Europe Posts

Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate: Part 2

There is some really old stuff in Heidelberg, Germany, the next stop on our train trip.  St. Peter’s Church is nearly a thousand years old and the dominating Church of the Holy Spirit has been there for almost six centuries.  I guess there was little of strategic value there during WWII since these treasures escaped the US and RAF bombing that other parts of Germany experienced.  When the American troops arrived at the doorstep of Heidelberg, the German soldiers there negotiated a surrender, saving the city from destruction.  I’m glad it worked out that way.

Church

Church of the Holy Spirit

Heidelberg Schloss

Heidelberger Schloss

Jessica and I walked the streets of the old part of Heidelberg, taking in the sites that included old churches, the University of Heidelberg (Germany’s oldest university and the setting for The Student Prince), and the awe-inspiring Heidelberger Schloss (the Heidelberg Castle).  The ruins of this former residence of the Palatine Electors (whoever they were) have been partially restored and now contain displays of objects found in and around the place, a coffee shop and even a wine tasting room where we could (and did) taste some of the local wines.  Adjacent to the wine tasting space is, what we were told was the largest barrel in the world.  It can hold over 55,000 gallons of wine.  I asked what the point was of having a barrel that big, but no one could give me a reason.

After spending the day traipsing about the old town and strolling along the Neckar River, we went back to our hotel.  On entering our room, we both noted the chill.

“I’ll put the heat on,” I said.  I spent the next ten minutes playing with the alleged temperature controls mounted on the wall in the phone booth sized room.  “The thermostat isn’t working,” I announced.  “I’ll go talk to someone at the front desk.”

“I’m trying to put the heat on in our room, but the controls don’t seem to be working,” I said to the young girl at the lobby desk.

“Yes, that is because it is only October and the hotel has not yet put the heat on,” she explained as if this explanation were unassailable.

“But our room is cold.  Are you telling me that, no matter how cold it is, there is no heat for the hotel?” I asked.

“No,” she replied matter-of-factly.  “But, for Germans, it is warm enough.”  I considered mentioning that we were not Germans, but she already knew that so I went back to the room where Jessica was waiting with a freshly-opened bottle of wine.  There’s more than one way to keep warm.

Next stop: Berlin.  For several years we had been reading about Berlin and its rebirth following the fall of the wall that bifurcated the city.  East Berlin was doing its level best to eliminate vestiges of the past, both Nazi and Soviet.  West Berlin had long ago disposed of its Nazi history and had become the city that a German capital should be.  Now that the wall was gone, the former Soviet part of the city is fully integrated with its western counterpart.  The city had developed a well-earned reputation as a cosmopolitan draw for artists, entrepreneurs and other creative types and we looked forward to experiencing the spirit of Berlin.

Our hotel was located in what-had-been West Berlin and was a short walk to the main shopping and restaurant district in that part of town.  Our primary objective after checking in was finding a place for lunch.  After the five-hour train trip from Heidelberg, we were hungry.

We passed a number of restaurants that, for one reason or another, did not appeal to us, starving though we were.  As we approached desperation, we came upon a small eatery with Hebrew lettering on its sign.  We thought, what the hell, and asked for a table for two. As we were led to the table, we passed the bartender.

“Did you hear about us on TripAdvisor?” he asked in slightly-accented English.

“No, we were just passing by and had to stop,” I responded.

“That’s even better,” he said with a smile.

The place is called Jacob’s Bar & Restaurant and bills itself as having Israeli/Mediterranean cuisine and that sounded wonderful to our empty tummies.  The waitress presented us with menus and the bartender, who turned out to be Jacob himself, helped us to interpret the dishes.  First up was mosabha that the menu says is “hummus, only better.”  According to Jacob, this recipe for humus is 2,000 years old.  As a second course, Jessica had the “Israeli pizza” topped with tomato sauce, tahini, eggplant, egg and feta.  I couldn’t resist trying the meatballs when I saw the ingredients that included beets, pomegranate and yogurt.  Neither of us was in the least disappointed.  The food was so good and the environment was so lively that we booked for dinner the next night.

