Hallo! We just returned from a 10 day adventure in Germany. Many of you are probably thinking, “what?!? Germany??” That’s exactly how I feel too, haha! I turned in my master’s thesis (yes, it’s done!!!!!) two Fridays ago (March 3rd) and then the next day we drove off to an Air Force base in NJ where we made it onto a military flight to Germany at midnight. We had actually been planning this trip for a while because I have two weeks of spring break and, since Tom only has two more months in the army, we wanted to take advantage of his leave days and the perk of space available flights for active duty military personnel. For $0 and a bit more inconvenience, all four of us flew to Germany! Can’t beat that!
We wanted to see Germany because both of our families (on our mothers’ sides) have German roots and we have never actually been there before. Tom’s family hails from Wiesbaden and Munich. My grandfather’s great grandfather came from a town called Rodalben, near the border with France. About 20 years ago, my grandfather wrote to the town hall of Rodalben asking for records of our family history, and finally a kind woman wrote him back. Not only had she done research of our ancestry for him, but she gave him the contact information of living relatives there, one of whom happened to be her co-worker. Ever since we have had relatives in Germany to visit with and who come visit us, and so I reached out to them and arranged to visit.
This trip was very different than most of my other travels. First of all, I normally plan a lot ahead of time and like to familiarize myself with the language and the maps of cities, but because I was so focused on my master’s essay, I left all of the planning to Tom and showed up completely unprepared. My usual level of preparation correlates with my preferred modus operandi when traveling, which is to fly under the radar as much as possible and not draw attention to myself. But, it’s pretty hard not to stick out like a sore thumb when we have a three-year-old loudly exclaiming in English about trains, planes, garbage trucks, etc. It really forced me to just get over myself and stop worrying about seeming like a tourist. Tom likes to be a tourist, so he was unfazed. And, fortunately, the Germans are very helpful and for the most part, friendly, especially if you have children.
I promised several people that I would keep a journal of our days, and so I am sharing it here with a few photos. I meant to publish every few days while we were over there, but there wasn’t really time and I forgot my blog password! So, it’s a bit long, sorry!
Day 1 (Sat March 4): This was our crazy travel day. We had originally planned to hop on one of the flights leaving Baltimore on Sunday or Tuesday, but these were looking like they had little space. When we discovered around 1pm that there was a mostly empty flight leaving NJ in the evening, we decided to try to make it. So,we packed 1 change of clothes each, our tooth brushes, a bunch of diapers, a stroller, some blankets, and the iPad and hit the road by 3. By 8pm we were waiting in the terminal at Fort Dix/McGuire. Suddenly we were ushered through security and onto a school bus, which transported us to the plane. It was very cold and dark, and we had to wait on the bus for a while because the flight crew hadn’t arrived. Finally they came and we loaded onto the plane, only to wait there for several hours more while an unnamed “mechanical issue” was fixed. At last, we set off!
Day 2: After 8 hours or so in the cold military plane, we were excited to get out. The kids had actually slept pretty well and woke up bright eyed to inspect the inside of the plane in daylight. All of a sudden we were given about 3 minutes warning for landing (we had no windows so we couldn’t tell) and then landed with a nice thud. We had to wait around for a while at the little terminal because there was only one taxi shuttling people back and forth to the nearby town with a train station and hotels. By around 6pm on Sunday, in the pouring rain, we arrived at a little hotel in a random town near the Air Force base, had pizza in the nice restaurant next door, and then collapsed in bed by 8:30.
Day 3: We got a taxi in the morning to the old train station in town. We had to wait a while for the train to Cologne, but it was really beautiful. The station was in a river valley alongside a cliff, and the green of spring had just begun to emerge. Birds were singing in the quiet morning, and Anzo and Joe took turns running up the platform, down some little stone stairs, and through the empty parking lot back to Dad. We were impressed that even small towns seemed to have nice stations, and beautiful old station houses, which were sadly often not open but still offered a pleasant view upon passing by or arriving. We decided to travel by train on the whole trip because it seemed easier than worrying about a car and car seats, even though it would take a bit longer. We got a seven day pass for Tom and me that covered unlimited trips; the children rode for free.
Finally we got the train to Cologne and after a few hours arrived at the “hautbanhopf” or main station. It was rainy and gray, but we were still awed by the view of the Cologne cathedral as we stepped out of the train station. We couldn’t really linger then, so instead we kept walking through town toward our AirBnB apartment, which was just off of one of the main squares in the old town. Honestly, I don’t remember much more of what we did that night. I think we relaxed in the apartment and allowed the children to play, and then got dinner at a Lebanese restaurant down the street. We tried to go to evening mass at the Cologne cathedral but it was literally FREEZING in there and we were not prepared to sit there for an hour or more.
