Sunday, August 28, 2016

Saints, Martyrs, Treasures, and Beer; or, Day-tripping in Köln

More summer on the road. . . This time: 
Köln, Germany

July 17-18, 2016

After venturing for a few days trips on our own, including our maiden voyage on the Autobahn, we decided to go big AND go home. We rented an Audi A3 and drove like a bat out of hell across Germany, including to a place my husband sent a few years as a child. Before we got there, we first made a pit stop in Köln for the night.

What to know

First, in America it's Cologne, but now that you are in Germany, it's Köln. My German pronunciation is absolutely atrocious, so I just say it the American way but spell it the German way. . .

I visited Köln and its Dom, or Cathedral,  4 years ago, and my husband visited it, well. . . about 40 years ago. But that's okay. It's was the first trip for both the kids, and it never ceases to amaze, whether it's your first, second, or tenth trip.

We came in during the afternoon and stayed until about noon the next day, so we did not get the few days-long experience I had a few years ago. With our main goal to get to Prüm, where my husband lived a few years during the glorious 1970s as a wee lad, we were okay with a little less than 24 hours in the city as a pit stop on the way. I would recommend 2-3 days if you want to experience all there is to do and see in Köln.

Köln has beautiful public artworks (and some very whimsical ones, like a giant upside-down ice cream cone on the corner of a building). If you walk along the Rhine river, you'll find a chocolate museum. There are outdoor cafés and fine dining, and a shopping district with everything you can imagine you'd want to buy.

Cultural stuff and what to see 

The first thing you notice when you drive into town is the Dom---the Cologne Cathedral. It defines the skyline and really symbolizes the city. The Cathedral is a UNESCO World Heritage Site (boy, we seem to pick a lot of those for this vacation), noted for being "an exceptional work of human creative genius" and "a powerful testimony to the strength and persistence of the Christian belief in medieval and modern Europe."

I've heard two stories about Köln during WWII. The undisputed fact is the city was completely flattened, save the Dom. And even it was heavily damaged in areas. One story goes that the Allied forces were told not to destroy the beautiful and historical church and out of respect, tried not to bomb it. The other story is the Dom, with its enormous size and distinctive footprint, made an easy-to-spot landmark for raids and bombings, so it was spared for its navigational use.

It's sort of like Life of Pi. Do you want to believe a more cynical or a more benevolent version of the story? The truth is probably a lot more complicated, and being neither German nor a historian, I'm not going to weigh in on this one.

You walk up and notice how massive it is. You also notice that it seems to be in a constant state of renovation. There is always scaffolding somewhere around the building.

From the outside, the detail of the stonework is amazing. You want a Gothic cathedral, you've got one here. You've got your flying buttresses. You've got your towers. There are gargoyles and downspouts, and everywhere you look, there seem to be saints hiding in many nooks and crannies.

The gargoyles are downspouts are animals, demons, and demonic chimeras---seriously creepy stuff going on. As cute as the dog is above, he's probably supposed to be some hound of hell.

As you get closer, the detail is mind-blowing. Over the doorways, and even the door handles, all have some sort of decorative nature, mostly of some saint I don't know or some symbolism I don't understand. Not being Catholic has its disadvantages when you decide to go cathedral-hoping through Europe. 

The Dom is a working church, so there are scheduled services. You see people lighting candles and there are confessional booths all over (although I didn't see anyone entering or exiting). I was here in 2012, so I knew what to expect walking in, but still. . . when I entered, I literally gasped and clasped my hands to my heart, because it is such a beautiful space and it truly takes my breath away. Being neither Catholic nor particularly religious, I can't really explain how I feel about this place, but it's definitely somewhere that touches my heart and makes me feel honored to be in such a sacred space.

You can pay to view the tombs below or climb the towers, but we didn't choose either. However, we did go on a self-tour of the treasures of the Dom. We took an elevator to what seemed to be a basement---the walls were hundreds of years old, and there were gorgeous tunics embroidered with gold, crowns, scepters, and many pieces made of precious metals and encrusted with stones. Many belonged to famous archbishops and there were artifacts from various saints. 

We were good little tourists and did not take pictures (because that's what the sign clearly said---a camera with a line through it is pretty clear), so you'll just have to use your imagination.  I found the artifacts beautiful, but I prefer what's inside the Dom over the treasure underneath. 

