What follows is a transcription of the hand-written journal that I kept on my very first real trip to Europe. (I had spent a day in Athens on the way back from Diego Garcia prior to this trip.) I recorded my activities and observations as I went, and I was a bit verbose, so know that this is a long tale that reflects my excitement and curiosity of being there for the first time.
Sit back, grab your favorite beverage, and enjoy!
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My grandfather was one of eight children born in a tiny village in Germany. In the 1920s, he and one of his sisters emigrated to Chicago (separately, my grandfather first, and his sister about a year later). Their siblings remained in Germany, so that meant that I still had relatives there.
Fast forward 50 or so years to my freshman year in my high school German class. My German teacher had a friend who taught German on the north side of Chicago, and his class was going to make a trip to Germany, Austria, and Switzerland for 10 days over spring break, and he was inviting students from our class to tag along.
This was April 1973, and round trip airfare, lodging, ground transportation, and two meals a day for the 10 days–the total price: $495. And being the frugal kid that I was, I had about $500 in my savings account, so the trip was within reach, financially.
It was my terminal shyness as a 15-year old freshman that did me in. I was the only one from my school who expressed an interest in the trip, and there was no way that I could spend 10 days with strangers on another continent, barely speaking the language at that point. I chickened out and never went.
One of my mom’s mantras was “Life is not a dress rehearsal.” And after she died in April 2006, I decided it was time to rectify that terrible decision that I had made in 1973. So in September 2007, I made my first trip to Europe.
* * *
One of my friends, who served in Germany while in the US Air Force, said, “The best thing to do is get off the plane, rent a car, get out of the city, get off the Autobahn, and go from village to village, and when it gets dark, find some place to stay.”
I thought he was nuts.
But that’s essentially what I did, and it was great.
I had hotel reservations for my first two nights in country and my last night in country, and nothing in between. Talk about flying by the seat of your pants!
* * *
28 September 2007
15:30 Departed Batesville for Cincinnati-Northern Kentucky Regional Airport.
16:30 Arrived at CVG
I was surprised that there were no lines whatsoever at check-in. I had my boarding pass and luggage checked within 10 minutes. Clearing security didn’t take much longer.
16:50 I’m settled in at gate B6 with eight or so other early bird travelers. Now I wait for nearly three hours.
My seat mate on the plane was a young man from Alaska named Zach. He’s a PFC in the Army and was returning to his unit in Germany so that he could deploy to Iraq next week. He’s supposed to be there fifteen months.
Zach was afraid of both flying and deploying, and he opted to drown his fears with beer. I lost count at nine, only half-way through the flight.
We chatted about our shared military experiences, and then he talked at length about his music.
Apparently, he’s played guitar since he was 12 years old, and he shared with me six songs on his iPod where he played the guitar. He’s quite good.
29 September 2007
Wheels down in Frankfurt exactly 8:00 hours after taking off from Cincinnati.
It was easy getting through immigration–even though I was probably in the wrong line and the immigration agent gave me a scornful look.
I collected my bag and found the train station within the airport with ease. Buying the ticket to Augsburg was no problem with the English speaking agent. He was quite helpful.
The train was 20 minutes late–so much for German precision and punctuality. Of course, that delay made me miss my connection in Stuttgart.
I was pretty proud of my limited ability to understand the connecting train information announced over the PA system in German. I made it to the correct track and hopped the next train to Augsburg.
I’ll have to admit that the scenery between Frankfurt and Stuttgart wasn’t unlike that around Batesville–open farmland with rows of trees.
On the way out of Stuttgart, the train passed what had to be the world headquarters of Mercedes-Benz. Once out of Stuttgart, the scenery was a bit more of what I imagined Germany to be.
On the ride to Augsburg, I was becoming really tired, and forced myself to stay awake. Thank goodness for my decision to find a hotel right next to the train station. I wasn’t overly amused when I stepped out of the station and, across the street, I see the Golden Arches of a McDonald’s. Welcome to Bavaria!
I checked into my hotel, dropped my bag, and turned right around to explore downtown Augsburg. The best way to combat jet lag is to get out into the sun, get a little exercise, and force yourself to stay up as late as you can.
