We aren’t in Wimbledon more than 5 minutes before Luke blurts out, “Dad, they really have English accents here! I thought it was just in the movies.”
We found a relative bargain of a place in Wimbledon on the southwest side of London. It is also the home of the famed tennis tournament at the All England Lawn Tennis Club. London is one of the most expensive cities in the world so we knew we’d be maximizing London’s free museums.
Our place is framed on both sides by matching vertical town homes. A back patio provides a bit of room to play outside and a thoroughfare for squirrels, birds and the rare cat.
The boys are thrilled to be up on the narrow fourth floor with a room all to themselves. The place even has a sitting room and three more bedrooms, in addition to the kitchen.
By the way, with a traveling family our size we cannot usually fit in a hotel room and we prefer to have a kitchen anyway. So, we are constantly on websites like AirBnB, HotelLettings, FlipKey, Interhome and TripAdvisor to find our lodging for the next month.
I make the short walk over to the local Wimbledon library and am amazed when they allow me to have a library card. I register on the computer and am tempted by the title drop down menus of Lord, Lady and Sir. They are fantastic here and we are basking in the ease of speaking the language. We check out Ranger Apprentice books and a few cheap movies.
Each day we see the school kids streaming to and from the school via the double-decker buses and the Tube station that serves the neighborhood. Most of them are in ties and blazers with the school crest emblazoned. Girls dash by in skirts. We find out later that the private schools usually have blazers for uniforms while the ‘state’ schools tend to wear jumpers (sweatshirts) instead.
One morning I’m out for a run and I round the corner into another street of flats stacked together. Down the sidewalk walking towards me is a man in a suit and tie and carrying the typical Londoner umbrella. Holding his hand, is his 7 year old mini-me. The boy is decked out in blazer and tie as they both jaunt down the street on their respective commutes. I see a vision in my head of a career in a London bank somewhere being reserved for this tiny Londoner!
We also become quite adept at the Tube and I think the kids are available for consultation for anyone looking for the quickest ways around London. We become pros at the Transport for London website and love the fact that the younger three kids are free on the Tube. London is so large, that even with a London zip code we generally spend at least 25 minutes on the tube getting somewhere.
Another day, the kids humor me and the five of us go out for run. We run up the hill into Wimbledon Village (home to cafes and shops) and over into the park. The rain begins, Dad has to take a few unplanned detours and we are out a bit longer than we anticipated. Possibly some of the participants might have been a bit of grumpy walking here and there but we saw a horse and made it back home! Those kids are troopers!
My uncle Stewart in Seattle made a timely recommendation about the Kirkaldy Testing Museum being open once a month and right when we were available. Kirkaldy, a Scot, set up the first independent testing laboratory He had this huge machine custom built to be able to test shear, torsion, and other failure types of large metallic samples. Before him, companies would label breaking strengths on their products with no testing whatsoever. Soon, samples were pouring in to his firm from around the world. Will, our budding engineer and digger, is in hog heaven. They break a few metal pieces and we even get to take a few samples home. That’s great, because we needed some more metal pieces in our checked baggage…
I’d read an article a ways back about the adventure playground movement starting to bring back the concept of risk in children’s playgrounds. A playground in Wales employs adult safety observers but even let’s older kids light controlled campfires and build their own plywood creations. US and European childplay experts have been visiting it to see what can be adopted in other countries.
It makes you think about the many playgrounds in the US where the kids have abandoned the ultra-safe climbing gyms and covered slides. This adventure playground, the Oasis, is really three separate play areas; a playground, a nature park and a go-cart track. At the playground there’s a pedal cart track, climbing nets on huge rocks and adult volunteers keeping an eye on the peeps. Several parents linger under the back porch of the administrative “building” keeping tabs. The government has provided a grant to get this concept off the ground and play staff now have just a few years to make it self-sustaining. The nature park lets kids work in the gardens and tend to their own plants. The staff also allows periodic campfires. The go-cart track lists various weekly nights broken down by age and gender (Boys 13-17, Girls 13-17, Boys 10-13 and even a kid maintenance night). It is not the “poshest” neighborhood and seems to function as a wonderful after-school gathering place for the local kids.
The kids have played in the empty lot here for decades. The WWII blitz destroyed groups of homes and they’ve never been rebuilt. This picture shows the gap in the row of houses where the Oasis has formed a cooperative to help the neighborhood.