Being non-Catholic and not really understand who all the saints are (that appears to be the ongoing theme of this story) didn't deter me from recognizing this guy: 

St. Christopher! Patron Saint of Travelers

Also at the feet of many tombs in effigy there are angels, lions, and dogs. I heard a guide tell a group that lions and dogs at the feet of the tombs symbolize loyalty. 
cute little cherub
dogs and lions at the feet
Who are buried in these tombs? Crusaders, archbishops. Many religious martyrs. Important Catholic people. Did I mention that I'm not Catholic??? And that it all sort of confuses me? But that's okay, too. We saw people from all over the world, speaking several languages, taking in the beauty of the Dom. I'm guess many were not Catholic, either, but you don't have to be of that faith (or any faith, really) to enjoy a beautiful building that has survived war, political turmoil, and even the elements. 

tomb of the Three Wise Men---I do know who they are, thankyouverymuch.
Tapestries, tombs, mosaics, and monuments---that's just one small part of what you see at the Dom. I strongly suggest paying the 1€ donation and getting a brochure. There's a map and enough info that you can do a self-guided tour. I prefer the walking-around-and-gawking method of visiting cathedrals, but if you are truly into the symbolism, mythology, and stories behind all the artifacts, I know they have English language tours available for a small fee.

I love the stained glass windows, the mosaic floors, and the different materials used throughout to create religious tributes and monuments---fabric, wood, metals, and stone. 

Other Diversions

Other than the Dom, I suggest you find a bar that serves Kölsch. (First church, then beer. That's definitely not something you are taught to do in the Baptist church). It's a barley pale-ale served in short, thin glasses. The waiters bring them around in a carrier that has anywhere from 5-20 in it. They keep the beer coming until you tell them to stop. It's not like drinking a dark stout out of a large stein, so it's okay (at least for a little while) to keep them coming. Kölsch tastes light and refreshing, especially since it's HOT during the afternoons in July in Köln (and very few buildings, especially the older ones, are air conditioned).

Being Sunday, many of the stores were closed (this is very common throughout Germany), so we did a little window shopping and checked in early to rest up for our next day's adventure to Prüm and then Metz, France.

What I learned

When I was here in 2012, I was with a group of adults who were ready to eat, shop, and drink. We also took in the Dom, but we walked, walked, walked, and stayed a few days in the process. In addition, it was Gay Pride weekend. I have managed to somehow catch several cities during Gay Pride during vacation (no complaints---definitely entertaining), but that was one of the wildest and craziest ones I've ever witnessed.

So a few years later, here I am with my little family. It's a quiet Sunday and we walked around a little, window shopping, church visiting, ice cream eating (of course) and enjoying a little bar grub and Kölsch.

Köln is a place I'd love to visit again because I think it's whatever city you want it to be. It can be a days-long party with a group of friends, a romantic getaway, a family-friendly get away. I think the Dom is always somewhere in that mix, no matter your motivation or reason to visit. It's a city of ever-changing faces, and I can't wait to see which one I will encounter next time I visit. 

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Stevie Ray, Churches Galore and More; or, Macedonia Part 2

July 10-14
I *heart* Macedonia.
If I had only visited Skopje, I would have felt that way. However, after taking a 2 day detour to a village on a lake, I realized that love the country even that much more.

Ohrid is NOT Skopje. We're talking night and day here.

So here's what you need to know.
two happy boys looking over Lake Ohrid
Why Ohrid, Macedonia? 

Lake Ohrid is one of the oldest lakes in the world, and THE oldest lake in Europe. Think about that for a moment!  Two-thirds of it in is located in Macedonia and the other 1/3 in Albania.

We visited the town of Ohrid on the Macedonian side of the lake. It is a thriving resort town in the summer time, with small hotels, boutique and tourist shops, sidewalk cafes, and restaurants. I had read that it is very crowded during summer vacation season, but either we were a little early for the big crowds, or the crowds we encountered weren't that big. In addition to the beautiful lake, Ohrid is most notable for once having 365 churches, one for every day of the year. It is built on hills and cliffs over the lake, requiring quite a bit of walking and hiking if you want to see it all, and with some foot trails barely wide enough for 2 people.

Also, to answer why Ohrid?---if you didn't quite catch my last post, Macedonians are very proud of their country and their history. My host and her sister love the peaceful, historical atmosphere and were passionate about us experiencing this beautiful little town. I'm so happy we did.