We got up early the next morning and walked to the Reichstag building, home of the German parliament.  We started our tour here because that’s what Rick Steves told us to do.  With headphones plugged into iPhones loaded with Rick’s (Yes, we’re now on a first-name basis.) walking tour of Berlin, we set off to explore the city.  We passed through the Brandenburg Gate at the former border between East and West Berlin and took a side street to see the Peter Eisenman-designed Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, an eery and moving monument to an event that the German people will not allow themselves to forget.  Even the use of the word “murdered” in the name of the site is indicative of the contrition which the German people have for this part of their history.  The 2,711 gray granite slabs that cover the nearly 5 acre site provide a physical reminder that evil exists in the world and that we must be always on guard against its appearance.

The Reichstag

The Reichstag

The Brandenburg Gate

The Brandenburg Gate

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe

We strolled down Unter den Linden, a broad, tree-lined boulevard that unsuccessfully combines Nazi- and Soviet-era architecture with designer boutiques and high-end restaurants.  The incongruity of the form and the use of the buildings in this area of Berlin is actually disquieting.  We arrived, at the end of the tour, at Alexanderplatz and I had a beer and a bratwurst.  Jessica settled for a pretzel.

Now that we were properly nourished, we began a hike to see the East Side Gallery.  We learned that, in 1990 in celebration of the fall of the Berlin Wall, a large number of artists were invited to create works on a 1.3 kilometer section of what remains of the wall.  Over 100 artists participated and the result is the largest outdoor art gallery in the world.  Most of the art springs from the politics of the time and I was struck by how many of the wall sections are now icons.  I was also struck by the travesty of the tagging and defacing of the art by those with less talent and even fewer brains.  There was almost no piece of art in the nearly-mile-long stretch that some moron had not seen fit to damage.  I needed another beer.

An iconic image from the East Side Gallery

An iconic image from the East Side Gallery

We took a bus to the Berlin Wall Museum and, after spending a while there, headed back to the hotel, thinking about getting back to Jacob’s Bar & Restaurant and diving into a big bowl of mosabha.

A constant reminder at the Berlin Wall Museum

A constant reminder at the Berlin Wall Museum

We awoke early the next morning in order to catch the local train that would take us to the Berlin Bahnhof, the main train station.  On the walk to the underground stop, we were entertained by some of the thousands of people preparing to run in the Berlin marathon later that morning and by the inebriated customers of the still-open bars.  We were both sober and sane enough not to be about to run 26.2 miles so, all in all, we felt pretty good about ourselves.

Marathoners making their way from the Berlin train station

Marathoners making their way from the Berlin train station

Next stop: Prague.

Next:  Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver & Chocolate – Part 3

Of Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate: Part 1

Among the reasons that Jessica and I moved to Italy is the relative ease with which we could travel to other parts of Europe.  Since settling in Puglia, we have visited such places as Amsterdam, Malta, Munich, Salzburg, Croatia and many parts of Italy and done so without investing a great deal of time or money.  With the exception of Amsterdam and Malta, however, all of these excursions were done by car (or CRAMPER) or ferry.  We often spoke of doing a trip by train and availing ourselves of the rail system for which the Continent is renowned.  Recently, we stopped just talking about it and began to seriously plan the journey.  Arranging the logistics for the 15-day, 10-city tour seemed daunting at first but, after the route was plotted, the Interrail tickets bought, the train reservations made, the flights booked, and the hotel rooms reserved, the real anxiety set in.  We were well-familiar with navigating airports, but train stations were another animal.  We entered our first train terminal confident only in the fact that we would learn much in the coming two weeks.

The first leg was a two-hour flight from Brindisi to Geneva, Switzerland, and a quick (and free) train ride from the airport to the center of this incredibly expensive city on an alpine lake.  After checking into our painfully-expensive (though quite austere) hotel and dropping off the small backpacks that represented our only bits of luggage, we took a stroll along the lakefront, noting the number of Bentleys, Porsches and big Beamers, and past expensive hotels.

“We’re not in Puglia anymore, Toto,” I said, but to Jessica, not Toto.