I had dinner at a different hotel’s restaurant and had a wonderful meal of Schwäbisch roast, vegetables, and cheese-covered spätzle. Wunderbar!
After dinner, I stopped by an Internet cafe to email my sister and let her know that I arrived safely. It must have been hilarious for the two teenage girls at the station next to me watch me try to figure out the German keyboard. German keyboards are not the same, and it really stumped me for a while. I must have looked as though I crawled out of a cave to the girls.
I finally crashed around 9 PM, having been up nearly 36 hours.
30 September 2007
This morning was overcast and the streets were wet from overnight rains. I had breakfast in the hotel–Kaiser roll with herb cream cheese, slices of ham, prosciutto, and cheese.
I went to the train station to buy my round trip ticket to Munich. I opted for the local train instead of the Intercity Express, and that was a great choice.
The train was filled with locals headed to Oktoberfest, many of them decked out in the traditional dress of Lederhosen and Dirndls. I was surprised how many young people in their teens and twenties embraced wearing their traditional dress. In the U.S., there’s no way you’d get a 16-year old in Lederhosen. It’s just not cool.
At each stop along the route, more Lederhosen-clad riders boarded the train, until it was standing room only. Obviously, Oktoberfest is a popular event.
Munich’s Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) was a cavernous collection of trains and tracks. And lots of people headed to Oktoberfest.
It was quite easy to find the Oktoberfest fairgrounds–all I had to do was follow the masses also headed there. Like lemmings headed to the beer. Simply amazing!
An arched sign over the entrance to the grounds welcomed all to Oktoberfest. It was shortly after 10 AM on a Sunday, and each and every tent that I poked my head into was already full. And what a noisy crowd in each!
Around midday, I witnessed a wonderful concert. Each beer tent has its own “Oompah” band, and they all got together to perform as a single unit on the steps of the bronze statue “Bavaria.” Alp horns and yodelers also joined in at several points in the concert. After the concert, the bands got into formation and paraded back to each of their beer halls.
I wandered the massive grounds, navigating from stand to stand among tens of thousands of others doing the same thing.
The one thing that surprised me is that Oktoberfest is as much for families as it is for beer lovers. With carnival rides like bumper cars, a Ferris wheel, and tons of arcades, kids were everywhere.
For lunch, I stopped at one of the many food stands for a weiss Bratwurst and a Käsestandel, a small baguette covered in melted cheese.
I walked away from Oktoberfest around 13:00 and headed into Munich.
I stopped by one of the iconic landmarks that most identify with Munich–the Frauenkirche with its twin onion dome steeples. I also stumbled upon the Neues Rathaus with its Glockenspiel.
Also on Marienplatz was a trio dressed in outfits from the 1700’s playing Mozart. Entertaining as I sat at an outdoor beer garden enjoying a beer.
It was a short walk back to the train station where the large signboards told me that the train back to Augsburg left from Track 19. I’m glad that I left on the 17:01 train, because more and more Oktoberfest revelers (appropriately lubricated) were lining the platforms for their return home on this Sunday evening.
When I returned to my room, I took a seat and cranked out 10 postcards to friends and family back home.When the train pulled into the station, there was a mad dash for the seats. In a matter of seconds, most seats were taken, leaving only standing room for those who were already having some difficulty standing.
Hunger kicked in, and I headed out for dinner. I quickly learned that not much is open on a Sunday night in Germany, so I landed at the ubiquitous McDonald’s for dinner. Interestingly, that was the one place that I had the most difficulty ordering a meal. When the teenage girl behind the counter gave up in frustration, she asked her manager for some help. That woman, coincidentally, lived in my hometown of Chicago for fifteen years. She actually joined me as I ate my burger and we talked about Chicago and my first trip to Germany. In English, of course.
After that, it was time to call it a night after a great day at Oktoberfest.
1 October 2007
I started the day with another German breakfast at the hotel. Afterwards, I grabbed the 20 postcards that I had written and headed off to the Post Office which, conveniently, was in the same building as the hotel.