The Ohrid region has the rare distinction of being both an UNESCO Natural and Cultural site. The lake itself is between two and three MILLION years old and hosts unique species of fish and fauna. The town of Ohrid is one of the oldest settlements in Europe and archeologists have excavated basilicas from as old as the 4th and 5th centuries. The village is known for its masonry and many ancient homes that have been excavated exhibit beautiful mosaic work. Many current homes are from the 18th and 19th centuries. Some of my friend's family have lived in Ohrid for generations, and during a renovation of their house, found mosaics and artifacts dating back thousands of years.

Getting there
on the road again. . . 
We loaded two cars with seven people and headed on a winding road to Ohrid. Even though it snakes around a few mountain passes, the road is in great shape. The trip takes about 2 1/2 hours from Skopje.

We hit a large rest area about half way there that had a gas station, small restaurant, and another walk-up restaurant across the street. Many tour busses had stopped in the area, and as in much of Macedonia, stray dogs were around waiting for a snack or two.

While there, the kids got gelato. Gelato is big all over Europe; in all countries we visited, we'd see people of all ages eating it, day or night. As in Germany, it was fresh with homemade waffle cones. The difference is that in Germany, a scoop of gelato is about 1€, or about U.S. $1.10. In Macedonia, it's 15 Denar, or about U.S. 27¢. And that's typical for most food---the price of food (and many other amenities) is significantly less in Macedonia than anywhere else we visited in Europe.

The grown ups went for some Nespresso (it's instant coffee, with George Clooney as the spokesperson, and big all over Europe) and also some fresh pastries. That's when I had one of those really, really weird other-worldly moments you sometimes have when traveling. Drinking my coffee and chowing down on carbs, I heard some blues music. Some familiar blues music. Then I realized the music I was listening to was none other than Stevie Ray Vaughn. Basically we are sitting in the middle of nowhere, Macedonia, eating pastries and cheap gelato and sipping Nespresso and listening to one of Texas' favorite sons. 

About that time, we also decided to pick up two hitchhikers (sort of sounds like the start to a horror movie, right?). No worries, hitchhiking is relatively safe in Europe and these were two college students who were trying to make their way across all the Balkan states, mostly by hitching rides. We finally got to Ohrid, had a beer together with the extra travelers, speaking enough of a combination of Slovenian, Macedonian, and English to understand each other, and then went our separate ways.

On the way to Ohrid I also couldn't help but notice the many, many villages which all had mosques in the center. This is Muslim country in Macedonia. Many Muslims of Albanian background live in this part of the country, and Albania, unlike Macedonia, is a majority Muslim country. 

What to do and see
When you are in a town of 365 churches, obviously you are going to see churches. 

St. Sophia (Sveti Sophia)
Sveti Sophia dates from the 6th century. During the Turkish rule of the area, the church was converted into a mosque and the Christian frescoes were covered. The Turks also added architecture representative of their culture that still exists today. We were not allowed to take pictures inside, but we did see the frescoes that are slowly being uncovered and repaired as the mosque became a church again. The restoration is a work in progress, but the building is in amazing shape to be so ancient. We also saw evidence from WW2 Nazis who came through and carved the German cross into the pillars of the church. (Stupid Nazis). 

In addition to Sveti Sophia, we walked the long, winding, arduous hill to the highest part of the town to see St. Jovan of Kaneo Monastery. With its gorgeous Byzantine architecture and views, it was worth the hike (even if my kid complained the ENTIRE TIME). It was founded in the 13th century.

The basket by the door to the monastery says, "If you wearing shorts top short skirt please put on a wrap from the basket. Thank you for respecting the holiness of the church."
one of many tiny churches on our hike around Ohrid 

We spent the rest of the day sightseeing, eating, and window-shopping. There were beautiful freshwater pearls and artwork; more gelato, pizza, and amazing cheeses; more stray dogs to pet and lots of turtles all over the place; people walking on the lakeshore front and eating on sidewalk cafes.

We had a wonderful meal for three children and four adults that consisted of several entrees (we ordered extra so I could sample typical Macedonian cuisine), appetizers and salads, drinks, and a dessert. The total came to $60. That's for EVERYTHING. Can you believe it? Hotels are also very reasonable (and unlike lots of European hotels, they are air conditioned). There were lots of choices of restaurants, including many outdoor options so we could take advantage of the beautiful weather, and the kids had a great time feeding the fish on the waterfront.