Day 4: We awoke the next morning and despite heavy rain, made it back to the Cologne cathedral, where we went to mass in a pretty little side chapel. Then we wandered around the cathedral, taking in all of the details as much as we could and trying to keep Anselm from lighting candles everywhere. Our favorite parts were a beautiful late medieval altarpiece and the reliquary of the Three Kings, which was an extraordinarily ornate golden box stolen from Florence at some point during a war—it’s at the very back of the altar, and behind it is a wonderfully ornate chapel with the oldest stained glass windows in the whole church, which depict corresponding scenes from the Old and New Testaments.
From there, we walked to the busy train bridge spanning the Rhine River. This bridge is famous because people have started a tradition of locking their “love locks” onto the metal gate that separates the pedestrians from the trains. We happened to have Tom’s combination gym lock in a bag, so we locked it right up there too! While we strolled along the bridge, Tom regaled us with stories of the time when the wide Rhine froze over and hundreds of thousands of Barbarians poured into the Roman territory across the river, bringing devastation and havoc with them.
After we had our fill of such reminisces, we walked to the Lindt chocolate museum, having to run the last bit of the way because we were suddenly being pelted with hail! There we saw how chocolate is made, which was pretty neat! We also ate a lot of chocolate…
Then we stumbled into an old Romanesque church to discover a hauntingly beautiful monastic Vespers being sung.
From there, we got some legos at the lego store, and went to a beer house for dinner that used to be a jazz club. It still promises live music every night, but when we asked about it, they pointed us to these funny jazz mannequins at the front that could play songs for 2 euros. We tried it out: Anzo loved it and Joe was terrified.
Day 5: The next day we headed to Rodalben to visit my family, but went via Wiesbaden (Tom’s ancestral town). In Wiesbaden it was raining so hard that all we managed to do was 1) get coffee in the Dunkin’ Donuts in the station, 2) have lunch in KFC (don’t judge— all there was to choose between was KFC, McDonalds, and Subway in the station), and 3) take a taxi to the church where one of Tom’s ancestors had been the choir master and where his great-great-grandfather had been married. Sadly, the old Romanesque church was “renovated” in the 1960s, and they took out the beautiful altar and stained glass windows and replaced them with strange, almost morose abstractions that echo the melting forms of Dali. But, I won’t focus on the negative, it was still pretty neat to be in there and to light some candles. We stayed for about 20 minutes and had to rush back to the train station.
From Wiesbaden, we took several more trains to try to reach my mother’s ancient hearth in Rodalben, a town nestled in a valley in the Palatinate forest region along the border with France. At 6pm, we stepped off onto a platform in a completely different town, having missed a connecting train at some point. We were totally exhausted and hungry, and would have been somewhat stranded for a while if it hadn’t been for my relatives who drove 45 minutes to pick us up and bring us to their home for dinner. It was the first of many very generous gestures towards us that made Rodalben the highlight of our trip.
Day 6: My cousin Barbara rented a van and showed us around Rodalben, named after the Rodalb River that runs through it. We saw the downtown and the old church and the river.
Then we drove about 30 minutes into France, without having to stop once at the border or anything. We arrived in Weissenburg, a charming French/Germanic town with moats running through it and an old wall surrounding it. It is called the “ville des fleurs” and in the summer it is probably beautiful, with fanciful window boxes on all of the homes and lovely gardening all over the town. After exploring there and having a delightful French lunch of baguette sandwiches, we went back to Rodalben and had coffee in Uncle Emil’s house, while Anselm and Joseph performed songs for everyone with pillows for guitars.
Day 7: Our relatives dropped us at the train station; waving goodbye through the train windows, we felt very close to them after such a short time. We went off to Munich, a good four hour train ride away. We broke up the trip by stopping in a town called Ulm. Ever since Tom was a child, he has wanted to see the Ulm Minster, a large Cathedral (now Lutheran) which is the tallest church in the world. He says that there were pictures of it in a coffee table book his family had when he was a kid.
Ulm turned out to be a wonderful town, and we meandered along its narrow streets until we stumbled upon a restaurant with many locals cheerily chatting as they poured out the door. An older couple stopped to admire our children and upon realizing that we spoke English, switched languages and struck up a conversation about America, where they had lived for a number of years. They recommended the restaurant and its “Schwabian specialties” so we headed in. The meal that followed was the most delicious that we had: homemade noodles and roast pork, followed by apple strudel. And of course, good beer.
We arrived in Munich late in the evening, and since the weather had cleared up, we walked for 40 minutes through the central part of town to our AirBnB apartment. We marveled at Munich, with its archways spanning roads and pedestrian walks and all of the Gothic and Romanesque buildings which must have been re-built (or newly built even) after World War II. Despite having many new buildings, it felt quite old. Most of the main boulevard is entirely pedestrian-only, which is fantastic for experiencing the heart of the city.