I was able to complete the entire transaction in German, which pleased me to no end.
The postage to send a postcard via airmail to the US was one euro, and that translated into nearly $40 to send 20 postcards (when added with the cost of the cards). Yikes!
Now it was time to begin the real adventure. Anyone who knows me knows that I love to drive places. So after packing my things and checking out of the hotel, I hailed a cab at the train station and asked him to take me to the Hertz car rental place.
At Hertz, I picked up my charcoal gray BMW 320d–a diesel with a manual transmission and navigation system.
One thing that I quickly learned, courtesy of the navigation system, is that you must be precise when entering destination names.
I had a paper atlas with me as back up, and I used that to select my first destination for programming into the navigation system. I entered “Landsberg,” watched the directions pop up, started the car, and pulled out of the lot on my first European driving adventure.
Now, on the paper map, Landsberg was pretty much due south of Augsburg. But I was just blindly following the little voice from the navigation system telling me how to get out of the city. Once I got to the city’s edge, it put me on a nice country highway, but I sensed something was wrong. I was heading northeast not south.
I pulled over, looked at my atlas, and saw that I should have programmed the town amplifier into the navigation system: Landsberg am Lech. Not just Landsberg.
Of course, once I reprogrammed the navigation system, I was happily on my way, but back through Augsburg before heading south to the Bavarian Alps. But, hey, I got my first taste of a segment of the Autobahn, cruising along at 140 km/h.
I detoured off the road and headed to see Wieskirche, a baroque style church in a rolling country setting. It was a sunny, 70° afternoon, and I opted to have lunch of Schweinebraten and Kartoffelknödel for 7,50 € at the guesthouse across the road. I sat at an outdoor table, soaking up the sun, and savoring my tasty roast pork and potato dumplings. Yum.As I drove south from Augsburg on the Romantische Straße, the countryside became more like the Bavaria I imagined.
After lunch, I drove to Schwangau where King Ludwig’s castles are at. It was definitely time to find someplace to stay for the evening. (Remember, I’m traveling on the fly as recommended by my former boss.) I drove all the way to Füssen and beyond looking for a place I had identified on a tourism website, but I couldn’t find it.
I gave up looking and landed back in Schwangau at Penison Haus Martina for 35 € for the night. The room was basic, but immaculate, and I had my own shower and toilet. No walking down the hall for me. Martina was a friendly woman, who barely spoke any English, but we managed the transaction just fine. I just had to go upstairs and pick any room that had a key in the door, and then let her know which room it was.
2 October 2007
Breakfast was a typical German breakfast–rolls, lunchmeats, cheeses, yogurts, hard boiled eggs, and Museli.
I checked out and headed straight for Neuschwanstein to be there in line before they opened at 10 AM. When I got there, however, I found that they had been selling tickets since 8 AM. Surprise! Nonetheless, I was still able to get a 10:45 AM tour, so that allowed me time to hoof it up the hill to the castle and the start of the tour.
The hike up the hill took about 30 minutes and it was through some very nice wooded areas, with an occasional mountain stream.
The tour itself was a little disappointing. It was well done in English, but it was brief–only about 35 minutes. I guess the fact that I spent half a day there when I might have been out exploring something else is what got to me the most. It’s great to see the castle from the outside, and even take a few iconic photos from the Marienbrucke, but I’m not sure I would recommend touring the inside again.
On leaving Neuschwanstein, I headed east through Oberammergau and Garmisch-Partenkirchen. I also thought I’d take a trip to the summit of the Zugspitze, Germany’s highest mountain, but opted not to go that afternoon. There were too many clouds hanging around the summit, and I just didn’t think it would be worth it.
It was getting late in the afternoon, and I wanted to start making my way towards Switzerland by nightfall. I headed south out of Garmisch-Partenkirchen and found myself entering into Austria in short order.
As a somewhat naive first-time European traveler in the new era of the Schengen Agreement and the EU, I had my passport out ready to be checked at the border, and there wasn’t so much as a rest stop let alone a border control checkpoint. Just a simple sign.