Ohrid seems like a great getaway for people of all ages. We saw young and old families, families on bikes and walking with strollers, little children on tricycles. We saw several Muslim families---blonde, blue-eyed, Albanian Muslim families. I didn't see very many Americans, although we met a Macedonian couple who live in Florida, and they have lived in the U.S. for over 20 years. They were visiting Ohrid on vacation because it's their favorite place to go while back home.

What I learned: 
Overall, I loved visiting a town full of ancient history to balance out a city that is still, in many ways, trying to find its history and identity. As far as going to a town of churches, I found the experience very peaceful, even if I didn't grow up in a faith with saints and I'm desperately trying to remember what little I know about them when my youngest asks, "who is that guy?" or "why is that church named for that person?" But nobody thought I was a heathen when I asked, thankfully, and my saint confusion was the constant theme of all my church visits in Europe.

I had a great moment meeting Ana's aunt, who is also a librarian. The word for librarian in Macedonian is very close to the word in Spanish, bibliotecaria. The word for library is close to the word biblioteca. I said something about the words must have the same Greek root, but was quickly told that no, Macedonian does NOT have words from Greek. Those Greeks, again! They can't have the country name, or claim Alexander as all their own, or get the credit for the Macedonian language (even if it is only a few words). Macedonians are independent (and don't you forget it).

I know I'm showing my American-ness, but I just can't get over how old things are in this area. When the Mayans were just starting to build Chichen Itza, some of these churches had already been in use for generations. Walking around Ohrid, you see lots of modern cars (and many mopeds), but you know what else you see? Yugos. Remember Yugos? They are EVERYWHERE, and seeing so many of them in use made me smile. That's sort of like Ohrid. There is enough modern to catch your attention---great modern restaurants and hotels---but overall, there's a nostalgia that holds it all together. 

Sunday, August 7, 2016

Where Old is New and New Looks Old; or, Macedonia, Part 1

June 10-14

When most Americans think of visiting Europe, they probably think of Western Europe: France, Spain, Germany. Maybe hit up Italy in the Mediterranean, or if they are the adventurous sort, venture over the eastern countries of the Czech Republic or Croatia.

But Macedonia?

I really don't know anyone who has visited Macedonia for vacation. And if we hadn't lived in GTMO, we probably would have never visited, either.

First, WHY Macedonia? 

our adventure took us from Vilseck to Nuremberg to Macedonia to Ohrid
In this little, tiny base of GTMO, we have managed in almost 4 years of gated living to meet people from all over the world. We celebrated last New Year's with friends from the U.S., Kyrgyzstan, and Macedonia, not realizing that our friend Ana and her family would be moving back to her home of Skopje in February. Her son and my youngest were great friends, and when they left, we always do that thing people who really like each other do: we said, "see you later!" and really hoped it would happen.
Our Macedonian friends' last day on island, with the kids saying their goodbyes 
Flash forward to this spring when started planning our trip to see another Anna living in Germany. Yes, this has been the summer of An(n)as. I asked my youngest what he wanted to do in Europe, and without missing a beat, he said, "I want to visit Ethan in Macedonia." At first I thought it would be difficult to travel there or be expensive. And I will be completely honest; like most Americans, all I knew about Macedonia is that it was part of that part of Europe we didn't visit during the Cold War, and it had something to do with Yugoslavia. (Okay, some of you know more than that because you probably didn't sleep through your high school football coach/history teacher reading out of a textbook to you during World History). 

Getting there
Ana suggested that we find tickets on Wizz air, which lead to several silly jokes about "taking a Wizz" and the such and also many bargains. Wizz is a small Hungarian airline that travels mostly in Eastern Europe. (In fact, this week our oldest son took a Wizz flight from Germany to Bulgaria). We bought round trip tickets from Nuremberg, which required son 2 and I to take a regional train from Vilseck to Nuremberg and go through customs to exit Germany because Macedonia is not part of the EU. However, US citizens are NOT required to obtain a visa to visit Macedonia as tourists, so we were able to enter the country with only our passports and no hassles.

