Battling in the Bundesliga

soccer play

For-tun-a! For-tun-a! For-tun-a!

Tens of thousands of fans yelled as the Fortuna striker lined up to take the penalty kick.  The goalie for the opposing team danced back and forth on his toes, trying to guess which way the striker would kick the ball. The cheers reached a crescendo as the striker ran to the ball. He kicked to the left corner of the goal in a low hard shot. The goalie guessed the ball would come in that direction and he jumped full length milliseconds before the kick with his padded hands outstretched.  The ball hit his fingertips and deflected wide of the goal post. The fans groaned together in a giant “Ooooooohhhhhh.”

Fortuna fussball game
Fortuna logo.
Fortuna Dusseldorf, founded in 1895.

It was only two minutes into the game and the crowd was already in a frenzy.  I think that all the pre-game drinking might have had something to do with it.  While on the train to the stadium I saw a healthy percentage of the fans drinking from open bottles.  That’s one way to avoid high stadium prices. The fans were easy to identify because all of them wore the red and white of Fortuna Düsseldorf.

bundesliga logo
Fussball – soccer to the Americans.

This was a mid-season Bundesliga match between Fortuna and SpVgg Greuther Fürth in the top fussball league in Germany.  Fortuna had toiled for years in lower leagues but had recently moved up to the top league.  However, if they finished as one of the last two teams in the league standings at the end of the season then they would get “relegated” back down to the second league.  At this point they were comfortably in the middle of the pack.  The leader of the Bundesliga was the powerful FC Bayern München. This club was hated by other fans for their longstanding successes and their ability to build a championship team by outspending their rivals.

soccer play
A Fortuna midfielder is hooked by a defender.

After fifteen minutes of spirited but indecisive play, a Fortuna forward received a long pass from a midfielder and streaked towards the goal.  Two Greuther Fürth defenders challenged the Fortuna attacker.  The defenders misplayed the ball and the Fortuna forward darted between the defenders on a clear path to the goal.  The goalie came out to meet him in a desperation move as the attacker drilled an arcing shot.  The ball curved around the goalie and into the back of the net.

The fans jumped to their feet and erupted as one: Tor! (goal)  The goal scorer was mobbed by his teammates in a wild celebration. The fans sang the team song and congratulated each other on their loyalty to Fortuna.

Would a visit to a Bundesliga match be complete without a beer and a pretzel?  Of course not!  At halftime the fans streamed out to the concourse to load up for the second half.

soccer game pretzel
Who is that man in the background?

The rest of the game was uneventful.  There were some shots on goal but no more scoring.  As the clock wound down the fans left their seats in a happy mood.  Their team had gained three points in the standings with the 1-0 win. Relegation to the second league was getting less likely with each passing week.

One thing stayed in my mind as I followed the thousands of fans to the U-bahn:


A Cruise on the Rhine River

Rhine river valley castle

“Ow! That’s my foot!” I yelled.  The big SUV had rolled slowly forward.  I was standing outside the right rear passenger seat, reaching into my bag to grab some trash to throw away.  We had stopped at a gas station to get some gas and snacks.

The revolving tire pinned my foot to the ground for a second, then released it.  The big toe on my left foot started throbbing.


We had been having a great day touring the Rhine River Valley.  We were staying with friends outside of Düsseldorf, Germany.  Marc and his friend Christian were taking us down to the region south of Koblenz where the best part of the Rhine is.  Marc’s wife had to stay home to take care of their small children.

We barreled down the autobahn going 140 km/hr.  It was nice to relax in the backseat for a change instead of driving or navigating in a foreign country.  Having knowledgeable locals as our tour guides was a nice treat.  They had already looked up the necessary information for the day.  Our plan was to see the castles along the Rhine.

Rhine river valley castle
A castle on the Rhine River

We went to a small town on the Rhine called St. Goar.  The Koln-Düsseldorf (K-D) river cruise line stops at several towns along the Rhine, but the part of the river between St. Goar and Bacharach has the best castles.  We got on the boat in St. Goar after leaving our car in a parking lot near the dock.  The boat was crowded with German retirees and a handful of American tourists.  It was a splendid late summer day, sunny and warm.

The boat was an old side-paddle wheeler built in 1907.  It had a full restaurant and bar inside, but we pushed our way through the crowd to get outside to the front of the boat.  The deck chairs in the bow would give us the best views of the castles built into the hillsides above the Rhine.

Rhine castle
Hello! Anyone home?