Before entering Austria, I did stop at a local cigarette shop and purchased the obligatory toll vignette for driving on the Austrian Autobahns. Drive without one, and you risk a 120 € fine to be paid on the spot.
The Austrian Alps were even more impressive than the Bavarian Alps, and there were a couple of small towns along the Autobahn that begged to be explored, if only I had the time. The one downside to driving through the Austrian Alps is that you spend a whole lot of time in really, really long tunnels. Amazing engineering feats, but hell on the view.
I finally got off the highway and headed into Switzerland on a back road. When I got to the border crossing at the Rhine River, the Austrian border guard seemed annoyed that I actually stopped and had to be waived through. (Switzerland was not part of the Schengen Agreement and you had to present your passport to enter the country.)
When I got to the Swiss border agent on the opposite side of the river, he checked my passport and then commented on my family name–apparently pretty common in the region. I explained to him as best I could (in German) that my grandfather came from Germany.
He reminded me that I needed to buy a vignette for the Swiss highway system–another 40 CHF.
I made my way into the town of Appenzell for the night, just as it was getting dark. I hoped to find a room at the Appenzell Hotel, but it was booked. The clerk was kind enough to call across the street to the Hotel Säntis, and they had a room for me.
The staff at the Hotel Säntis was friendly and they put me into the nicest room that I’ve been in on this trip. Of course, I had to pay a little extra for that niceness–about 85 € for the night. I took advantage of their coupon for a complimentary glass of wine or beer in the hotel bar, and called it a night soon after.
3 October 2007
After a nice breakfast in the hotel, I checked out and wandered the streets of Appenzell. It could not have been more Swiss.
I managed to find the post office to buy 20 stamps for postcards back to the States. I was a little taken aback when the total came to 36 CHF. I hope she gave me the right kind and that everyone gets their cards (which were 1 CHF each, too!).
After wandering the streets, I hopped in the car and headed to the hills.
There’s a small town called Stein where Appenzeller cheese is made. The twisty, two-lane roads through the hilly Swiss countryside were fun to drive. One thing that’s remarkable throughout Switzerland is how green and lush the pastures are. Of course, cows–wearing cowbells–dotted the landscape.
It’s interesting that you can hear the cowbells even as you’re driving along at 30-40 miles per hour. On the one hand, it’s a charming sound. But if I were a cow and had to listen to that all day, I don’t know what I’d do.
First stop was the Appenzell Folk Museum. It had interesting displays of what can be described as “cow culture.”
There were cowbells of every size, traditional clothes, and embroidery. The also had works of folk art.
I stopped at the Schauerkäserei and watched them make cheese, and also saw the aging room where large wheels of Appenzeller cheese are aged. Of course, you can’t leave a cheese factory without buying a small hunk for a picnic lunch. So I did.
I surprised the gal behind the counter when I asked for 100g of the Appenzeller Extra–the strongest, sharpest, stinkiest cheese they have. But those qualities are what make a good cheese, at least in my book.
From Stein, I took the back roads all the way to Zug, a town on the Zugersee. (A friend at work told me about it, so I thought I’d check it out.)
I had visions of a quaint village on the edge of the lake, and it wound up being a rather large city instead. I kept on going.
From Zug, I headed into Luzern and found it to be thoroughly fascinating. I would like to spend more time in the future.
It’s an old city with the narrow cobblestone streets, open markets, and cafes and bistros along the riverside / lakeside. I found it to be very relaxing and enjoyable.
One of the vendors on the street was selling a properly sized Swiss flag, which is something that I’ve been searching for in the States for some time. 20 CHF later, and I now have a 150 cm x 150 cm Swiss flag in my collection.
I stopped for dinner at a cafe along the river and ordered the gnocchi in gorgonzola sauce. Yum. It was my first time having gnocchi. I would have loved a glass of wine with the meal but I had more driving to do, and didn’t want to chance it with the strict European drinking and driving laws.
I wanted to make it to Interlaken by night so that I could wake up early and head to the mountains–the Jungfrau–early before the clouds covered the peak.