The airline itself is VERY no-thrills. You literally pay for everything, even water. What do you expect for a €60 round trip ticket? Drinks and snacks were anywhere from US$1 and up. 
menu for Wizz airlines. Love the combo deals! 
The flight took about 2 hours, and then we landed in the capital of Skopje at the Alexander the Great Airport. As the plane landed, everyone burst out in cheers and applause. H and I were a little bewildered in the beginning because this was a first for either of us. Were the cheers because everyone was relieved the flight made it in one piece? Or, as I'd like to believe, were they cheering because they love their country that much and know there's no place like home? 
fuschia and purple, that's Wizz airlines! 
Either way, customs in Skopje was super-easy. We packed in a carry on so didn't have to deal with waiting for luggage. It took about 20 minutes from landing to walk out into the parking lot and meet our friends, who greeted us with big hugs. Happy, happy!

Macedonia today

A few facts to know about Macedonia.
First, the name "Macedonia" itself is controversial. The constitutional name is "the Republic of Macedonia," but the UN addresses it as "The Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia." Greece also claims an area as Macedonia, and Greece regularly vetoes Macedonia's entrance into the EU because of the name Macedonia. It's complicated, but basically know this: many Macedonians want their country to be known as "Macedonia" or "the Republic of Macedonia" and are upset that Greece has claimed the Macedonian name. Right or wrong, a lot of blame for Macedonia not being in the EU is put on the shoulders of Greece.

Second, if you were a kid sleeping through history in the 1980s like I was, you probably vaguely remember Yugoslavia. Today, it is divided into the independent nations of Serbia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Slovenia, Croatia, and Kosovo. You probably also recognize some of those names because of wars that occurred in those regions. Macedonia gained its independence from Yugoslavia in 1991 without any bloodshed. They are very proud of this fact.

Third, Agnes Gonxha Bojaxhiu was born in Skopje in 1910. She would later be known world-wide as Mother Teresa. There are monuments, memorials, and even a highway named for her. 

Fourth, and more controversial is whether or not Alexander the Great was Macedonian. Macedonia claims him, but so does Greece. (Ah yes, Greece, again). Here is an interesting article in the LA Times about the issue. 
That being said, Macedonians don't hate Greeks and in fact, love to visit Greece. But they are very proud of their own long heritage and are offended that Greece seems to want to claim part of what they believe is uniquely theirs (as in their name and Alexander).  

Fifth and lastly, a devastating earthquake completely flattened most of Skopje and killed thousands of people in the early 1960s.

Why should you care? Because you have to understand all of this to understand why Skopje looks like it does today. And even knowing all of this will probably not completely prepare you for it. . . 

Skopje Today 

Thanks to the earthquake and to the cold war, communist era concrete architecture, there wasn't much of Skopje that was grand and beautiful and historic to give it a district architectural feel that many other capital cities across Europe have.

However, since 2010 or so, Skopje has reinvented itself with architectural structures meant to compare with what you would see in other major cities in Europe. And yes, including Greece.

There are large statues paying tribute to leaders in the arts, sciences, education. There are monuments to war leaders and even Alexander the Great. There are buildings with large columns and grand facades. Arches, bridges, you name it. And all to the tune of millions and millions of dollars.

The locals are very divided. Some see it as an improvement to the grey, concrete structures of the past and see it as a way to bring back nationalistic pride. Others see it as a waste of taxpayers money and call it things like "Disneyland Macedonia."

I took the above picture on the outskirts of town. I don't know if this is an apartment complex, office building, or what, but it's an example of the grey concrete buildings post-earthquake era. I actually like this style. The angles and shapes of windows, corners, doorways, and rooflines are all interesting. However, I can't imagine living in an entire city of grey concrete buildings, either.

THIS is what you find in downtown:

These aren't old buildings; they are brand new buildings (or fronts on old buildings) made to look like old buildings. And there aren't a few of them; there are DOZENS of them. Everywhere! 

A closer look at the fountain reveals this:

and this:

Paintball guns and spray cans of paint have been used to vandalize the new monuments. And this is all over the city.

There is a historical part of the city we missed---the Turkish  bazaar. I really wanted to visit it, but the kids really wanted to spend a day together at the pool more, and the reason we came to visit was for the kids to get together and not for me to drag them around shopping. (But it was tempting). This just gives me another thing to do next time we are there. 

