Saturday, May 28, 2016

France - Where Protesting is a National Pastime (aka The Honeymoon is Over)

While I have two more days of Strasbourg to get published, and still haven't made my post about Saintes or Biarritz, I'm going to jump ahead to current times.

This week has been nuts in France.  While the French like to strike, they seem to keep it limited to weekdays; however, it has been every Wednesday and Thursday for about a month now.  What has made things worse is the President pushed an unpopular law through, so now the French are blocking fuel depots and we're having gas shortages.  Gas shortages!  Like gas stations literally running out of gas!  I have serious concerns at this point about whether I can get to Paris by car OR train on June 9 and have basically told the GM here that I'm holding him personally responsible for ensuring I make it to Paris for my flight . . . to which he replied that he's certain they can provide me with a bike!  PB (the GM) likes to think he's funny.

As we drove around on Friday, there were big straw bales with signs on them about death to/for farmers - apparently, a few weeks before I came, the farmers protested the poor pay they receive for their produce by piling tires (sometimes burning) and animal poo in the parking lots and entrances to the local grocery stores.  I suppose these signs should have given me some warning that I might have issues on my way to Lyon, but my biggest concern at the time was whether I'd be able to find gas to get back!

I made it some distance East of Civray when suddenly traffic came to a complete stop.  It was unclear what was going on, but I suspected a car accident at first.  I didn't see any reasonable way around it on my GPS, so I thought I'd wait a bit.  Cars started to move, then stopped again . . . then moved.  Since traffic was clearly getting through, I thought the accident had been cleared and things would gradually pick up.  An hour later I knew better - the primary roundabout providing access to a major East-West connection was being blocked by PROTESTERS.  Worse, the police were just watching - apparently in France there is no law against impeding traffic!
The thing is, French people seem to support this behavior.  The protesters were walking along the line of cars and handing out flyers to explain whatever it is they were protesting.  Not being French, I told them to keep their paper as I wasn't interested.  Frankly, I might have been less grouchy about this delay if I didn't need to use a restroom and hadn't been waiting for the main highway where rest stops would be available!  You can drive through the French countryside for quite some time without seeing anything that appears to be a public toilet!

Once I finally made it through the human blockade, I was able to locate a rest stop.  I was still a little worked up about the French protesters and how ridiculous all of it is with the gas and blocking the road - I mean, they do understand that they're punishing other regular French people and not the government, right?  However, after seeing the toilets in the rest stop, I couldn't help but laugh.  Outside of two less popular tourist sites in Japan, I'd never actually been forced to use a toilet that is essentially a glorified hole in the ground - I mean, even Guatemala has proper toilets!  In France, you may find this in a public rest stop though:
After having a good laugh about the toilet, the lack of toilet paper and just the whole "long and proud" French tradition of protesting, I realized that I simply can't expect things to be like they are in the US.  So, "vive la révolution!" I suppose ;-)

Friday, May 27, 2016

Strasbourg - the Perfect Transition City Between Germany and France

I started my 3rd day in Stuttgart on May 13, but just slept in and ran a couple of errands before heading to Strasbourg.  With the Schnegen area, border crossings for me have been non-events every time I've been to Europe and, in this case, there was nothing that I noticed to indicate I'd passed from Germany into France. {TIP: Do not assume this will always be the case.  With the refugee crisis in Europe, there are countries that have stricter border crossings even though they technically offer passport-free travel to each other's citizens}.  My train was a French train this time and I realized that the two-level trains that run between countries actually do have power outlets (again, one per two seats though).  

When I arrived in Strasbourg, I headed for my room first to drop off my luggage, rinse off and to change - hauling luggage around is sweaty business on warm days!  I also had a lovely maxi dress I'd brought, but not worn because I wasn't certain when I'd have a day without a ton of walking nor had it really been warm enough for a summer dress.

I made my first stop at the tourism office for a 3 day pass that covered many of the things I wanted to see (virtually all) and the transit system; however, the woman told me that the rivers were too high to run the boats and the pass wasn't worth it without that . . . I must say, I appreciate it that she didn't just sell me one anyway!  She'd suggested a transit pass might not be necessary as everything is in walking distance for the most part (it is, assuming you don't mind 30 minute walks after walking all day long).  Considering I knew I'd be walking all day for site-seeing, I took the tram since you can buy a 24 hour pass for 4.30 Euro here (under $5)!  The tram stop nearest to Petite Europe stops right in front of a Protestant church, which I noticed was constructed in the front with rather unique large red stone blocks (I later saw these EVERYWHERE in Strasbourg, but it's the only city I've seen them in).  The rest was two different types of brick though!

