I hiked up the steep road winding its way up to the castle. The morning cold was taking my breath away.
As the hotel clerk told me, visiting Heidelberg Castle (Heidelberger Schloss) at the end of winter meant I wouldn’t have to share it with hordes of Asian tourists in their tour group hats. It also meant the funicular train from the Altstadt up to the top of the hill was closed for maintenance.
I huffed and puffed my way across the cobblestones as the path wound its way around and up the hill. The physical effort was worth it once I saw the view of the town and the Neckar River.
The castle was originally built in 1214, expanded greatly in the 1400s and 1500s, and partially destroyed by two lightning strikes and multiple battles.
Mark Twain described it in his 1880 travel book called A Tramp Abroad:
“A ruin must be rightly situated, to be effective. This one could not have been better placed. It stands upon a commanding elevation, it is buried in green woods, there is no level ground about it, but, on the contrary, there are wooded terraces upon terraces, and one looks down through shining leaves into profound chasms and abysses where twilight reigns and the sun cannot intrude. Nature knows how to garnish a ruin to get the best effect. One of these old towers is split down the middle, and one half has tumbled aside. It tumbled in such a way as to establish itself in a picturesque attitude.
Then all it lacked was a fitting drapery, and Nature has furnished that; she has robed the rugged mass in flowers and verdure, and made it a charm to the eye. The standing half exposes its arched and cavernous rooms to you, like open, toothless mouths; there, too, the vines and flowers have done their work of grace. The rear portion of the tower has not been neglected, either, but is clothed with a clinging garment of polished ivy which hides the wounds and stains of time. Even the top is not left bare, but is crowned with a flourishing group of trees & shrubs. Misfortune has done for this old tower what it has done for the human character sometimes – improved it.”
That was a better literary description that I could ever write. Thanks Mr. Clemens.
After going through the main gate, I entered the deserted courtyard. Since the castle was built and destroyed at times over the centuries, the architecture is varied.
Seeking some warmth, I headed for the wine cellar. A large café welcomes tourist groups with apfel strudel and bratwurst, wine and coffee. At one end of the cellar is the Great Heidelberg Tun – a gigantic wine barrel.
The barrel is so big (a grosse fass in German) I felt like Mickey Mouse in that animated classic Mickey and the Beanstalk. The wine barrel must be owned by a giant. I was afraid the giant might be coming to eat me.
The barrel was built in 1751 to hold up to 58,000 gallons of wine that was contributed by local landowners as a tax on agricultural production. It is reputed that 130 oak trees were used in its construction. A few years after it was built the barrel started leaking and it has been used only as a tourist attraction ever since. When Napoleon’s army captured the castle, the French soldiers believed the empty wine barrel to be full of wine; their hatchet marks are still visible on the barrel.
If this was a barrel of monkeys, how many would fit inside?
After spending six months living as an expat in Munich in 2013 I had come to know and love the city. It’s a great place to visit, but an even better place to live (except for the weather….).
On my first afternoon back in town I wandered the streets of the Haidhausen district. The day was brisk but with a sturdy leather jacket on I was warm enough as I window-shopped. I stopped for a latté (yes, I drink coffee now, blame it on the last Christmas present I gave to my wife – an espresso machine) and sat outside to watch the Saturday shoppers get their purchases in before the stores closed on Sunday.
“You know, I don’t believe I want to live in a country where you have to stay open on Sunday to do business. You shouldn’t have to work on Sunday.” (See That Thing You Do, you’ll be glad you did).
The Germans keep the tradition of Sunday closures going. I think it’s a good thing.
Despite it being November, the sun peaked out from the clouds for an extended stretch of time. Between the sunshine and the coffee I got so warm I had to take my jacket off. Everyone else walked by bundled up in boots, heavy coats, scarves and hats. Bavarians seem to do that whenever the temperature drops below 60 degrees Fahrenheit or the calendar says it’s no longer summer.
Sufficiently jazzed on caffeine, I walked over to the Ostbahnhof (east train station) and caught the U-bahn (subway) to the city center. On the way I dutifully stopped and waited (as I learned to do in Berlin) at all of the “don’t walk” pedestrian lights, even if there were no cars in sight. Because that’s also what you do when you’re in Munich.