Grandma watches the kids one night so that I can take Lisa out for the national cuisine of England—Indian. Then we drop in to a local pub and hotel, The Dog & Fox, to see the Brits out. There’s a live band playing Sheryl Crow and The Steve Miller Band and we get to see groups duck in out of the rain in their fancy hats. Thank you amazing Grandma!
The Wingfields, or more likely their kids, took us to the perfect kid activity near Xanten: a kind of small theme park that we could use in the States.
Will writes about it below…
OK folks, here’s a German word that sounds very funny! The word is spelled Irland but sounds like “Earland”. So what’s so funny about that? Irland means Ireland. Why do they call it that? I have no clue, maybe the Romans had a say in that. Oh yeah, I forgot, the Romans were there.
In the present, Irland is a fun theme park—no coasters, but pedal-powered carts, hay bales, huge Legos (my favorite), water, volcanoes and a variety of slides. There were slides that looked like you were falling straight down. I actually screamed (so did my sister, but louder than me).
The pedal carts were awesome. The first one had a huge track made of tires. We had all kinds of races; half races, long ones and short. After that we went to the slides. The slides came from a fake helicopter and a fake airplane. The first one I went on was mild and short just to get the concept. Then I went on the one we (me and Luke) called Death Falls (dun dun daa!). So terrible yells could be heard coming from that dreaded tube.
Moving on, we went to the helicopter and rode the one me and Luke called Death Falls 2. You could not hear screams because it went so fast. Then we went to the airplane. The one we went on was called Death Falls 3. Girl (not boy) screams could be heard. Then we went to lunch. At lunch, Mom asked us to find the girls. She thought they might be at the warehouse so that’s where we went.
To our surprise, inside the warehouse were piles of Legos! And big ones too! All thoughts forgotten, we marched to a place and started to build a massive fort! It even had a door that I made with many blocks. Once it was very high, I remembered the girls. Where were they? The question was soon answered. In the corner, the girls were building a house. Problem solved. We continued and finally we were done! It was taller than Dad (and Mom)! Then we had to leave.
Great work writing, Will!
The cathedral in Xanten, or Xantener Dom (“Dahm”), was almost completely destroyed in WWII. Allied bomber pilots used the easily recognized twin towers of the Dom as a visual reference to turn away from the Rhine river and go home. They also knew that German anti-aircraft guns were nearby. They’d release their unused bombs in the vicinity so they could climb higher and be more maneuverable. After the war, the town debated and took the decision to rebuild the Dom completely. Many German cities did not rebuild their historic centers or cathedrals and replaced buildings with modern counterparts. I understand this is the reason why you probably don’t hear of many American tourists headed to see the historic center of Hamburg.
The Xantener Dom cornerstone was laid in 1253 and construction took 281 years. It was a federal government project… Today after the post-WWII reconstruction, you can buy pieces of the original cathedral. Stonemasons actually live on site and are still reproducing historic parts of the Dom and its outlying buildings. Amazing.
The Wingfields are members of the church and their son Elee is even an altar server in the German mass. Lee had been invited to be a bell ringer but had not yet begun. All across Europe, church bells are rung to call people to services. After attending the mass in German—good job kids for hanging in!—we were able to see the vestry in the back of the church. The vestry’s original painted ceiling survives and is over 500 years old.
Then, Lee arranges for us to get a chance to ring the bells to call people to the next service. It’s like something from a Disney movie, two ropes disappear into the high ceiling of the cathedral and someone has to yank these ropes up and down to ring the bells. One rope has three small “subropes” to help people divide up the workload. The other rope is really a good ab workout. And you guessed it, some of the kids end up flying up off the ground as they cling to the rope. The bells are quiet inside the church but we know from hearing them that the bells are calling out to the town.
[sorry for the iphone shots, but here’s a kid getting airborne]
We are able to meet the street Pumpenmeister too. Neighborhoods used to have water pumps where residents would come draw their water. The pumps became social hangouts, akin to office water coolers, over time. After the war, the pumps finally became obsolete as a source of water. The social aspect of the water pump is so important that they still install fake pumps in newer neighborhoods to imitate the old system!
The street Pumpenmeister is a related concept to the Burgermeister or town mayor. The Pumpenmeister is responsible for social coordination on the street. They organize get togethers and parties. There is a carefully orchestrated care plan for funerals and such that Pumpenmeisters employ. The position rotates along the street with one year terms. Husband and wife each get separate turns. Now, that’s some thoughtful German organization!