On my way to La Petite France, I made sure to find the covered bridge as I thought I'd read that it was really lovely.  Um . . . well, I suppose it's interesting to see, but I'm not sure it was worth a special trip to see.  People were on top of it, so perhaps it is the views from the top that are spectacular?
I kept walking toward a small bridge and saw the first part of the Petite France I was expecting from the photos!  I later learned the cross hatching on the walls was necessary because the walls were cob and needed the support.  This was such a lovely place!
I walked to the next bridge and there was more!  Here, you can also see the towering old cathedral as well.  This is another place where you feel like you walked into a fairy-tale or a period movie!  It's no wonder the island is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
This area was really one photo op after another!  Every time you think you've seen the prettiest or most decorative of the Alsacien homes, you find yet another one around the corner!
I decided to stop off for a coffee (espresso) at a cafe just to relax and enjoy the day for a bit.  Plus, an afternoon espresso is just a French thing!
I admit I've fallen in love with some of the fashion here.  I found a dress that crosses at the bust, but it is sewn at an angle so it doesn't slide down during the day and it fits like it was made for me!  Having lost 20 lbs in the past year before France, I've needed new clothes, especially for work!  This brings me to my quest for shoes though - last spring/summer's shoes aren't up to another year, so I needed a nice dress shoe.  I found a lovely and comfortable pair in Strasbourg finally!

I'd wandered around long enough (so much for it being a low walking day) that I unexpectedly found myself near the old cathedral!

Since I had the time, I thought I'd head in.  It certainly wasn't like every other Cathedral - right away you notice the stunning inside of the rose window. 
You also can't help but see the brightly painted organ or the abundance of stained glass.
I had forgotten that I originally wanted to see this place because of the old astronomical clock until I ran into it in the very back.  I thought I'd read there was a small fee to see it and it would have been worth it as I've never seen anything quite like it!  It had paintings and scenes of life from the time, plus moon cycles, a globe - certainly worth seeing!

Thursday, May 12, 2016

My Last Day in Germany - Time for Schloss Solitude!

By the second day, the fact that my hotel listed eggs and sausage, by which they meant cold hard-boiled eggs and cold cuts, was less appalling to me than the first day and I piled them high!  If I'm paying 7.50 Euro for this, I'm eating the highest protein breakfast I've had since I arrived in Europe!

I should also note that my phone is a global phone, yet it only worked in France for data.  When I tried to use a $10 travel pass in England, Berlin and Stuttgart it didn't work in any of them.  When I turned on mobile data, it should have shown 3G or 4G - whatever was available.  Instead, I could see just a letter with a slash through it and no ability to access data.  Bottom line - after the first time, I took screen shots of my hotel reservation and transit instructions.  The problem appears to be due to my phone popping up an alert after I first arrived asking if I wanted to allow data roaming charges, to which I said no.  I guess I was thinking that having an International plan meant I'd already agreed to certain charges and this was above and beyond, but it turns out that's not the case.

Today we headed to Schloss Solitude first.  Schloss Solitude was built between 1763 and 1789 as the hunting lodge and summer residence of Duke Carl Eugen.  Carl was apparently an important guy and Bach's "Württemberg" sonatas were dedicated to him.  The tours here only run once an hour and are only in German, but I mostly just wanted to see it.  At a glance, I noticed the same understated exterior style as Schloss Charlottenburg, which is much different than the ornate French castles.  They appear to be peacetime structures or were far from battle at least!

After confirming we understood the tour was in German several times and making sure we understood we could only leave the stroller and NOT the baby at the entrance (uh, I don't even want to know why that warning is needed), I carried little Ariana with us as Jen had tweaked her shoulder.

Since we were the only people on the tour, our guide decided to use her "school English," which was actually very good!  It was nice to get the tour in English and to learn Carl Eugen never actually slept in the fancy part of the Schloss - he snuck out through a passageway to the other building!  He was a great lover of music though and this was his music room.

When we walked in the room below, my jaw dropped.  You really have to see this place to get the full sense of it, but it was the receiving area meant to impress upon people how great and worthy of ruling he was!  The decorations include hunting and educational items.  Carl actually started a school for boys.  He also would have people here to dance, but no musicians!  Then, the panels near the roof would open and the musicians would be up on the second level. 
These photos aren't up to my usual standards, but in my defense, I was carrying a baby. ;-)  You're also not really supposed to take photos of the inside; however, I've never understood those restrictions - I think seeing a couple pictures makes people want to see a place for themselves!  I've never seen photos of somewhere and thought, "well, I've seen it now - guess I never need to go there myself."  I'm glad that I was able to take a couple of quick pictures at least.