At Marienplatz (the main square in Munich), I spied the glockenspiel on the Rathaus (city hall), but the figurines were still and silent at this time of day. Since Oktoberfest was over, there were very few tourists in the square. Instead, local residents were crowding into the smaller shops and big department stores to start their Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, the big, outdoor Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) was not yet open. The Christkindlmarkt is a big street market associated with the four weeks of Advent. It started in Munich in 1310. I’m sure they sold different stuff back then. Or maybe not…
I missed my chance to drink glühwein again (first tasted in Seefeld, Austria, but that’s ok. Drinking hot wine while outside in winter in a cold climate is not my favorite pastime anyway.
Seeking some fortification after surviving on airplane food for the previous day, I went into the Augustiner Restaurant, a Munich landmark that is the prototype of the Bavarian beer garden. The monks started brewing beer here as early as 1328. I ordered a half liter of hefeweizen (wheat beer) and peered at the menu, trying to decide which kind of sausage I should have.
Deciding I had had enough sausage during my expat stay, I opted for the weinerschnitzel instead. You can’t go wrong when ordering a good schnitzel when in Bavaria.
Aaahhhh… Schnitzel, hot fries, and a wheat beer in a Bavarian beer hall. Seeing the men in their beer-drinking outfits of lederhosen (leather pants) and feathered caps, the women in their dirndls (dresses) with low cut blouses, and waitresses carrying giant pretzels in one hand while hoisting multiple one liter beer steins (“ein mass”) in the other, brings on a warm fuzzy feeling of nostalgia in me. And I’m not even German.
I think I need to return to Munich once a year for the rest of my life.
“The flight is canceled.” I said. “It’s so typical of the French to go on strike and screw things up for everybody.”
We were supposed to fly to Nice in the south of France to meet up with our former foreign exchange student named Natacha (yes, I know that sounds Russian and not French; she even has a brother named Boris!). The French air traffic controllers had called a three day strike, and Air France had already changed our flight to avoid it. We headed to the airport hoping for the best. The flight was scheduled to leave at 3 pm. It was now 4:30 pm.
“We have two choices.” I said to my wife and daughter. “We can wait until 9pm for the next flight, but that is likely to get canceled too. Or we can go home and come back tomorrow and hope that the Frenchies have found something better to do than continue the strike, like drink wine and eat cheese.” Neither of these sounded good, since we were supposed to meet Natacha at 7pm.
As we were waiting to get our checked bags back from luggage purgatory, I had another idea.
“What about a road trip?” I said. “We can rent a car and drive there. We should be able to get there by midnight.” Munich to Nice by car is 800 kilometers (~500 miles) – about eight hours of driving. “We can call Natacha and tell her we’ll be late.”
“Road trip!” they chanted in reply.
I hiked over to the Sixt counter while the ladies waited for the bags. Since it was peak tourist season and I didn’t have a reservation, there were very few cars available, and all were at outrageous walk-up prices. I ended up getting a brand new Mini Cooper. Cool! I’ve never driven a Mini before. This will be fun!
I also had to rent a GPS unit. I have one of my own, by I had purposefully left it at home since I thought I was going to be flying on a plane, riding in a taxi, and taking the bus on this trip. I had no desire to drive in central Nice.
Suitably outfitted with Mini and GPS, I picked up the girls at the curb outside of the departure door, and quickly discovered my first mistake. The car.
The Mini might be considered a fine automobile if you are by yourself, are taking it across the city to pick up a book at the library, prefer a rock hard suspension, and if you have never driven a real BMW. It is not the right vehicle for a cross-country trip with three people (two of them women), three suitcases, a backpack, a carry-on, a large tourist camera, two purses, snacks, three cell phones, three water bottles, and an iPad. Especially if it is a two-door model.
“Why did you get a two-door?” asked my wife.
“Uhh, it’s what they gave me. It was the only thing available.” I replied. I didn’t admit to forgetting to ask the Sixt woman about this feature.
This Mini didn’t have a trunk. It had a small cubbyhole behind the rear seat. I managed to stuff my backpack and the carry-on into the space and slammed the back door shut. I piled the suitcases into the back seat by wedging them through the space between the front passenger seat and the rear quarter panel. The Mini had about four inches of space on the floor behind the front seats where my daughter, sitting in the back seat, could put her feet. If I sat back there, my knees would cover my ears. She squeezed into the little available space in back while my wife and I claimed the front seats.