We literally met the Pumpenmeister as she brought around a scroll that served as an invitation to a party. Lisa and I find we just can’t say the word Pumpenmeister enough.
Another day, we hit the Archaeological Park Xanten. The Romans were here in Xanten and this park celebrates their memory with a museum and a reproduction of an amphitheater. They still hold gladiator exhibitions here and a biannual Roman Festival complete with a full pitched Roman camp and martial arts. For the peeps, it sure doesn’t hurt to have a playground and bouncy dome too!
Never enough time with good friends, and our visit was over before we knew it and it was time to go on to London!
Lee—brave soul—did a masterful job squeezing six Mesquits, six rolling duffels, six backpacks and himself into his Volvo XC90 and we were off to the train station at 0530. Once there, we waited at the train station with other passengers sneaking sidelong glances at our family and travel baggage in the commuter queue. An announcement was made in German and everyone started scurrying off the platform. Hmmm. We grabbed our bags and stumbled along after them. One man stopped to ask Ana if he could help her with her bag up the next flight of stairs. But the little lady wouldn’t let someone else touch her bag—tough girl. We’d guessed right, it was just a platform change and we made it in time. After the car and train ride, we arrived at the airport and took a SkyTrain to get to our terminal. Next, was an EasyJet flight to London Gatwick. Europe has a few budget airlines and this was our first flight on one. They each advertise very low fares, sometimes as low as about $20. You have to read the fine print because each checked bag is at least $20. The airline also wants $7 to $12 dollars per seat to pick your seat onboard or wait till 7 days prior and check in for a randomly assigned seat. RyanAir made headlines a few months back when a person without access to a printer on their vacation showed for their return flight and the airline wanted hundreds of dollars to print out their boarding passes. The EasyJet seats don’t allow anyone to recline but everything worked out fine.
We landed at Gatwick and found the ticket office for trains. We make quite a sight all of us with our bags in any given line. I asked the kids to go wait out of the way and sent them towards an advertising sign. As I was finishing buying the ticket the sign came crashing down. A police officer came rushing over to make sure everybody was okay. Everybody was, since it was a light banner-style sign. No worries, it’s just us!
The kids were understandably tired after about 8 hours of travel and an early wakeup. We took a snack break in the terminal. Then, a train to Clapham Junction where we transferred to another to arrive at Wimbledon Station.
I began to hear, “Daddy, when we get there, is it a long walk to the apartment?”
It wasn’t long at all and we were glad to find our place not far from the tube station. A few hours later and I was able to go meet my mother as she flew in to Gatwick to join us. What a great memory for us and we couldn’t wait to get out and see more of London!
I know, crazy title–can you tell I’m married to a Texan?
We just soak in the town of Oberfell. The car hardly gets touched. Despite the Luxembourg American cemetery and Burg Eltz trip we do some walks down by the river, and plenty of school— the kids are beyond ready each day for Charlotte, Victoria and Peter to get home from school so they can all play. With all the handling going on, I am sure the guinea pigs could not wait for us to leave!
The bakery continues to get a lot of love from us. We also learn that the bakery in town is owned by a Brit and she helps me understand which of the many kinds of pork I’m attempting to select. We also learn that just like the baker has tiny choco-brotchen for the peeps, so does the butcher have small sausages for the wee ones!
Pork in German is “schweinefleisch”. How’s that for the German building block language getting the point across to even an English speaker? A toad is a kröte, that you have to memorize but we have a lot of fun saying the name for turtle. It’s a schildkröte. Because that toad does have a shield. The kids pick this up on an app we find that has you “playing” in German words and learning more vocabulary than you realize (at least in small kid-friendly animals and kid foods).
We reluctantly load up the car and leave the cozy house, Oberfell and Horst & Andrea.
To reach Aachen, you drive northwest about two hours and nearly to the Dutch border.
[Luckily for you, Lisa (my far better half) now picks up the narrative and writes below about Charlesmagne’s amazing cathedral in Aachen]
Rick Steves does a fantastic job at pointing out the highlights of a particular area. Trip Advisor and Lonely Planet have their roles in traveling. But, everyone who knows the Wingfields, have been blessed by their eagerness to share their knowledge of the area they are living in. In this case, Cally asked me, “Are you visiting Aachen?” I think I said, “What’s that?”
What’s that????? None other than the throne of Charlemagne, himself.