I found the Seehotel La Terrasse in Bönigen on Lake Brienz in the Michelin Green Guide that I was carrying with me, and was they had a nice little room available for me. As I was checking in, I met another American who happened to work at the U.S. embassy in Berlin. He was traveling with his wife and four small children. I was settled into my room and back in the lobby, and he was still lugging stuff in from his minivan.
4 October 2007
Through my window, I could hear a steady rain as I awoke. My plans of seeing the Eiger, Mönch, and Jungfrau were dashed by Mother Nature.
Instead of wandering the touristy drag of Interlaken, I decided to check out of the hotel and head to Geneva.
The drive in the rain wasn’t all that bad–I was there in just under three hours.
I wanted to see the Patek Phillipe Watch Museum, and after many wrong turns (against the directions of my GPS), I finally found it. Finding a nearby parking space would prove to be the greater challenge.
Fortunately, I found one in short order, but it was a metered spot for only 90 minutes.
Generally, the parking meters in Europe operate differently that what I’ve seen in the U.S. There isn’t a meter adjacent to the space, rather there’s a ticket dispenser nearby. You put in the amount of money for the time required, and a ticket is printed out. You place the ticket on your dash so it can be seen, and that’s it.
But in Geneva, there’s an added twist. You have to enter a number as well. I didn’t know what number they were after, so I waited for a gentleman in front of me to finish his transaction, and I tried to get his attention in my best French. (Yes, everything in Geneva is in French!)
He spoke English perfectly and explained that I had to enter my license plate number so that the ticket would be matched to the car. Ahh. Got it.
After getting the parking situation settled, I hiked the six or seven blocks back to the museum, only to find that it wouldn’t open for another half hour. As I knew the meter was only good for 90 minutes, I was screwed.
I walked back to the car and decided to move it back to an underground parking garage that I had passed on the way to the museum.
I thought it would be easy to reach. Go to the end of the block, turn left, and enter the parking garage about 3 blocks later. All was well until I reached the intersection and found a “no left turn” sign.
After a 30 minute tour of Geneva streets, I found my way back to the parking garage. By the time I got back to the museum, it had been open a good 20 minutes.
Swiss watches, of course, are the preeminent watches of the world, and Patek Philippe watches are the preeminent Swiss watches.
The museum houses an extensive collection of watches dating back to the 1500s, including many owned by the likes of Alexander II of Russia and Queen Victoria of England.
They have computerized animations of how their complicated watches function (watches with movements that have a perpetual calendar function that accounts for the days in a month and a leap year–all done mechanically through gearing and cams). I spent about 2 hours in the museum and then went to try and find my car.
I knew that i better fuel my body for the search, so I stopped by a creperie and had my first crepe.
This one was served almost like a pizza–ham, mushrooms and tomatoes on top of the crepe and served open, not rolled up.
The waitress was quite helpful when it came time to interpret the menu. I could understand many things–poullet (chicken); frommage (cheese); but champignon was one that I thought was mushrooms, and I was right. But the one that I couldn’t remember from my French classes in 1972 was jambon. She didn’t know what the English word was for it, so she went to the kitchen, put a slice on a plate, and brought it to me–ham.
One thing for certain. Geneva is expensive! That crepe and a Coke set me back about 23 CHF. Throw in a tip for her patience and assistance, and that lunch cost about $20. Ouch.
The other thing that I wanted to see in Geneva was the Jet d’Eau–a fountain that shoots a jet of water hundreds of feet into the air.
By the time I left the museum, the rain had stopped and the sun was poking through the clouds. I found my car and drove to another parking garage right at the edge of Lake Geneva and walked to the shoreline to see the impressive jet.
But, as it was approaching 6 PM, I wanted to hit a few shops before they closed.
I swung by the Omega watch shop and showed them the 1961 Seamaster that was given to my grandfather for his retirement. It keeps perfect time nearly 48 years and a servicing later.) And then I stopped by the Patek Philippe Salon for grins and giggles. “Just looking,” was my response.
I returned to the lakefront, but stopped at a chocolatier along the way. I thought that would cap my ultimate Geneva experience–French, crepes, watches, and now fine Swiss chocolate.