What I learned: 

I found some of the city to be very beautiful and some of it, well, over-the-top. But I have no frame of reference of what it was. I also have no concept of what it is like to live in a country, with its economic and social systems, being taught that my way of government is the best way, and then to have complete upheaval and have all those systems and ways of life be turned upside down. How do you identify yourself if your country (Yugoslavia) is no more? And even though you are an old part of the world (especially compared to the U.S.---but hell, everything is old compared to the U.S.), you are in a new country. 

I spent much time thinking about identity and pride. Skopje does that to you. It gets under your skin and makes you realize that ostentatious buildings won't necessarily improve your country or create more jobs, but for many people, it gives them something new to associate with their new country and new identity. Some see it as erasing history, but others see it as simply a way to beautify what was once grey, and it is a way to showcase your national pride. And also it gives them a way to thumb their noses at Greece---and that does help morale, right? Is the price worth it? It's hard to know, and not being from there, I will never know. 

Buildings and architecture aside, this is Skopje to me: 

  • it's children running around after dark in a very safe city
  • it's people walking around in the city, eating in cafes, watching a soccer match on a big screen
  • it's the joke that more people are there to watch the match because of their bets on the match rather than their love of soccer---it's the dark gallows humor that underlies most people's comments about their own city
  • it's pride in a place that peacefully achieved independence, and it's protest in the form of paint guns, not real guns
  • it's knowing that the UN and EU and Greece aside, we all know that this is the REAL Macedonia. 
  • it's generations that still live together under one roof, and a banking system that just now allows people to take out long term home loans. This means a change to multi-generational living, but hopefully not a change to close-knit families.
  • it's pride in land. You live on the land of your ancestors and cherish it. Thousands of families lost land to the government during the Cold War, so to still have old family land is to have something worth more than any money in the world. 
  • it's pride in food. It's amazing pastries filled with meats or cheeses for breakfast, it's cheese. Dear god, the cheese. It's a tomato that would make my grandfather, a produce broker and connoisseur of tomatoes, cry. It's fresh ingredients grown locally and sold at a very, very reasonable price. 
  • it's having everyone you meet welcome you to their country (and mean it)
  • it's holding a baby porcupine---really!---that children found in a garden. Amazing! 
  • Baby porcupine!!!!! 
  • it's beautiful people---tan and Mediterranean, pale and eastern European---and all religions together in one place. 
  • it's a small city with a cosmopolitan feel
  • it's people you have just met who treat you like their own family
  • it's a country that reclaims its old with new
My most beautiful moment in Skopje was my last night in Macedonia, sitting under the stars on a swing in Ana's yard. Her father George, who doesn't speak much English, and I, who speaks NO Macedonian, managed to somehow have a conversation about the amazing drink he brews. He makes his own brandy called rakia.  George takes great pride and care in his rakia---he uses equipment that has been handed down through the family and uses locally grown fruit, including grapes from the vineyard next to Ana's house. He spends hours getting it right and has his own recipe that has taken years to modify and perfect. Her house sits on land that has been in the family for generations. Under the stars, sipping rakia and not saying much between us, I felt that sharing a drink was so much more than just sharing a drink---it was sharing the culture of land and pride and family and tradition. 

And that's what Macedonia meant to me. Go visit; you won't be sorry. 
looking into the old vineyard 
Next time---the UNESCO site of Ohrid. It's really old, too, not Skopje-old! ;) 

post script: as I was editing this this morning, I found out that there was a devastating flood in Skopje yesterday. Many people lost homes and property and some even lost their lives. Ana and her family are fine but many others didn't fare so well. Please think about the people in this beautiful city and hope they get a reprieve from the rain and flood waters. 

More reading (if you so wish---I would recommend):
Communist Architecture of Skopje, Macedonia---A Brutal, Modern, Cosmic Era: lots of pictures of the modern architecture post-earthquake that the new government has refaced/removed/renovated
Skopje's 'Colorful Revolution': Fighting Tyranny with Street Art: how some locals are fighting the new architecture---with paintball guns and spray paint
The makeover that's divided a nation: from BBC, explanation of both sides of the debate over Skopje's new look

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Branching Out in Bavaria; or, Hot Date in Regensburg

Regensburg, Germany   
July 7-8
one hour drive from Vilseck to Regensburg

Anniversaries have never been a really big deal for us.

To me, a wedding anniversary is something silly to celebrate as one big event. Whoo-hoo! We're still married!