We decided to visit Aachen on the day we travel from Oberfell to Xanten to see the Wingfields. After discovering that the only English tour was at 2:00, we structure our day around the tour time.
After an attempted but failed extended drive along the Mosel river, we arrive just in time for the tour after a quick bathroom stop!
[The gentleman in blue is leading the tour. He conducted a French tour right after this English tour.]
Before entering we hear the legend surrounding the building of the cathedral. When the builders ran out of funds, they were said to have made a contract with the Devil to get the needed money and in exchange they promised him the first soul that entered the cathedral. Despite that intriguing strategy considering they were building a church, they were bent on not paying their due and sent a wolf into the church first. (only service animals allowed today)
The cathedral amazes us.
Commissioned by Charlemagne in the late 700s, it is probably the oldest intact building we have visited on our trip. Charles the Great, himself, recommended the original design of the cathedral after the pattern of beautiful Eastern churches that he had visited in his travels. In contrast to other cathedrals with cross shaped floor plans, the dome here is octagonal and has a series of precious columns surrounding it.
These same columns were pillaged by Napoleon during his exploits of this part of Germany. Most, but not all of the columns were eventually returned after the Congress of Vienna. About four are displayed at the Louvre in Paris and a couple were broken on the return voyage. The color has been restored in the original design.
Moving on to the Choir Hall, an addition from the 1400s, the stained glass windows stun us with their beautiful light.
A pulpit is also present with gold and inlaid jewels. Rumor has it, according to the tour guide, that Henry II may have stolen some things at some point. A gift from a possibly guilt ridden king, in the 1000s Henry II donated these ancient and precious materials in the form of an ambon which is an architectural projection in front of the walkway before a wall of icons. He desired the prayers of Mary. (Hey, we all need grace, don’t we?) Interestingly, the panels are a mix of Christian and pagan symbols, along with a king’s everyday items, like an amber bowl and chess pieces. Many of the Greek gods are also represented on the panels of the ambon and now reside in this Christian cathedral rather than a temple of their own.
About 160 degrees left of the ambon are the remains of Charlemagne. They are housed in a huge ornate gold box. Every seven years they are displayed open along with the other precious relics housed here. The end of the most recent display was a month before we arrived. Historians have no DNA to prove that the bones are truly the great kings’. However, the bones are all from one person. And, bones at the Louvre claiming to be from Charlemagne are from the same person.
After some ooos and aaahhhs, we walk upstairs to see the throne. This is the part of the tour that is paid admission so the guide checks everyone’s tickets before we tread up the winding marble stairs (or jump and wrestle up the dim marble stairs, if you happen to be ten). To protect the throne, the area is barely lit. The roped off slabs of ancient marble are special because of the approximately 30 kings and 12 queens of Germany who were coronated there. It is plain, not ornate. Charlemagne himself ordered the throne built, but after his own coronation. Faded on the side of the throne is the remnant of a Roman soldier’s game of Nine Men’s Morris, kind of like tic tac toe. Some believe it was played by the soldiers on this marble at Jesus’ crucifixion. The steps leading up to it are thought to have been at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem until they were brought here in 800 AD. Others believe that before that they were steps up to Pilate’s palace, that Jesus walked on them.
Thank you Lisa, and now back to our regularly scheduled slipshod writing.
We find a toy/book store right across the street. That’s a good thing too because we were running critically low on plastic horses and knights and such…
We are thrilled to be driving into Xanten to our friends’ house, Lee & Cally Wingfield. Xanten is a small town in northwest Germany, also nearly into the Netherlands. Lee is working for NATO, as I once did. They are immersing themselves into the German culture and language. My NATO assignment had been to Virginia and I also bravely dove into Virginian culture and language… But the Wingfield kids—Elee, Ava, and Verity—are in German schools and are already fluent in German. As they began their school last year, the children were tired at the end of the evening from all the mental energy they were expending in German. Pretty amazing to think about moving, adjusting to a new school and doing it all in a brand new language. It is a wonder to behold.
It helps that Cally was a high school exchange student in Germany and has supplemented her German over the years with tutors!
Seemingly instantaneously upon our arrival there are Nerf darts everywhere.
Xanten is a tourist town but small enough to be closely-knit. I know it will shock you, but we are able to find a gelato place and the kids do not turn it down! I think I’ve got more time left to blame my ice cram habit on the children.
I just love the direct advertising of the German stores. Why beat around the bush?
We even enjoyed a delicious dinner out with just we parent-types. Out to a nice dinner like real people.