The castles were built in the 12th and 13th centuries by enterprising families who made their fortunes by controlling the river traffic on the Rhine.  They would stretch a chain across the river and stop boats trying to go past.  The river was the main transportation channel in the region and the boats carried all the goods of the medieval economy.  As the families grew richer from their toll booths, they built castles to live in and to protect themselves and their business interests.

Some of the castles are just ruins today, but many castles still look magnificent high on the bluffs above the river.  Cruising on a river boat is the best way to see these castles as the boat plows upriver.

castle ruins
Nobody home here

We rode past Bacharach all the way up river to the town of Rudesheim.  In this town is a very old, narrow street called Drösselgasse.  This path has been filled with shops, restaurants, and beer gardens since the Middle Ages.  We walked up the hillside on the Drösselgasse and had an excellent late lunch in a rustic looking wine garden.

building in Rudesheim, Germany
A building on the Drosselgasse in Rudesheim, Germany

Next on our touring plan was to explore the best castle in the Rhine River area, called Burg Eltz.  This castle is actually in the nearby Mosel River Valley area, not on the Rhine.  The Mosel River is a tributary of the Rhine. We climbed out of the Rhine River Valley and crossed the Mosel.

Burg Eltz was not built by the robber barons of the Rhine.  It was built by three rich families from 1472 to 1530.  The three families each had their own section of the castle grounds.  The castle thus belonged to a community of joint heirs.  An engraving of the Burg Eltz was on a Deutschemark bill in the pre-euro Federal Republic of Germany. Marc remembered looking at this bill as a child.  Marc and Christian had never seen the Burg Eltz castle so they were eager to tour it.

The castle stands in a wooded area on top of a small hill, a few kilometers from the nearest village.  Unfortunately it was closed by the time we got there.  We drove past an area where shuttle buses ferried tourists to the castle to an overlook.  We had a fine view of the castle from this hill, however parts of the castle were covered in scaffolding and a huge crane dominated the skyline.  Renovations were underway.

Burg Eltz
Renovations at Burg Eltz

While I was peering at the castle in the distance, I noticed a man load two large dogs into a blue van inside the castle walls.  He opened a large wooden door that served as the main gate to the castle, drove the van through, and then closed and locked the door.  A few minutes later he re-appeared at the overlook.  He walked towards us yelling in a typically German way.  I guess we weren’t supposed to drive our car to the overlook.  Instead of arguing, we calmly walked back to our car, got in and drive away.  The man continued to turn red in the face and verbally blast us the whole time.  He needed to go somewhere and relax.  He was way too uptight. It’s not like we were planning to rob the place.  We were only looking at it from a distance.  Maybe he was the remaining descendant of the Kempenich family, whose part of the castle is not open to the public.

Being denied on our first attempt to tour the Burg Eltz, we tried to find a hotel to stay in for the night so that we could go back to the castle in the morning.  However, the Mosel River area is a very picturesque (and touristy) part of Germany.  It was a Saturday night on the last weekend of summer and every hotel we checked was full.  We decided to rocket back up the autobahn to home.

I’ve never been run over before.  I was lucky this time.  I pulled my sandal off to inspect it.  It looked OK.  I didn’t think it was broken.  Christian was very apologetic.

“I am so sorry, Steve,” he said. “We must take you to the hospital!”

“Uh, no.  I am not going to the hospital. That is my worst nightmare.  Don’t worry about it.  Accidents happen.  I should have gotten in the car and stayed there.”

He went back into the gas station to get some ice.  They didn’t have any ice bags so he bought some popsicles.  I rode the rest of the way home with popsicles on my foot.  It was cold, but it kept the swelling down.

I even pulled one out of the pile and ate it.

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The Grand Tour of Europe

The Grand Tour of Europe

From the 17th through the 19th centuries, many upper class British young men traveled a traditional path through Europe called the Grand Tour.  The Grand Tour served as an educational rite of passage whereby the traveler learned about culture, history, architecture, and the arts. The traveler became knowledgeable about classical antiquity and the Renaissance, and was usually accompanied by a learned guide.

The Grand Tour of Europe
The Traditional Grand Tour of Europe

The itinerary for the British traveler started in Dover, England, crossed the English Channel to France or Belgium, and then continued down through the middle of Europe to Italy. Finishing in either Rome or Naples, the traveler might take a ship back to England.  Grand Tours lasted from several months to several years.