I put the clutch in gear and took off into the Munich rush hour traffic. Every time I looked to the left I banged my head on a handle attached to the Mini’s ceiling. I had to crane my neck down to see out of the windshield. If I straightened up my vision included the inside roof of the car. The seat was hard and my legs were cramped after five minutes. Only eight hours to go.
I relied on the GPS to tell me where to go. This would prove to be my second mistake. I managed to set it to speak English instead of German. Das gut!
We left Germany behind and crossed the skinny part of Austria, then raced across Switzerland. The view of the Alps was spectacular while we climbed higher and higher. A few hours later we were getting close to Italy. The sky was darkening. It happens every night.
“Look! There is a tiny mountain village named Splügen!” I called out as I read the road sign. “What do they do in Splügen? Hello, I am from Splügen. Excuse me, I think I just Splügened.” After five hours in the car I found this to be the funniest thing in the world. My wife rolled her eyes. My daughter groaned.
And then we came upon road construction signs indicating the road ahead was closed. We got off the main road and followed a semi in front of us, while peaking at the detour signs as they flashed by. We drove a few hundred meters on a parallel one lane road and then came to an impromptu tee in the road. The semi turned left, but our rental GPS told us to turn right. So I turned right.
The road wandered down a short valley and then took a hairpin turn to the left and up a slight incline. In a daze I slowed to first gear to take the turn. I cranked the wheel of the go-cart I was driving and scampered around the hairpin. After a hundred meters I was doing it again in the other direction. In my head I was thinking “can this be the right way to go?” I trusted the GPS, it must be right. I was tired, cramped, and cranky. I should have been relaxing in a hotel room on the French Riviera after a stupendous dinner and a bottle of wine. Instead I was manhandling this Mini up a couple of Swiss hairpin curves in the dark.
After three more hairpin turns my decaffeinated brain finally overcame its stupor and kicked into gear. This can’t be the right road. How would the semis handle this? These turns are so tight there isn’t enough room for a truck to make the turn. I had to turn around.
I stopped the car. It was pitch dark outside. I got out to have a look around. From the Mini’s headlights I could barely make out that to my left was a sheer drop off. Depth unknown. There was no guard rail. To my right was a sheer cliff. Height unknown. Then I comprehended that the road was only one lane wide. About 15 feet. There was no way to turn around. There was also no way I was going to back down the road through those hairpin turns. I had to go forward.
I resigned myself to this fate. The safety of my family was at stake. I had horrible visions of TV shows and movies where the car plunges over the side of the mountain road and bursts into flames as it rolls down and down into oblivion. Why do I always run into trouble in Switzerland? (See my other Swiss misadventure here). I vowed never to return, but this time it’s just passing through. Does that count?
I hunched over the steering wheel, peering into the darkness and praying that no one would be coming down this road from the other side of the mountain. I stayed in first gear, lunging and lurching around each hairpin turn, up and up towards the mountain peak. I lost count of how many times I spun the wheel first one way and then back again.
After what seemed like an eternity I took the last turn and the road straightened out on top of the mountain. I had made it! I now knew the euphoric feeling that mountaineers get when they reach the summit.
I passed a deserted café and a tranquil lake. The road then started to descend. What goes up, must go down. I could barely detect the lights of a city in the distance, on the valley floor below. How many hairpin turns away is that place?
For another eternity I crept downward, staying in first gear or coasting in neutral. Down and around, endlessly down and around went the Mini. Until finally the road straightened out and joined a wider road stretching into civilization. We were finally in Italy and I was a nervous wreck. At least we were alive.
I found out later that I had inadvertently driven the San Bernardino Pass road in Graubünden, Switzerland, one of the highest paved roads in Europe. (I was going to say “accidentally” driven, but that sounds bad in this context.) This road was featured in a Top Gear episode where the three guys try to find the best driving road in the world.
I ended up on the mountain road because due to the road construction and the f$%#*$! GPS navigation system I missed the route through the San Bernardino Tunnel. Yes, there is a tunnel through the mountain, which is the easy way to get into Italy on this route.
The top of the pass (at 6,778 feet) is the dividing line between German speakers and Italian speakers and is where the Rhine River basin starts. It is only open in the summer, primarily for mountain hikers. Luckily it was early summer when I was there, so the snow was gone. The route was originally a mule track in the fifteenth century. A road for wheeled vehicles was opened in 1770, and improved in the 1820s.