The palace was full of illusions.  For example, this room was made to look like marble, but is actually stucco!

The design of this exterior staircase was critical as Duke Carl needed to be able to stand on it and look important while speaking. 
And one photo of the view.  Schloss Solitude was a summer hunting home, but Carl spent more time at a castle connected to this one by a long, straight road (still in existence).  He built that castle for his second wife after his first wife left him because he had too many mistresses (he fathered 11 children by them)! 
I kept meaning to ask Jen to take a photo, but forgot, so no pics from Munich or here . . . except Jen's son took this one of us after faking us out by taking a selfie instead - he's actually a pretty funny kid. 

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

A True European Love Story in Stuttgart - a King who Actually Loved his QUEEN! (Not Mistress)

I was in Stuttgart primarily to visit a friend, Jen, who has a new baby, so I didn't load my schedule with activities.  Upon my arrival, I found it amusing to watch these two cops walk around being filmed for a show of some sort.
Upon reaching my hotel, I thought I'd post this so Americans understand why the French (and Germans) largely drive diesel vehicles - it's much cheaper here!  Of course, there are air pollution issues because of it and they are largely switching to clean diesel technologies.
The first full day, we went to Grabkapelle or the Sepulchral Chapel.  Contrary to many things here, where you realize political marriages didn't work out so great as the mistress plays a prominent role, this King loved his wife so much he demolished her favorite castle and built her this crypt on the site after she died at a young age.
You can see why she would have loved the castle that sat here though - there are stunning views from all sides!
The upper area is elaborately decorated and has the typical domed ceiling with skylight.
Upon entering the tomb, the first thing I noticed was that the light source was originally from this lovely carving, which is directly below the dome above.
Then, you see that the beloved wife, Catharina, queen of Wurtemberg, died in 1819 at 30 years old.  Her husband, 8 years her senior, appears to have started his rule in 1816 . . . but he was still buried here next to his wife when he died in 1864 at nearly 83!
One of their daughters is also buried here after she died at 23.  While an alcove is here for their other daughter, she married the King of the Netherlands and is buried there with her husband.
Given he was buried here so long after, it appears the inscription he left above the door was true, "Love never dies."  I was curious enough to look up what happened after his queen's death and he did marry again to produce a male heir, but I suppose that's what was expected of a king.
After a short time here (you'll need maybe 30 minutes, but the cost is just 2.50 Euro), Jen and I headed downtown.  It's rather picturesque near the Schloss Platz, as in most German towns!
We headed back to meet Jen's kids as they got off the bus.  They weren't quite sure they remembered me from 3 years ago, but Katelin was certain she'd remember me next time!  I also had plenty of time to snuggle the baby!  She barely cried all day and was pretty content to either be held or be in motion.

Then, it was time for German dinner!  After having several versions of currywurst, I thought I'd try a local specialty, spätzle.  The noodles themselves are rather bland, so it's really about what they come with.  This evening it was a perfectly cooked pork slice cooked in a beer sauce.  Yum!  I will say that adjusting to the massive portion sizes in Germany has been a struggle - the small fast food (Currywurst) portions were easier!  I left some of the spätzle uneaten because I just couldn't do it!

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

A Day in Dachau

Local Munich Transportation Tip: if you take the local train, you can buy two XXL tickets for 4.50 or a day pass for 8.60 - I'd recommend the day pass!

Best Hotel of My Trip
On my way from Berlin to Stuttgart, I decided to stop off for a day in Dachau.  It was less expensive to stay in Munich (aka München in German) and buy a local day pass for the round trip to Dachau and I'd recommend doing the same to others.  While I don't normally get into my hotels much outside reviews, this hotel deserves special mention!  The rooms all had unusual names - mine was called "fear" online, but "angst" at the hotel.  I arrived late and called for the key code, then let myself into a dark hall.  When I found the light button for the stairwell, I was confronted with a black hall festooned with creepy old religious icons stuck to the walls.  I had a moment of hesitation wondering if I should leave as quickly as possible, but the second floor switched to black and white photos.  I was a little concerned about my room decor at this point!

I was pleasantly surprised when the room was bright and cheerful - I didn't even realize the wall painting was a knife-wielding plant trying to eat me until I turned the lights off and noticed it glowed in the dark.
Best room I've had my whole trip though!  It was clean, everything was comfortable and and I liked that the color theme continued through the bathroom even.  I completely recommend the Hotel Achterbahn if you're in Munich.