Grand Tours are a thing of the past.  The days of the landed gentry wandering the capitals of Europe seeking knowledge and life experiences are long gone. Instead, today we have gap years, study abroad programs, hippie trails, and sabbaticals.

I’m fortunate to work for a company that offers an eight week sabbatical after every seven years of service.  Add in three weeks of vacation and I don’t have to sit in a little grey cube staring at a computer screen for almost three months.  My sabbatical is fast approaching.  I have looked forward to it for at least a couple of years now.  I’m going to make the most of it.

I can’t do the Grand Tour.  There is not enough time and money.  But I can try to do some portions of it.  In reverse.  I’m starting in Rome, Italy.  My plan is to detour first to Greece, Turkey, and Israel.  After returning to Rome, my Grand Tour will take me to Milan, Lake Como, the Berner Oberland, Dusseldorf, Berlin, Krakow, Budapest, Vienna, Prague, London, Bath, and the Cotswolds.

I invite you to follow along.

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No Escape from a Dusseldorf Parking Garage!

I had good intentions of getting up early to leave Berlin and drive to Dusseldorf, but it was past 10 am by the time we got moving.  The drive to Dusseldorf on the autobahn was uneventful and we reached the city by 3:30pm.  Unfortunately, we took the wrong turn off the freeway and had a difficult time finding Marc’s street.  I knew it was by the harbor along the Rhine River, but it was a case of “can’t get there from here” once we took the wrong turn.  His apartment is in a newly redeveloped and fashionable area of the city called “Media Harbor.”  Many advertising, TV, and publishing companies have their offices in this area.  His apartment is across the street from three bizarre looking buildings designed by American architect Frank Gehry.

ready for a night on the town in Dussledorf
On our way to a night on the town in Dusseldorf

Marc lives on the fifth floor of a modern apartment complex with a balcony and a nice view of the Rhine.  His younger brother Christoph lives on the third floor.  They are partners (along with their older brother Hans-Peter) in the electronics company started by their father.  Their plan was to walk along the waterfront to the old town of Dusseldorf.

It started raining heavily, but we ventured out anyway carrying bright yellow umbrellas with the name of their company on them (yellow is their color for all of the company promotional products).  They showed us all of the sites of Dusseldorf.  After a while the rained stopped, and we walked all over old town Dusseldorf before taking a taxi back to our hotel, which was just a couple of blocks away from their apartments.

It was entertaining to talk to them.  They have traveled to a lot of places around the world, including several countries in South America.  For dinner they took us to the RheinTurm (the Rhine Tower).  This building is a TV tower that is about 600 feet high and has a revolving restaurant near the top.  The restaurant is in the shape of a flattened donut ring and revolves around the base of the tower once per hour.  We had a fantastic view of the city and the surrounding areas in the early evening before it got dark.  We spent the next three hours eating a fine multi-course meal while slowly spinning around.

the RheinTurm view
Looking down from the RheinTurm

Our car was parked in the hotel ramp.  We had a difficult time parking the car the night before.  This ramp had narrow lanes and very small parking spaces, with cement posts every couple of spaces.  This was common in several of the parking ramps we had parked the car in during our travels.  Our car was a station wagon, relatively small by US standards, but large by European standards.  A peculiar feature of the car was that the reverse gear was attained by pushing a button on the shifter knob while simultaneously pushing the shifter into the location normally used (for American cars) for first gear.  First gear was close to the same place when pushing the shift, but without depressing the button.

When were trying to leave the ramp, we missed the automatic door opener box.  With Lisa driving, we drove up a very steep ramp to get out of the underground garage, but the door to the street wouldn’t automatically open.  I got out of the car and walked back into the parking garage to find the opener.  In the meantime, the car slide backwards down the ramp slightly.  We were in the very tough position that every driver who drives a manual transmission car dreads: starting the car and engaging first gear on a steep slope.  This car didn’t have enough power to kick in to climb the hill!  If Lisa gave it too much gas we could crash through the door.  But not enough gas stalled the car.  Which happened to her a couple of times.  Add in the crazy situation with the reverse gear and first gear and it was a difficult driving situation.  When the car slid backward at a crooked angle and stopped, the back fender rested about two inches from the garage ramp wall.  We couldn’t go backward anymore without scraping the car. I got the door opened and Lisa managed to get the car going forward, up the ramp, and out into the street.  What a relief!  Next time we drive in Europe, we’ll have to get a smaller car.  A Miata would do just fine….  Don’t know where we would put our luggage and the kids, but we would handle the parking garages better!

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