The bypass tunnel was opened in 1967 to facilitate passage by big trucks and tourists who rent Minis. It is used by all, except for those weary travelers who blindly obey their GPS systems.
While I was driving from Dusseldorf back to Munich recently, I detoured to Stuttgart so that I could spend a couple of hours at the Porsche Museum. The headquarters of Porsche is in Zuffenhausen, Germany near Stuttgart. A striking museum building is set amongst the factory and office buildings. The museum exhibits prime examples of the fine automobiles Porsche has built over the last 70 years.
The company got its start in the 1930s. At first it was a design company and didn’t build its own cars. The German government hired Porsche to design an inexpensive car for the people. This became known as the Volkswagen Beetle, one of the most successful car designs of all time.
After the war, Porsche designed prototypes of a car it called the 356. The 356 was a rear-wheel-drive, two door sports car. Because the 356 proved to be very popular with American aviators, a special version of the 356 called the American Roadster was sold in the U.S. starting in 1953. Early designs were air-cooled, rear engine configurations.
Approximately 76,000 356s were manufactured from 1948 to 1965, with only about half of them still surviving. They are highly prized by collectors today.
Porsche next developed a coupe design called the 356 1500 Coupé which came out in 1954. The iconic and instantly recognizable shape of the 1500 Coupé would be carried forward to many future cars.
There were three evolutionary stages of the 356, denoted A, B, and C. In 1963, the 356 C Cabriolet was introduced. It was an instant classic.
In the same year, the first 911 was produced. The 911’s profile resembled the 1500’s shape and had a six cylinder “boxer” engine which produced 128 HP. While I was at the museum, there was a large exhibition celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 911. Customers were being admitted to the museum at a reduced rate for anyone who was born in 1963 or owned a 911. I missed on both qualifications.
The 911 evolved over the years but stayed true to its original sports car heritage. More power and more features were added as technology improved.
This year Porsche came out with a 50th Anniversary 911. It produces 560 HP, goes from 0 to 60 mph in 2.9 seconds, and hits a top speed of 197 mph, all for only $181,000 (layaway plan to pay for speeding tickets not included).
I was out to lunch with several German lawyers speaking English in a Vietnamese restaurant. I wanted to know if this is something they did or if it was something written up in the guidebooks for tourists.
“No. We don’t ever go to a spa,” replied Stefan with a bemused look on his face.
“Why is that?” I asked. “I thought you Germans were famous for soaking in hot mineral baths to achieve maximum wellness?”
“Because spas are for old people. If you go to one, you will lower the average age of the people there by at least ten years.”
The others laughed and took the conversation in another direction.
Two weeks later we had nothing on the calendar for the weekend, the weather was cold and gray, and I was ready for some adventure.
“Hey!” I said to my wife. “I know what we can do. Let’s go to a German spa for the weekend. I’ll find one on the Internet. Pack your swimsuit.”
When I read this on a website, I knew I had to check it out:
“Revitalize yourself in the warm waters of the springs of Bad Griesbach. The medicinal properties of the water drawn from the depths of the earth in the Rott Valley can be beneficial to you and your wellbeing. The therapeutic thermal mineral water is brought up from a depth of 1,522 meters.”
I didn’t know my wellbeing was different than me. Maybe my wellbeing is something I carry around in my pocket.
We hopped the train out of the Hauptbahnhof, the main train station in Munich, and into the heart of rural Bavaria. After a couple of hours we arrived at the small spa town of Bad Griesbach. We checked into the hotel and headed for the restaurant for some chow. A polite mâitre’d hotel showed us to our table in the center of the restaurant.
After I ordered my meal I started to observe my surroundings. The restaurant was pleasant enough, in an old Bavarian mountain style. The waiters and waitresses were young, energetic, and attentive. But there was something a little odd about the place to me, and I have never even seen Cocoon.
It was made apparent to me when the next diner walked in. She was a spry little woman, expertly and expensively dressed, with large diamonds on her ears. She was using a walker. Her face was extremely wrinkled and her hair glowed silver. I think she must have been 100 years old. Wellness, indeed.
