thought I was going to see the bottom of the waterfall from the outside looking in. Not at all. Instead they had tunneled their way back so that you could peer into the thrumming, beating heart of the mountain and hear the water scraping away at the walls as it tried to break free. Having grown up on bedtime stories about hydroelectric dams bursting, I have a healthy respect for the power of water. Climbing up to the top of these viewing stations almost did me in. I was really proud of myself for making it up and forcing myself to look. Then I hauled myself out of there. Rob stuck around for what seemed like hours and was completely at ease in the dark, wet, loud tunnels.
It carries as much as 20,000 liters of water per second and 20,200 tons of boulder each year. Hello! What am I doing standing in front of that catastrophe waiting to happen?!
Rob had to stop in at a little cheese shop in Lauterbrunnen. We had been in Switzerland for over 24 hours and hadn't had any cheese. The very nice woman there helped him find something local. There was the local alp cheese from the place over her shoulder, the aged one from 20 minutes down the valley, and then there was that herbed emmentaler from two hours away. Oh! It was cheese heaven!
Back up to our perch in Wengen we stopped at the grocery store and bought dinner. I was tickled to find Edelweiss planted in town -- we'd never been up in the native zone for these furry flowers before.
Here was our Co-op feast that night, augmented by Rob's own cheese choices. This is how we survived in Switzerland -- eating out of the grocery stores. We never did eat in a restaurant while we were there (because the prices are "eye watering" as Rick Steves puts it). But thankfully they had great sliced deli meats and pre-made salads and produce so that we didn't just eat bread and cheese and chocolate!

Oberhofen Castle on Lake Thun

On Wednesday it was going to rain. We've realized over the years that in these green German-speaking countries when they say 40 percent chance of rain, what they really mean is that it will rain for about 40 percent of the day. So we ditched our plans to hike in the alps and rode the train back down to the valley. We got in our trusty white Peugeot and tried to drive to Interlaken, which wasn't as easy as it looked. There were strange directions from Helga the GPS voice and construction, and at one point I led Rob down a very steep hill. It turned out to be a walking path, but bless his heart if Rob didn't try to make it work. He drove down there until we were inches away from a mossy fence on one side and a stone wall on the other. Two little kids came walking up it with their dog just as we decided we couldn't possibly fit down this thing. 
So Rob had to try and back his way up a hill.
In a stick shift.
With inches on either side.
And two kids and a dog in front of him.
So it was one of those times where the locals come out of their houses to watch. Yeah, we've had more than one of those -- haven't you?! We did make it out alive and mostly unscathed, and all I can say in my defense is that the sign did say "Interlaken detour" when we passed it. I just hadn't read the part about the "fussgang".
We decided to visit this castle on Lake Thun called Oberhofen. This is more of the castle than we could see from land -- this was taken by Dr Marc Dupuis over at Panoramio so you can see the setting.

If the rest of the castle had been a log cabin, I believe that a constant stream of visitors would still be assured just because of this little hunting room out on the lake. That's all it takes people when you're building your dream house: a winsome room with half timbering and a witch hat roof. On a lake. A few people have said that they recognize this from a movie, and I can't confirm or deny that. I will just say that it could have been added to parts of Hogwarts and not looked out of place.
It was charming. It was built originally in the middle ages, but was updated and rebuilt through the centuries.
For a while this was sort of a perk of the bailiffs of Bern. It was owned for several generations by the de Pourtales and von Harrach families. In 1926 a wealthy American attorney bought it in a crumbling state. He remodeled it and provided an endowment for its continued upkeep, then deeded it back to the city of Bern upon his death. Classy guy. 
The castle has been an outpost of Bern's Historical Museum, but they just struck out on their own two years ago. There are some exciting original parts (wooden paneling that was sold off during financial hardships was bought back 150 years later and reinstalled). They also had ties to the Prussian royalty which is always a draw for Rob.
Upstairs in the top of the five story tower was a Turkish smoking rooms with divans to try out.
It doesn't hurt at all that the castle has a great view of the Bernese alps. And the lake . . .
The grounds are magnificent too.
And again, the view of the lake and the mountains doesn't hurt either.
We were charmed by the shutters and the tiled roof and the fountains.
It turned out to be a beautiful place to wait for better weather.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Up to Wengen