You can wander around Dachau with a map for free, pay 3.50 Euro for an hour audio guide or 3.00 Euro for a 2.5 hour guided tour.  I'd suggest coming early as it was already crowded at the 11 AM tour and, by 2 PM, it was positively crawling with groups of teenagers.

While at first I found it encouraging that German teens are taught this part of their history, the number of them laughing and goofing off casts serious doubt on whether they really absorbed the gravity of what they were seeing.

I went with the English guided tour and it was quite good.  While I'd thought the 2.5 hour tour would cover everything, it really went in depth on a few key parts of the history, but I don't think I allowed enough time for everything because I ran out of time to read more about the conditions there and to view the different displays in more detail.  The original main entry is gone, but the inside entry remains.  The gate reads, "Arbeit Macht Frei" or "work makes you free," but the prisoners knew it was untrue.  It was actually Nazi propaganda used to support their news reports that the camp had been opened for the re-education of terrorists, criminals and troublemakers.  In reality, Dachau was the only camp open all 12 years of the war and all the original prisoners were German political opponents.

When you first enter, you can see 2 barracks; however, our guide told us they were reconstructions because the originals were used for refugees after the war, so they had been improved and changed so they could house families.  The survivors thought having replicas more accurate to wartime conditions was better.
This is another propaganda photo.  The healthiest prisoners were used and they were all fully shaved and shot from above to make them appear more criminal.
Contrary to what I'd thought, Dachau was not an extermination camp.  Germany largely built those in Eastern Europe and kept the real "dirty work" out of their own backyard.  While you can see many types of camps in Germany, the triangles for death camps are to the East.

Not sure when this was written, but it reads, "smoking forbidden"

In the early years, people were sometimes released from the camps.  The man who painted this was one of them and was lucky enough to get a visa to immigrate to China after.  The painting shows what the conditions were really like.  It's difficult to see at the top, but he painted the eye of God . . . closed.
When you enter the bunker area of cells, the guide pointed out that some had a radiator or a toilet and others didn't, so if you were being punished here, it was up to the SS whether you had a "good" cell or not.  This was also done to encourage a lack of unity amongst the prisoners by giving some benefits that others didn't have.
Photos of the grounds:
These gravel beds each show where a barrack stood when the Nazis were running the camp:
Only one man escaped from within Dachau.  This photo shows the difficulty - if you even stepped on the grass, you were shot at.  If you made it over the grass, you had to get into the ditch and back out, then over the electrified barb wire fence.
A plaque on the wall of the crematorium from 1955 talking about the liberation of the camp:
The gas chambers also did not start with the Jews.  Starting in 1939, they were originally used for the "euthanasia" of those who were physically or mentally ill and unable to work.  The propaganda suggested this was the humane thing to do for these "poor people."  The gas chamber at Dachau is believed to have only been used once (about 70 people killed for an experiment) as the Germans realized they had a free labor force in the imprisoned Germans and many were dying due to the poor conditions anyway.  Here, as in other places, the gas chamber was designed to look like showers.
By 1940, the original crematorium was too small and a larger one was built.  Cremation was not common then, but the Nazis had been questioned once about the very poor condition of bodies returned to families, so they stopped returning them at all.

There's an International memorial here and the anniversary of the liberation was recent, so the flowers were still present.  Dachau was made a memorial as a reminder that humanity is capable of this.  Hitler rose to power by promising to return Germany to greatness and his Antisemitism was originally not as popular as he'd hoped.  It was only after a Jewish boy walked into an embassy and killed someone that Hitler was able to turn Jews into the common enemy for Germany to rally around.  It's also important to note that the other popular parties, due to the economic conditions, were Socialist and Communist, leading some business men to give Hitler funds and support, even though he eventually jailed at least one of them.

An interesting thing to note about the below part of the memorial is that it excludes the pink (homosexual), green (career criminal) & black (gypsy/prostitute/other undesirable) triangles.  These groups were also excluded from reparations after the war as they were judged as criminals who likely would have been in prison anyway.  This happened despite the fact that nobody in Dachau had a trial nor proof they were guilty of what they were accused of (it is believed that many weren't), but also shows that prejudice and judgment of whole groups continued even after the war ended.
In the reconstructed barracks, the three styles of beds show how the beds started, with more space, and how they ended, due to overcrowding, when over 500 men were in a space intended for 54.
It's hard to fathom the sheer number of people who were imprisoned and died here.  It had a different emotional impact on me than seeing Oradour-Sur-Glane did, but the actual footage of what the American soldiers found here was horrifying.  It's certainly worth a visit, if only to see how large it was and to grasp that this was far from the largest or worst of the camps.