As I looked around I noticed that at five decades I was the youngest person in the room (I can say that because I am ten days younger than my wife). The restaurant was full of senior citizens, and most looked to be in their 80s and 90s. Maybe there is something in the water here…
After an uneventful meal watching the other diners take multiple trips to the desert bar (why not when you’re that age, I will surely do the same if I am lucky enough to live that long), we retired early. We had a big day planned for tomorrow, with lots of soaking and lounging to accomplish.
The next day was cold and gray again. Germany in March is dull. I donned my swimsuit, a fluffy white robe, and goofy bath slippers and searched for the Thermatorium (or whatever they called it in German).
The place was fairly empty at 10am and I had my choice of the best seats in the house. Maybe the elders were sleeping in, or perhaps had died during the night (although I hadn’t heard any ambulance sirens).
I tried the heated whirlpool spa first. I didn’t notice any mineral smell to this water, unlike in Thermopolis, Wyoming. After soaking for a while I jumped into the large indoor pool. This pool had a nice feature I hadn’t seen before. At certain times during the hour a current was generated and you could float around the perimeter of the pool without paddling.
I next tried the sun room. After being in a Northern European winter for three months, I desperately craved some sunshine. The sun room was small and the walls were decorated like a Tuscan villa. There was sand on the floor, and it was warmed somehow, just like you were on the beach in the Mediterranean in summer. It was dark in there, which I found strange, but I stretched my towel on the warm sand anyway and sat down. After a couple of minutes, the room became steadily lighter. The light increased, getting brighter by the minute, until at some point the lights were shining as bright as the noon day sun. It was like being transported to the tropics. I felt warm and relaxed as I dug my toes into the sand.
The progressive lighting process then reversed as if it was now late afternoon and then the sun was setting. This continued until the room was almost dark again. Bummer. I liked it better in the light.
Back in the main room I saw a guy go outside. He walked to a spa that I could see from the window, took off his robe, and got in. He was out there for quite a while and then came back in. I should try that spa. I like the feeling of soaking in hot water with just my head exposed when the air is cold. It was about 35 degrees out.
I put my room on, went outside, and ran in my flippy-floppy slippers to the spa. I threw off my robe, climbed in, and sat down.
It was then that I realized that this spa was unheated. $%#@&$%*&(!!!
From there I went straight to the sauna warm up. There were several sauna rooms of different kinds and temperatures. I picked a dry sauna that wasn’t too hot (about 120 degrees Fahrenheit) and went in. It was empty so I had the place to myself. I rapidly warmed up and started sweating.
I was daydreaming in a sauna-induced stupor when I noticed a shape outside my sauna door. The door was made of semi-opaque glass so I could see through it, but not clearly. The shape was a person in a white robe. The person took off the robe and hung it up on a hook across the small foyer.
The person was a woman, and it was not the 100 year old walker woman from the restaurant. This woman was young, fit, and attractive. She was also naked.
She looked through the door to my sauna, and then opened the door enough to stick her head in. She looked at me and smiled, retracted her head, and closed the door. I heard the door to the sauna next to mine open and close.
That was a close call. That would have been awkward!
I left my sauna to sit in a cool plunge pool in the sauna foyer. As I cooled off, I heard a group of people come in behind me. I could only see their reflections in a tall narrow mirror hung on the wall across from the plunge pool.
There were eight of them – four attractive Teutonic model couples in their late 20s or early 30s. They were all tall and blond. I think it was Heidi Klum, Claudia Schiffer, and some of their friends, but I could’t see clearly in the mirror reflection and I thought it would be rude to get up and change my position in the plunge pool to see them better.
They were chatting in friendly tones as they nonchalantly took off their robes and hung them up. They stood around for a few minutes continuing their conversation before sauntering off to one of the saunas.
From my eavesdropping station in the plunge pool I couldn’t understand what they were talking about. But I could see enough in the mirror to determine that they were all naked, and my presence had increased the average age of the people in the room.
I went to the men’s locker room. A naked old man with a huge beer belly was drying his hair. It was all hanging out.
“Gruss Gott” said the old man. This is what polite Bavarians say instead of hello.
“Gruss Gott” I replied. I took off my swim suit and slowly got dressed.
Note: The narrator apologizes for the non-descriptive nature of the images accompanying this post. Due to the subject matter involved, it was not possible to take photographs.