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

Geneva where beauty comes at a price

We had an incredibly expensive dinner at an amazingly mediocre Indian restaurant all while listening to a husband and wife full-throatedly talking about women’s breasts (Husband: “I never realized how many different kinds of tits there were.”  Wife: “Neither did I and I have tits.”) as their two teenage sons sipped on their Coca Colas.  We went back to our hotel.  We arose early the next morning so that we could stop at the first Starbucks we had seen in many months before catching the train to Lausanne.  We had to wait for the Starbucks to open that morning, inexplicably since it was nearly 7:00 when we arrived but we would learn that Switzerland is a late-rising culture.  We savored each drop of the two grande cappuccini we ordered and Jessica scraped the bottom of the little plastic cup of yogurt she bought, our having spent the equivalent of $24 for the three items.

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

A view of Lake Geneva from Lausanne

It is only a half-hour trip from Geneva to Lausanne so it was much too early to check into our next over-valued hotel room.  We checked our backpacks at the hotel before heading out to catch a bus to the Chateau de Chillon, which made all the more perplexing the question we got from a fellow bus-waiter.

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

Chateau de Chillon, a little place on the lake

“Are you guys going to the hostel?” the young stranger asked.

“No.  Are you saying that we look like we’re going to a hostel?”  I responded.  He didn’t react.

I should note here that Soul of the Heel is not a travel blog so please don’t expect to read boring descriptions here of museums, castles, forts, government buildings, blah, blah, blah. If you want that, google Rick Steves who was our constant guide throughout the trip and from whom you can learn such things as the fact that the hot dog is called a wiener throughout most of Europe because it was “invented” in Vienna (Wien, in the German language) by a guy from Frankfurt except that in Vienna itself, it’s called a frankfurter.  Got it?  Anyway, we found Lausanne to be like Geneva in the respect that, at the slightest provocation, businesses extracted large amounts of money from us.

The next morning, Jessica passed on the Starbucks yogurt so our cappuccini bill was only $20.  The train we caught that morning took us to Bern, Switzerland’s capital city.  The town center boasts six miles of shopping but we could afford none of it.  Bern was, like the rest of Switzerland, it seems, expensive.

The Bern streetscapes are charming

The Bern streetscapes are charming

Our fourth day on the road started with a train ride to Zurich, a city where things are very expensive.  In this northern Switzerland city, we stayed in a hotel called an Ibis Budget Hotel.  Our room had a bunkbed, the shower was right next to the bed, and the stall where the toilet was had a swinging door.  The mattress felt like something manufactured by Weyerhauser and there was no thermostat.  The place would make a Spartan uncomfortable and was just a tiny step up from camping.  But, at least it was right next to train tracks and just across from an open-all-night bar.  (I just don’t know how people can afford to drink all night here.)  I guess this is why we only had to pay $130 for the night.

We roamed the streets of Zurich, passing stores with familiar names and high prices, and came upon a restaurant that announced Mexican fare.  Since Mexican cuisine is not readily available in Puglia and, despite the fact that I had never heard anything about the quality of Mexican food in Switzerland, we stopped.  The lack of authenticity in what was set before us was obvious when we tasted the “Hot Sauce.”  Instead of being spicy, the red sauce was simply warmed ketchup.  Oh well.  At least the meal was expensive.

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

A stroll along the river in Zurich is a must-do

Zurich's version of a parking lot

Zurich’s version of a parking lot

We left Switzerland and it left us with some indelible impressions:

1.  It’s expensive.

2.  It has a natural beauty that few places possess with stunning mountain views, quaint architectural elements and dramatic lakescapes.

3.  The country’s renowned neutrality extends beyond its politics and characterizes its food, wine and, in many respects, its culture.  There just isn’t much there to distinguish them.

4.  The trains run perfectly on time, a function, I suppose, of there being so many clocks around.

After a day in Zurich, we strapped on our backpacks, jumped on yet another train, and, without having had a single morsel of chocolate during our 4 days in Switzerland, headed to our next stop: Heidlberg, Germany.

Next:  Pigs’ Knees, Duck Liver and Chocolate:  Part 2