Sunday, October 25, 2015

Favorite Part(s) Of My European Vacation

After walking across the Highline once;
in front of the Ehrenburg Castle ruins in Reutte
Every few days during our trip, Kevin would ask me what my favorite thing had been up to that point.  And at the time, it was too overwhelming to pick something.  But after a little perspective, I think I am able to narrow it down.

Of course, my MOST favorite thing was doing it all with Kevin.  But since that is probably a given, I want to share the things from each place we visited that continue to stand out for me:

Berlin, Germany

Per my previous post, there isn't much in Berlin that remains prior to 1945.  Per history, Berlin was bombed to hell and back for the first 5 years of the 1940s, so little remains of any historical value. And what the U.S. and allied forces didn't take down during WWII, (apparently) ashamed/embarrassed  Berliners removed since.  The city is now full of apologetic monuments and memorials to Jews and the world at large.  But I would have to say that my favorite thing to see in Berlin was the Brandenburg Gate.

Erected in 1791, left in ruins after the war and its reconstruction stymied by its proximity to the Berlin Wall, the "Peace Gate" still stands as a symbol of freedom and unification.

Another favorite thing from Berlin was a wordplay we exercised throughout the rest of our trip.  The word "strasse" (German for street) is on the end of every word on a street sign.  So we added strasse to the end of some of our words too:  "Bun, is it time for dinnerstrasse?", "I'm going to pop into this shopstrasse", "God, more stairsstrasse!"

We're hilarious.

Prague, Czech Republic

There are two favorite things about Prague.  The first is simply the "oldness" of it.  After leaving newer Berlin and arriving in ancient Prague, I thought "yes, THIS is what I was looking for!" Cobblestone streets, weather-damaged statues, terracotta roofs, my first castle - Prague was exactly what I wanted Europe to be.  It was surreal to stand in a building that was erected in the 10th century as well as walk through the castle home of "Good King Wenceslaus" from the carol-fame.

My other favorite thing was Letná, a park located off the beaten path that I doubt many tourists visit.  Letná is a hill overlooking Prague historic center and the Vltava River near Prague Castle. Due to its position it used to be the venue for the largest Stalin statue in Europe. But the Stalin Monument, nicknamed "Queue for Meat" was blown up in 1962. What remains is a large stone platform that's been taken over by skateboarders, and the Metronome art installation that now stands where Stalin used to.  This sculpture can be seen from just about anywhere in Prague, which means that standing next to it provides some of the best views of the city.  Underneath where Stalin once stood is a space that was intended as a museum to Stalin, but instead because a space for potato storage, a bomb shelter, an underground radio station, a rock club in the early 90s, and even a fight club.  This area is now sealed off by the “Gates to Nowhere” and is only opened rarely for tours.

Munich (München), Germany

All I can say here is Oktoberfest, Oktoberfest, Oktoberfest.  For all I know, Munich is a football field-sized area full of beer tents.  If there is an actual city of Munich, we'll have to catch it on the next visit.  We went for Oktoberfest and that's what we did for two days.  We drank and ate and drank and sang and drank.  And what made it so much more special was the group of gorgeous, young Germans we met at the table next to us.  Philip, Basti, Melanie, Johannes, Andi, Markus, Melly, and Jakob welcomed us to their group and made us feel Bavarian!  We sang "Country Roads", we stood on benches, we PROSTed a million times, and we laughed a lot.  We are all connected on Facebook now, and they each have a place to stay if ever in Chicago.

Schwangau, Germany

Perhaps driving through the Alps after drinking for two days was probably not the best laid plan. However, our next stop was to see the two famous castles, Hohenschwangau and Neuschwanstein, the latter being my favorite thing about this day.  Just before our trip, we watched a PBS special on King Ludwig II and his building of Neuschwanstein.  It was all fascinating and wonderful to see in real life.

Reutte, Austria

The next part of our trip was completely unplanned.  Upon leaving the castles in Schwangau, we decided to dip down into Austria because "it was JUST right there".  We were initially just going to stop and spend the night in Vils, but chose to drive just a bit further, hoping to get a stamp in our passports (didn't happen).  Quite by accident, we stopped in Reutte (pronounced ROY-tah) for dinner, then found our cute hotel, the Hotel zum Mohren.

My favorite thing about Reutte, other than Reutte itself, was the hike up to the Ehrenberg Castle ruins and (in spite of myself) walking across the Highline 179, the longest Tibetan-style bridge in the world.  The ruins were beautiful.  And I am proud of myself for walking across the bridge.  It took almost all of my nerve and I opted not to make a big deal about it.  It was a reminder to me as to how I handle tough situations in my life by simply accepting what needs to be done and do it.  It was a rewarding accomplishment and one to say I am proud that I achieved.

Reichelsheim, Germany

Later the same day as the bridge walk, we drove into this small town, the town where I've traced my dad's family tree back to the year 1757 when my ancestor, Wilhelm Trautmann, left Reichelsheim for Philadelphia.  So now here I was, standing in the town where it all started - bring this line of my family tree full circle.  It's an experience many don't get to have and the importance and gratification of doing so was not lost on me.