And fine it was! Interestingly, the three pieces that I bought cost 3,50 CHF–my Coke cost 3.90 CHF. And that cost is about half the cost of three truffles at Godiva in the U.S.!
I wandered around the waterfront a while longer, and then decided to head back to Interlaken one more time to take my chances on the weather and the mountains.
I returned to the same hotel to the surprise of the owner. She gave me a room with a lakefront view. I crashed and went to bed after a very long, but very interesting day.
5 October 2007
I awoke and pulled open my curtains to see the lake, and much to my consternation, all I saw was pea soup fog. Again, I thought Mother Nature was screwing with me.
On the positive side, I felt much less guilty about running to the Laundromat to wash clothes while the weather was being uncooperative.
I lucked out on two counts. First, there was a parking place right in front of the Laundromat and, second, four of the six washing machines were available. That meant this might go faster than expected.
The couple using the other machines were from Texas, so we struck up a conversation to pass the time. He was a retired mechanical engineer and they were on a guided tour with a group. For being an engineer, he wasn’t all that bright, as he had difficulty reading the train timetable on the wall. Just couldn’t figure it out. I helped.
It was pretty funny to listen to him try to pronounce all the place names along the route. He made no effort to even try and phonetically work out the names. All I could think of was a Sheriff Buford T. Justice image–especially when later in the conversation he pronounced “Arabs” with a long “A” on the first syllable. Thankfully, a younger couple from Kansas showed up and diversified the conversation.
By the time my laundry was done, the fog had burned off and I made a bee-line for Lauterbrunnen, a small town in a deep Alpine valley.
Driving into the valley was akin to driving into Yosemite Valley for the first time. The shear size of the valley walls and the waterfalls cascading take your breath away.
I found a place to park quite easily and walked through the town to the base of the main waterfall. Along the way, there was a small herd of sheep, freshly shorn for their wool, and each wearing a bell around its neck. The view from the base of the falls was impressive and, after capturing it in photos, I was headed back into town.
Unfortunately, I was there right at 1:00 PM, and most of the shops close from 12:00 to 2:00 PM for lunch.
I debated whether to find the train to Jungfraujoch. If I did, it would tie up the rest of my day and I wasn’t certain whether the clouds that were beginning to dance around the summit would hide my view. Besides, I was hungry.
So I opted for lunch instead a potentially obscured view from the top of Europe. Maybe a choice that I’ll regret later, but one that I made.
It was also the first time that I had seen Rösti on the menu anywhere in Switzerland, and I really wanted to give them a try. So I sat a table outside the restaurant having lunch come and go on the mountain tops.
After lunch, I headed into Grindelwald for the rest of the afternoon. It’s a bit more touristy than Lauterbrunnen, but it has better mountain views. After nearly two hours of wandering the streets and the shops, I decided it was time to head north back into Germany.
I hopped on the Autobahn that headed to Geneva, but at Bern, I took a right and drove towards Basel.
Unlike the entry into Switzerland, the departure was much easier–there was no Swiss customs checkpoint. When I got into Germany, I held my passport up in the driver’s window, and was simply waved through. Again, a very easy process.
I was hoping to make it to Freiburg, but I was getting tired and it was getting dark. I found a hotel right off the Autobahn and it had a room for 44 €.
It was an oddly shaped room at the top a very narrow flight of stairs. The ceiling was pitched and it had a skylight that had the “Hotel” sign right above it. It actually acted as my nightlight for the evening, providing a dull yellow glow to the room.
6 October 2007
My goal for the day was to drive through the Black Forest and to make it to Schöntal by early evening. I drove the Autobahn to Freiburg and then hopped off and hit the back roads through the mountains.
It was another perfectly sunny and warm autumn day. The Schwarzwald is very scenic with unique architecture, open pastures, and plenty of trees–both pine and deciduous.
As usual, I had the radio on while driving, more to tune my ear to native German speakers than anything else.