Instead, I like getting something small (like a heartfelt, handwritten note in a card or a meal in a favorite restaurant) and carry on like it's any other day.

The other reality is we are usually apart during our anniversary. For the first four years, we were separated thanks to Uncle Sam and the U.S. Army. Then it became my summer trips to see family living out of state while the kids and I were on break. July is travel time, and we are just as likely (or more so) to travel separately than together.

This is the second year in a row that we are able to celebrate together in a more over-the-top than usual manner. Last year we spent our anniversary in Mexico. This year, we took a trip to the beautiful and historical town of Regensburg.

Cultural stuff: 
Regensburg was the location of a Roman fort in 90 AD. Much of the 11th-13th century Gothic architecture is still visible today. It was also bombed several times during WWII.  Unlike Köln, which was obliterated by bombing in WWII and had to replace historical structures with modern, grey buildings, Regensburg was luckily spared mass destruction and put great efforts into restoring the city to its Medieval roots. For its efforts, its old town center is a recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Things to do: 
The old part of the city sits on the Danube. Quaint cafes and Würstchen stands line the path facing the river. We saw families on bikes, couples eating and drinking on blankets, kids running around with gelato, and lots and lots of people taking in the sun on a pleasant and beautiful day.

It's the Danube!
View of an outdoor cafe from the UNESCO information center.

What we did enjoy was sitting and people watching. Drinking good beer and taking in the sights from a sidewalk cafe. Window shopping. Relaxing and having a good time.
people watching, window shopping, and beer drinking
For our anniversary we stayed in a rather posh hotel called the Domresidenz. The hotel is on a tiny street with lots of interesting shops---you can find anything from a fancy hat to a vintage Tom Jones album. 

The hotel itself is located in an 800 year old building. It's been gutted and modernized for the most part, but the historical bones of the building are still there, with too-short doorways carved of stone, walls that aren't square in any way or fashion. On the corner from the hotel is an antiques store the owners also have, and the decor was a combination of Swedish modern and gorgeous antiques from their shop.
view from one of the hotel windows
The Domresidenz has only a few suites, and each is a 2 bedroom/1 bath apartment with a full kitchen and dining room. We didn't take advantage of the kitchen since we ate out. In a month in Europe, we only stayed in hotels for a total of 5 nights. This was most definitely our biggest splurge. But you only celebrate your 23rd anniversary one time, right?

There are several sidewalk cafes/bars across from the cathedral that make a great place for people watching. Beer runs anywhere from $5-10, depending on the size. The sidewalk cafes have blankets over the backs of chairs in case you get cold in the evenings. This seems to be typical all over Germany.

There is also a nice shopping area where we hit up the Birkenstock store and TK Maxx. Yes, you read that right. Germany has TK Maxx and it's as great as its US cousin. 

Best of all in Regensburg was the selection of brew houses (braühauses?) that serve cheap, good Bavarian dishes. After scouring the internet for reviews and careful consideration, we chose the Weissbraühaus. Okay, who am I kidding---we passed by and I wanted to go inside because Weiss is one of my family names. Silly, I know. Later we found out that it actually is one of the top rated pubs in Regensburg on several travel and restaurant sites. They brew their own beer and have a wonderful selection of traditional Bavarian dishes. Prices were very reasonable ($8-15 for entrees) and the service was great.  
obligatory food shot. I promise we won't have many of these. 
What I learned: 
Our first solo trip without our German speaking host was a little daunting for me in the beginning. First, there was getting there---on the Autobahn. Yes, that Autobahn. We borrowed our friends' cute little Hyundai---great for getting around tight, tiny streets in Europe, but not really meant to burn up the Autobahn. We puttered around at 70-80 mph and watched in wonder as cars whizzed by like we were standing still. (We've get a second round in a much faster car later in the trip). Second, checking in to the hotel, shopping, and ordering food meant trying to use a little bit of German. My German is, well, atrocious. I am a little hopeless, Duolingo and all. But it was a great adventure because it was one of the first times in a long, long, long time that my husband and I have had a day and night to ourselves. We laughed a lot at our attempts---and as anyone who travels will tell you, if you just try to speak the local language, it will open doors and you will generally get better service. Muddling through it together within our first week overseas was a great experience, and an apt way to mark our anniversary, since our relationship started as friends in college living in Mexico, trying to master a foreign culture and language and laughing the whole time.