From Bern, we headed southeast toward the Bernese Oberland. This is where Interlaken is, which means "between the lakes" and it sits at the intersection of the figure eight made by Lake Thun and Lake Brienz.  We managed to stop and see the view at Lake Thun (which is harder than it sounds! In Switzerland everything is heartstoppingly gorgeous, so if you see a turnoff or a vista point, or even a crowd of cars by the side of the road, stop! You won't regret it!).
You might see a view like this one of the Lauterbrunnen valley, for example. We drove into town, found the parking structure right off and parked our car, dragged our suitcases up to the train platform and caught a train immediately up to Wengen. Rob and I are not really sure where we took this shot. It could have been on the train up, which looked out at the valley on one side and whizzed past incredible waterfalls on the other. Or it we could have taking it from right outside our front door which also had sublime views.
When we were working out the details of the trip we knew we wanted to come see this part of the country, but we couldn't for the life of us find a place to stay. Everything was two or three times what we had budgeted and we were beginning to panic. We turned to one of our standbys, holiday rentals (we used airbnb like we did in Iceland, London, and Germany), and Rob was able to find a room in Wengen. Once we arrived, we found out that we were staying in the basement of one of the hotels here, in a room that was usually used by staff. It had no ambience, but it was clean and located mere feet from the train station, and we were spending a fraction of what everyone else was.  We felt really lucky.
That first night we decided just to walk around Wengen. Since there are no cars, it was very quiet. We meandered in the direction of the Schiltwald and it was beautiful and green with sheep, cows, cowbells and waterfalls.
Thankfully it was staying light really late. And thankfully there were some lights on the road because we stayed out even after it got dark!
This garden and woodshed were such a masterpiece; such an aesthetic and utilitarian marriage; such an example of the alpine vernacular architecture I had to take a picture. I wish I could live in this house and this yard and this woodshed. But it really only works in the alps.
[click to enlarge] So it was a wonderful day in spite of being completely jet lagged. We felt so fortunate to have seen the Grunewald altarpiece in Colmar, so glad we took a while to stretch our legs in Bern, and so happy to have made it to the alps and to our place in Wengen all in a day.

Bern for an Hour!

On our way from France to the Bernese Oberland, we really didn't have much time. We'd spent the morning in Colmar and wanted to make certain that we didn't miss the last train to Wengen since we had to leave our car at the bottom. But we were driving right by Bern and I had never been. Rob had seen it once before in 1992. So Rob agreed to stop in Bern and I made a guess about parking and we changed the destination on the GPS.

 I'd brought along a self-guided walking tour of Bern from Rick Steves, so we picked up right next to the Kindlifresserbrunnen on Kornhausplatz (the Children Eater Fountain at Corn House Square). I just looked it up and the explanations for the fountain are all far-fetched, so I can't enlighten anyone on that count. But right next to it was the awesome Zytglogge with its astronomical clock. It's been around for eight centuries and has served as a prison and a guard tower as well as a clock and tourist attraction. 
 We walked down Kramgasse and saw the Einstein house and took a detour toward the Bern cathedral. One of the interesting bits about Bern are all of the basements -- in most of these buildings there are basements that take off from the street with steep little stairs. They were used for food storage, and then for wine storage (leading to the city being known as "merry Bern"), then Napoleon's forces came along and drank up most of the wine and they are now used for little stores. We went into one that was all indian spices and belly dancing wear.
This is Rob looking back up from the bridge by Kramgasse. On the other side is an older building that used to be the Lindt chocolate factory.
Bern was lovely and in good spirits in the run up to Swiss National Day. 

 I was glad I got to see it, even for an hour. It gave me a little feel for the layout of the city. For example, I knew that it was surrounded by the river Aarne, but I didn't realize how high up it was perched above it. I sort of thought it was a flat little town. It was more grand and more cosmopolitan than I'd pictured it.
Our walk ended over by the bear pits. We'd heard that the bears would be in their new digs--a whole hillside full of trees and even a river to fish in--but when we arrived, they were all hanging out in the bear pits and looking like they loved the attention. There are three of them now: mother, father and daughter Ursina. The other daughter Berna had to be relocated because of adolescent fighting with her mother.
We had a great time in Bern, but I would love to go back and spend some more time there!

Colmar: Breakfast of Altarpieces

In addition to Strasbourg, Rob had wanted to visit Colmar, less than an hour to the south and also in the Alsace. And due to a fortuitous post from Facebook, I had read that one of The Great Works Of Art Which Never Goes On Tour is located in Colmar. We decided to go find it as soon as we stopped at an unassuming bakery that was stand-up-and-holler good. Yum! There's a reason that the Germans have a saying: "we ate like God in France" -- those little bakers in their houndstooth checked pants knew from eggs. They understood their pastry dough. They got the ratio of cheese to onions to custard just right. I wanted to buy a meringue just to see what a meringue is supposed to taste like. I didn't do it, so I'll have to go back.
 We were there to see the Grunewald altarpiece, which is sort of a lift-the-flap work. Panels upon panels of the annunciation, nativity, saints and resurrection all cover a carved piece underneath. The museum did a magnificent job displaying and explaining the work. Understanding the symbolism always helps me to like something better. Also seeing how a work fits into the longer scheme of history and artistic movements. The annunciation has a curtain that prefigured the Baroque, for example.