One woman was being interviewed, and I could make out that she was talking about her sick grandfather. As I understood the bits and pieces of the interview, she talked of how she played music for her grandfather during the last days of his life, and that he rested better as a result. He had a peaceful end with music playing as he left this world.
The whole conversation reminded me of my experience with mom, and tears welled up in my eyes as I was driving through this beautiful landscape. We played music for mom in her final days, too. My mood for the rest of the day was dramatically altered as a result.
I did press on, however, and stopped at a few sights and museums along the way.
One of them was the Deutsches Uhren Museum–a collection of clocks and watches, with an emphasis on clocks made in the region in particular. It was an interesting collection.
I also stopped at the Schwarzwald Museum, a collection reflecting the daily life of those living in the Black Forest. It was alright. Not as well presented as the clock museum, but a good glimpse into the history of the Black Forest and its people.
By the time I reached Freudenstadt, I had two choices–continue my drive through the Black Forest on the Hochstraße, or head to Schöntal. Honestly, at that point, I really didn’t feel like doing either. The radio conversation earlier in the day was an emotional blow that had a lengthy after-effect. I was also getting a headache, mainly from not eating much more than a pair of Landjägers bought near the waterfalls at Triberg.
On my way out of Freudenstadt, I stumbled upon a McDonald’s. Yes, I went in for a quick burger and it seemed to help abate the headache. It also helped save some time. I learned that you should plan on one to one and a half hours for a simple meal in a regular restaurant.
I opted to head to Schöntal, but wasn’t convinced that I’d actually spend the night with my cousins there. I still wasn’t in a sociable mood, and showing up crabby to meet the relatives wasn’t a good idea in my book. Still, I pressed on.
I got off the Autobahn and started down these two-lane country roads towards Schöntal. The area reminded me about southeastern Indiana–the rolling hills, forests, and farm fields.
As I saw the road signs directing me to Schöntal, I became more and more excited, and my mood shifted for the better.
The road going into Kloster Schöntal goes down this steep, 14% grade and dense forest. When you come out at the bottom the family guesthouse was on the right. I drove past it and found a parking place at the church.
It was less than an hour to sunset, and the light on the steeples was just perfect.
I walked around the church up to the guesthouse. Because I was in a much better mood, I walked to the entrance and asked the woman who greeted me at the door if she had a single room for the night. She did. She told me to go around to the back, and her husband would take me to the room and show me.
It wasn’t until I got to the room that I asked him his name (in German). He responded by telling me his last name, which I knew, of course. (I couldn’t remember which of the cousins was running the guesthouse.) I told him that I shared the same last name, and that my grandfather was Alpons. The look on his face was priceless. Pure bewilderment at first, followed by surprise. I asked for his first name–Wolfram–and then apologized for not calling in advance and for just showing up.
We chatted briefly, then I returned to the church parking lot to retrieve my car. When I got settled into my room, I went downstairs.
There was a group of about 20 older men and women in town for some sort of reunion. Wolfram was busy with his guests’ needs and told me that he and his wife had plans for the evening.
I insisted that they keep their plans, and that I would be just fine on my own, taking a walk through town.
When I came back from my walk, I stopped in the dining room and Wolfram came in. He said he had a change of plans, and offered me a glass of wine. We compared notes on each other’s families using his basic English and my much worse German. Wolfram reminded me that he and his wife, Gudrun, had attended my sister’s wedding in 1979.
After about 20 minutes, he got up and brought his son and his wife and their daughter to join us. Their son’s name is also Daniel, so when Wolfram introduced us, he showed a wry sense of humor: “Daniel, meet Daniel. Daniel, meet Daniel.” We laughed and then I reminded them that I was the original, having been born 18 years before his Daniel.
Daniel is a neurologist and lived with his wife and daughter in Wurzburg. Wolfram left us to chat, and Daniel spoke English fluently, as some of his studies were done in the U.S.
It was very easy to spend time with them. Their eight-month old daughter was adorable, but it was late and they needed to put her down for the night. Not long after that, I called it a night myself.
The one thing that I forgot to do is get a picture of the two Daniels together.