And thankfully, the town of Reichelsheim is cute.  As cute as any of the small towns or villages throughout Germany.  It has narrow streets of cobblestone, half-timbered houses, and even its own castle.  And the name Trautmann is still going strong there.  We spotted Blumen Trautmann (a thriving greenhouse/nursery) and a truck for Werner Trautmann Landscaping.  I tried connecting with a few Trautmanns on Facebook before our trip, but nothing came of it.  But being there is something I have that the 7 other Troutmans/Trautmanns between Wilhelm and me didn't have - and it was momentous to stand in the same streets and see some of the same sights as he nearly 260 years later.

Trier, Germany

Trier sits near the border of Germany and Luxembourg and is one of the oldest cities in Germany, dating back to when it was still part of the Holy Roman Empire.  And also dating back to that time is my favorite thing about Trier, the Porta Nigra (or Black Gate).  Two-thousand years ago, Trier was a walled city, as were most at that time.  There were 4 gates that served as entrances to the city.  Porta Nigra, the northern gate, is STILL STANDING.  The foundation of the gate was laid in 40 A.D.  Once more for emphasis - 40 A.D.  That means Jesus Christ died just 7 years earlier.  And what's just as whacky is that you can walk through the building and touch walls that have been touched by people for over 2,000 years.

Ghent (Gent), Belgium

This city holds a special place in my heart because it's where Kevin and I celebrated our "10 years together/1 year married" Anniversary.  We had dinner at De Kuip Van Gent and walked around this beautiful, old, canal city.  And drawing on my 7th Grade U.S. history, we located the building in which the Treaty of Ghent was negotiated in 1814 (it's now an ESPRIT store).  My favorite thing about Ghent, though, was that every picture was a postcard.  The town is simply stunning.

Bruges (Brugge), Belgium

Ever since seeing the 2008 film, In Bruges, starring Colin Farrell, I've wanted to visit Bruges.  To quote a line from the film, "How can all those canals and bridges and cobbled streets and those churches, all that beautiful fucking fairy tale stuff, how can that not be somebody's fucking thing, eh?"  (See the movie - it's awesome.)

My favorite thing about Bruges was just being in Market Square.  This area is featured heavily in the film, and it doesn't hurt that the place is decorated for Christmas, either.  But even without all that, the area is still gorgeous.  Every medieval town has a cobble-stoned market square with a huge statue in the center, surrounded by buildings, shops, and a huge church or bell tower.  Bruges is no exception.  The Belfort (bell tower), also featured heavily in the film, is a tower consisting of 366 extremely narrow, winding steps up 272 feet, and housing 47 silver bells at the top.  Before we climbed, I wish I would have remembered this quote from the film:

Ken:  Coming up?

Ray:  What's up there?
Ken:  The view.
Ray: The view of what?  The view of down here?  I can see that down here.

Seriously, just see the movie.

Otherwise, the rest of Bruges really is like a fairy tale.  If you like your towns quaint, old with lots of shopping, this is the place.

Brussels (Bruxelles), Belgium

This was not a planned stop but rather a 3-hour layover while we waited to change trains from Bruges to the high speed Eurostar to take us to London.  Maybe it was the fact that it was raining (first time on our trip).  Maybe it was the fact that we were lugging our suitcases with us.  Maybe it was the fact that we just left the most charming city in Belgium and I was eager to get to London.  Maybe it was all or none of these things.  But I hated Brussels.

What really blew my mind was the big tourist attraction, Manneken Pis.  I've know this statue just about all my life because my Uncle Bill used to have this as a decanter on his bar that when you pushed a button, it would pee out booze.  The actual version of this is about 24" in height and located on a random corner.  He's not much more than a dress-up doll for the city. After seeing huge cathedrals and amazing artworks, I wondered what the big deal was.  It's super cheesy.

There's no one, true legend that tells the tale of this statue, and it quite frankly isn't even displayed well.  I mean, couldn't they have tried to hide the hose behind him a little?  Sheesh.

London, England

Our final stop was the city in which I most wanted to be, the city I've wanted to visit almost my entire life.  So much so, that standing in Trafalgar Square with Big Ben in my sight line caused me to well with tears.  We spent twice as much time in London then any of the other towns and I loved every second of it:  standing in front of Buckingham Palace, having tea in the Tate Modern, listening to a service in St. Paul's Cathedral, riding on a double-decker bus, and seeing a few shows in the West End.

But my favorite thing hands down was the day we spent at Tower of London.  I'd read so much about this place, its inhabitants (both past and present), its mystique, its darkness - I couldn't wait to get inside the gates.  We spent several hours seeing the Crown Jewels, the armor of past kings, the dungeons, the royal apartments, the chapel, the site of the beheadings, and the ravens.

For me, it was magical.

So there you have it - a very quick summation of our trip with the highlights of my favorite things. There were a few small towns that we popped into on the way, but I will talk about them another time.

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