 I don't know that it's true, but I think of this as the most famous part of the altarpiece. I also think of it as the birth of the New Age aesthetic.  See that halo? Check out those color ways? I think this is where all of the crystal healing began. It is subtle and not very easy to capture in a photo.
 And then, as so often happens, Rob and I fell in love with one of the pieces of work that was supposed to be an also-ran. This is called Madonna of the Rose Bower I think, by Schongauer. I loved the baby Jesus's face; he has that gathering-storm look with brows drawn together and breath held. It gives the portrait a lot of humanity and a certain amount of suspense.
 The carving of it and the whole setting was incredible too.
 Ironically, The Artwork That Never Moves had been relocated to this Dominican church around the corner from the museum during renovations. It was a great setting for altarpieces and religious art.
 We decided to go see the rest of the museum down the street. It was mostly local artifacts which were interesting, but nothing on the order of the Grunewald.
 We did find this nice Harry Potter-style chest. Useful for locking up your transformations gone wrong.
 Colmar was beautiful. I was also surprised at the number of tourists, and the fact that they were all European tourists. A great number were French and German, often families or grandparents and grandchildren going on educational trips during the summer holiday. I am not certain we saw another American while we were there.
Rob wanted to see a section called Little Venice and I didn't think we'd be able to, but we figured out how to get walking directions on the iPhone and that was a huge timesaver during the trip. So without doing any research or having so much as a map, we got a little taste of Colmar, France. It's another place we'd love to return to.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Day One: Stuttgart to Strasbourg

Rob is in charge of a program in Tübingen, Germany. He has students who attend this month-long language program every year, but doesn't have the funds to be the director every year. Last time he went was when we dovetailed with Study Abroad in 2011. This year he had enough money saved up to go. He finagled permission for a family member to go and bought our tickets. We were going to stop in London and do some copying of documents at an office there, but the owner was going to be out of town when the Tübingen program was going on. So we planned a trip around Stuttgart and what would be most helpful for the courses Rob teaches and the online courses he's writing.
We had two flights and they were so nice and quiet and uneventful! We got exit row seating on one of them since we didn't have any kids and that was blissful too. I watched two movies I didn't like, but it was two more than I'd seen all summer: Her and Bad Words
 We flew in to Stuttgart and arrived bright and early in the morning on a Monday. 
We picked up our keys to our car, then found the phone we'd unlocked wasn't working, so we switched to a car with GPS: a pert little white Peugeot with a large moon roof. We headed in to Stuttgart to buy some essentials like sunscreen and shampoo that we couldn't fit into our carry-ons (which is all we took -- we were trying out our lightest ever packing jobs to see how long we'd be able to live on a study abroad next summer). We wandered around Stuttgart.
Once we'd seen the downtown, we headed out and pointed our noses toward Strasbourg. Except that Karlsruhe was on the way.
So we stopped in Karlsruhe and walked around. It is a lovely university town with a great downtown and palace and grounds. It was founded in 1715 after Charles William woke up from a dream where he'd founded a new capital. He'd just been in a fight with the citizens of his old capital. Presumably it all looked a lot older before WWII when it was flattened. It was in the American sector and so it was some of the first part of Germany to be rebuilt.
 Nowadays Karlsruhe is host to the two highest courts in Germany. We ate lunch on the palace grounds and walked around until the rain picked up and we had to have a free hand for an umbrella. Then we drove a little further and got into France. 

 We checked in to our french Comfort Inn (yeah, really) and parked the car there, heading in on foot through the area known as Petite France. Here you can see the cathedral, one of the famous bridges, and the most pinterested building in town, that darling one with gables in the roof and wisteria growing up the front. If Europe used a Chinese-style calendar, 2014 would be The Year Of The Scaffolding. Rob disagreed, but then I pointed out that 2009 was The Year Of Ripping Up Your Pedestrian Zone and 2011was The Year Of Unfinished Subway Lines, and he had to concede that nearly everything worth seeing this year had scaffolding on some part of it. OK, not the mountains. But we're not there yet!
Strasbourg was charming and French in everything from the shutters to the rooflines to the plantings.
We were pushing ourselves to stay awake until a reasonable European bedtime and pull an actual all nighter. Rob does this all the time on his trips abroad. I always drop off to sleep at the first horizontal surface I come to.

Darling half-timbered building. Called fachwerk in German.
Strasbourg, right on the border of Germany and France, is part of the Alsace region, which has ping-ponged back and forth between the two. As you can see here from the street signs, it straddles both in language, architecture, cuisine and more.

 Rob and another building which gets photographed and distorted a lot on Pinterest. 
 But we were here to see this beauty: the Strasbourg cathedral. Since Rob teaches cultural history in Germany, he is hard-pressed to find examples of gothic architecture. This one, preserved on the French side of the border, is one that he often uses in class but had never seen in person. We went inside, and saw the amazing astronomical clock and the pulpit. But when we came out . . .

 It began to rain. And not just a little sprinkle. This was a full-on deluge of biblical proportions! Rob and I took shelter in a doorway across the way and watched the gargoyles do their job. We had new respect for these grotesque creatures watching the water spout out of their mouths from level to level. 
 After about half an hour we were able to come out and look around. We had crepes in a little place across the plaza.

 Then we wandered back the way we came and fell gratefully into bed. It is making me tired just thinking about it now!