Day 8: On Saturday morning we took the tram and went to the Alte Pinakothek, the main art museum, where we saw some wonderful medieval and Northern Renaissance paintings. They have a very famous self-portrait by Albrecht Dürer (1500), which I have always loved. It is a very dramatic painting, a remarkable and early self-portrait by an artist.
Anselm had a great time in the room of huge paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, of animal hunts of various sorts, lions and monstrous hippos with their mouths open wide. I would have loved to have lingered a bit longer there, but the children were getting rowdy so we took them outside to the playground next door. The playgrounds in Munich are basically large sandpits, with various structures for climbing and digging and the like. We loved them. We walked around for several hours and then met one of my Dillinger cousins and his wife and daughter at a big “Brauhaus” or beer house near our apartment.
Day 9: Since the weather was so nice and I have always wanted to see the Alps, we decided to take a day trip to Neuchwanstein Castle. We left very early in the morning and took a two hour train ride to a town called Füssen. The train ride was the most beautiful yet, with the silvery blue mountains capped in snow looming behind rolling green farmland.
We went to Sunday mass in Füssen at the Church of St. Mang, a tasteful baroque church with frescoed scenes from the life of the saint. I don’t know much about him, but apparently his legend involves fighting off a dragon. The central fresco on the ceiling showed a monk approaching a vicious looking dragon, with hoards of onlooking villagers. Anselm sat in contemplative wonder of the scene for most of mass, frequently asking Tom loudly, “What’s that?!?”
After mass we had to take a bus from Fussen to a little “town” (more like a cluster of touristy shops and restaurants) right below the castle, and from there we took a horse-drawn carriage up the hill.
Since we couldn’t go into the castle until 3:30, we hiked around it, going to the nearby bridge over a gorge which was so crowded with tourists that the wooden planks were bending beneath us…so after we made it to the center to see the view we hurried off!
As we walked back toward the castle, we encountered a man playing a medieval string instrument called a hurdy-gurdy, which produces a drone by a hand-cranked wheel that vibrates the strings and against which a melody can be played by pressing a little keyboard—it’s hard to describe. He let us crank the wheel and sing a long while he played an Irish folk song called “Cockles and Mussels.” Then Joseph wanted to throw pebbles over a cliff into the “wa-der” for a while, which is his latest preoccupation.
Finally, we made it into the castle for the tour, which was neat but short. King Ludwig the II dreamed up the place as a young man and it took almost 20 years to complete (1869-1886). He was good friends with Richard Wagner and wanted to identify himself with the mythical medieval past, so he covered the walls of the castle with medieval saints and scenes from tales like Tristan and Isolde. While we were there, Anselm was pretending that he was St. George the knight and that it was his castle. Toward the beginning of the tour, the guide had said “King Ludwig began building the castle in…” to which Anselm loudly replied “No, I built this castle.” As everyone giggled he just lifted his hands with a shoulder shrug and a sideways frown–a very typical Anselm expression that I interpret as “I don’t know what’s so funny folks, I’m concerned about the facts here.” Tom and I had to stifle our laughter for the next 10 minutes. (BTW they don’t allow photos inside the castle, so I have none to share!)
We made it back down the hill on the last horse carriage, as the sun began to set and that peculiar light of early evening illuminated the mountains and buildings in such a lovely way. Then we had another bus and train ride, which brought us back to Munich very tired but satisfied.
Day 10/11: On our last day in Munich, we wondered around in the morning, buying trinkets and presents and sipping cappuccinos at a quaint cafe called “The Little Rabbit.” We also happened to be in the main town square at 11am, when the famous Glockenspiel in the city hall goes off every day.
Then we had to pack up and get out quickly in order to make an express train which took us most of the way to Ramstein Air Force base. After spending the night at the Air Force Inn, we went early in the morning to wait for an available flight. Fortunately, there is a big commercial flight that goes to Baltimore a few times a week. This is called the “Patriot Express” because it brings back many families stationed in Germany and also many deployed soldiers (who often fly through Germany to and from the Middle East). We shared the flight home with many soldiers returning from deployment. When we were waiting on the US Customs line late last night, Tom needed to leave the line and Anselm, who had been sleeping in Tom’s arms, began to cry. A soldier ahead of me offered to hold Anselm until Tom could come back. I was surprised that Anselm readily agreed and was so comforted, and I was touched by the tenderness of the moment. Later, we learned that he was coming back from 10 months of deployment, and had been traveling for over a week to get back to his wife and five kids in Texas. He was a daddy ready to hug his children again!