My meal was delicious but, even better, Lisa ended up with a shrimp so large it brought out the paparazzi.
As we leave the restaurant, Cally points out a plaque on the wall that marks where Kristallnacht—the Night of Broken Glass—affected this local house of Jewish people. In Germany and Austria, on 9-10 November 1938, the persecution of the Jews made a violent transition from economic and other discrimination to physical. Some say this pogrom was the beginning of the Holocaust. Shards of glass were all over the street after the windows of Jewish-owned shops, homes and synagogues were broken. People’s houses were emptied out into the street and there were beatings and murders. The paramilitary arm of the Nazi party and non-Jewish civilians carried it out. Government authorities looked on without intervening. The excuse for the violence was the murder of a German diplomat by a German-born Jew living in Paris.
The plaques in the sidewalk indicate that the family that lived here—Passman—were each sent to concentration camps. Five of the seven deported to Auschwitz. Of those five, four were “ermordet” (murdered) on the same day—3 Sep 1942. This was likely on the day of selection as they first arrived. Carl survived another 6 months.
It is still shocking to walk out onto a quiet evening and remember how much this continent—and the world—was shaken by the evil perpetrated by one political group against other people groups.
Cally also showed us the nine-pin bowling alley that Cally enjoys with her “Kegel” (the bowling game) group. These narrow alleys are in the basements of town pubs and groups of ladies get together each week or so for some bowling, talking and imbibing of adult beverages.
A week prior, the kids had gone in together to buy a Star Wars Clone Wars DVD on base in Germany. For those that are unfamiliar, the Clone Wars are an animated series based on the further adventures of Star Wars jedis and the clone army. We returned from dinner and the kids had enjoyed approximately 347 episodes of the show. I’m not sure Will or Luke ever blinked. Sometimes you just don’t want to miss anything!
Oberfell is a picturesque town of about 1800 people in a few streets of tidy houses between the Mosel river and a steep hillside. We are in wine country and the vines are everywhere. We wander down by the river and find a restaurant. Vines encircle the sign and patio and they can barely hold the clusters of grapes. The hillside is steep enough that you are working to run up to the top of town from the river.
[villages along the Mosel]
[river right down the hill]
[cafe courtyard and church in town]
[backyard view up the slope, looking at Horst & Andrea’s place]
We walk down the street in the morning to get bread and rolls at the town baker.
The baker lady sees Camille and Ana with me, and though she has no English, she manages to get across something like “choco-bröt ist gut fur kinder.” She takes two tiny rolls studded with chocolate chips out of her display case and the girls erupt in huge smiles. “Danke!” they say simultaneously. The baker and I laugh uncontrollably at the happy sight.
[soon, everybody wanted to go the baker’s in the morning]
The valley walls are narrow and steep enough that the sun doesn’t reach into our windows until 10 in the morning. In the evening at about 1600, the air begins to cool significantly and we reach for light jackets.
We are so fortunate to stay in this fantastic Ferienhaus Mosella. Germany is very precise with the names of lodging so you can tell a lot by what they call the place. A Ferienhaus is a holiday home. And we are treated to the privilege of hanging out with the wonderful Horst & Andrea. They greet us with a delicious bottle of local white wine and sweets for the children. We talk about kids and school and jobs and travels and wine. Homeschooling is absolutely novel to them as we’ve heard from other Germans. No wonder, it’s illegal here. To them, we must be the craziest loons this side of the Pecos. Wait till they see my ‘Merica pants.
We ask if there was WWII fighting in the area of this serene, little town on the river. Horst’s father was only 16 in 1945 and was about to have to serve in the WWII German army. The war ended before he was required to join up. HIs father saw American artillery setting up on the valley top across the river. One artillery shell fell short of its target and fell into the valley just next to the town but did not hit any houses. The town behind Oberfell had SS troops in it and the townsfolk figured the American artillery had them in their sights.
I run one morning and end up in the highest street of the small town. Stomping downhill I come by the church’s graveyard and notice a name I recognize on the stone. Sure enough, Horst’s family members are buried right there just stone’s throw from our place.
The route is part of a pilgrim’s route in Germany that people still travel. Many pass through Oberfell for this route alone.
A bell chimes over and over. When we look out the window, we see the bell is attached to a truck. The truck sells eggs and inches down the town streets advertising its wares.