7 October 2007
As I understand things through family history, the house that became the guesthouse was the house that my grandfather was born in, and it was just pure coincidence that he was born on today, 7 October 1903 and that I would happen to be in his birth house on his birthday. Go figure. Cue up the “Twilight Zone” theme…
I woke up in time to be at breakfast at 8:00 AM so that I could talk with Wolfram before things got busy with the class reunion group. We chatted briefly before the crowd came in.
Across the room there was a woman traveling alone, and she went back to the breakfast bar for some more orange juice, but the pitcher was empty. When it was refilled, I picked up the pitcher and brought it to her. She was surprised and thankful. It was only a matter of seconds before she realized that my German wasn’t that good, so she started speaking in English.
I joined her at her table and we had a very pleasant conversation.
Apparently, she was raised nearby but currently lives in Munich. She comes back to visit friends on a regular basis, and her name was Sigrid.
She was going to the little bakery within the Kloster and offered to take me on a walking tour of the town.
We went to the Kloster and walked through the grounds, the cobblestones arranged in a semi-circular pattern. We stopped at the church and peeked into the foyer during Sunday services. It was interesting to hear the organ play its beautiful music. The church didn’t have any heat on the inside, and it was almost as chilly inside as it was outside.
She took me to the little bakery where she bought some things for friends back in Munich. From there, we went to the church garden and then she explained how to get to the little cemetery at the top of the hill.
I told her about Aunt Liesel, and she thought she remembered seeing her grave.
Sigrid had to leave about 10:30 AM, so we said “Auf wiedersehen” and I took the 10 minute walk up the hill.
The cemetery was small, and several family members were buried there. It didn’t take long before I found Aunt Liesel’s grave. It had a modern granite headstone, and it was covered in a blanket of red and white flowers.
It was 11:00 AM by the time I finished my little stroll through Schöntal, so I returned to the guesthouse and said my good-byes to Wolfram and Gudrun. We took a few photos, exchanged addresses, hugged, and off I went.
I drove through Jagsthausen toward Heilbronn to catch the Autobahn back to Frankfurt. There were a few stretches of open road where I had my BMW humming along at 180 km/h, and I was still being passed.
I stopped at one of the rest stops along the way to get something out of the trunk of my car. As I stood there, I heard this loud noise–a rocket sound. I looked up and it was only a BMW 3 series screaming down the Autobahn. Right behind it was a another roar. This time it was a Volvo following in the BMW’s dust.
I got to the hotel near the airport at Frankfurt around 2:30 PM, checked in, and dropped my luggage. I turned right around and drove to the airport to return my rental car.
The drive to the airport was pretty easy, and I had my car there in no time. I took a few photos of the car to prove no damage was done, and caught the shuttle back to the hotel.
The hotel was nice, but there was nothing other than one restaurant in the neighborhood. It was a little Italian place across the street and down a walking path.
My waiter was amazing as he spoke six different languages. I can barely muster speaking English some days. Oddly, my last meal in Germany consisted of tortellini and a gorgonzola salad. I also tried a tiramisu for dessert. Yum.
8 October 2007
On the way to the airport, the shuttle driver engaged in an interesting conversation about American politics, presidential candidates, how sparse international news is in American media, and driving.
Apparently, a driver’s license in Germany costs about $2,000 to obtain. Our driver claimed to have spent nearly $15,000 getting a motorcycle, car, and CDL licenses. On your first DUI, you lose your license for a year; second for 2 years; and third, you lose your license forever. Drive without a license and get probation for your first offense, and up to six years in jail for your second offense.
We arrived at the airport around 7:30 AM, and getting checked in was a bit more involved than in the U.S.
First, I had to answer a series of questions by a Delta agent before I could even go to the counter. Once at the counter, I was asked another series of questions before I was allowed to check my bag. Only then was my boarding pass issued and I was allowed to proceed through security.
At security, things went fine until my mini-tripod hit the X-ray machine. They didn’t like the looks of it, and I was questioned about it.
Once on the plane, I settled in for the long flight back to Cincinnati, and began recalling all the fun that I had on my first real trip to Europe.
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