Our kids were not so sure about playing with non-English speakers when we first arrived in August. But now we can see they are up for the challenge and head over to play with the two small girls in our shared backyard. One girl is 10 and the other seven and soon everyone is up in a tree. Their son, 12, is on their back patio and before long Luke and Will are inside their house playing Minecraft with him.
The first day the kids are all a bit shy around each other. They can demonstrate they can each count from 1 to 12 in the others’ language. By the second day, Camille is using more and more German words and though it’s not pretty they are all getting their point across. The boys have fewer words they need to get out. Seems like men, and little men, are like that worldwide. I can see the girls in the backyard talking, smiling at each other, and playing together. They do not speak the same language, so as a man, this is beyond me as they are somehow having full-on conversations.
Their girls have guinea pigs named “Punnt” and the other “Knupf”. There are rabbits named Flicker and Sabrina. The girls had pets so the big brother also wanted a pet. His parents got him two mice. They are females—named Uncle Henry and Ferdinand. The German name for guinea pigs is “Meer schwein”, or ocean pigs.
[Ana with Victoria in green and their friend Sarah]
One day, as soon as they are home from school the 7 year old runs over, holds out one of the little animals to our girls and says, “gihn-ee pig?” A wonderful way to invite someone to play!
One afternoon the girls run over with their girls for the pizzeria/gelateria to get ice cream overlooking the river. Here’s just a quick shot I got of the shop’s deck the next day with the water in the background.
The local villages hold an annual competition for village of the future. Oberfell has won this year’s competition and Horst invites us to the town’s get-together since the winning village has to host the ceremony. The town’s mayor had been instrumental in getting a home built for older folks. Several of the burgermeisters (mayors) mill about, all dressed up and shaking hands before the town’s orchestra strikes up. Next, we are treated to a dance by the town’s 9-11 year old girls, including Horst & Andrea’s daughter, Charlotte. Both songs are from the movie Grease! Go greased lightning!
We are all sad to see the cute girls leave the stage and the speeches begin from behind the podium. They give an exhaustive rundown of each village and a few stats about each one. The towns are broken down by size. It is a lot of German and I start to space out. But it is clear, that they take this competition quite seriously. Our kids are about the only children in the audience and they are hanging in there but we’ve all had enough so we beat a hasty retreat back to our cozy house.
We decide to tour a local castle renowned for its interior—Burg Eltz. You park the car and walk 45 minutes on a path through a pine forest.
A Dutch couple is walking out and stops to ask if we are Americans (probably pretty easy to tell since the kids are running and playing). Once we confirm we are, he asks how so many Americans know about this place. Hilarious and I wasn’t sure myself. I’d read about it as one the world’s famous castles.
The medieval castle is located between Koblenz and Trier in Germany and is still owned by a branch of the same family that lived here in the 12th century. The family still has flowers put out for visitors.
You round a corner and suddenly the castle is right in front of you rising from a rocky outcropping in a horseshoe of the river Eltz, a tributary of the Mosel river. It’s a magical sight. A basin lies around the castle within a wooded valley and provides the fortress with a commanding view. The castle was also placed here for commercial reasons as the confluence of the Rhine and Mosel rivers formed an important trade route. Castles could be used to protect trade routes and as a base to collect taxes from merchants.
Burg Eltz was designed more for looks than for strategic defense. It’s a grand home, instead of a medieval fortress, and provides a glimpse of the life of German nobility from centuries past. The first foundations of the Burg were put down in 1157. To share the costs, three family branches of the Eltz family collaborated to build three separate structures within the Burg Eltz. The three sides of the clan—‘The House of the Golden Lion,’ ‘The House of the Silver Lion,’ and ‘The House of the Buffalo Horns.’
[Burg Eltz later in the year]
You just don’t see a lot of crests based on squirrels, rabbits, ducks , beavers or guinea pigs, do you? Go Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers!
In 1815, the House of the Golden Lion had outlived one clan and had the resources to buy out the other. So, the castle’s current owner in chief lives in a nearby town and has a normal day job.
The castle has survived centuries of history with little military action or damage. The castle was besieged by the archbishop of Luxembourg in the 1300s over a dispute within the Holy Roman Empire. A siege tower was erected outside of Burg Eltz and bombarded it with heavy stone balls. He severed all the supply lines to the castle, forcing the knights to concede.
Skillful diplomacy brought about the castle’s survival during the Thirty Years’ War of the 1600s when the French destroyed most of the Rhine castles. During the early 19th century, a relative of the family was well connected to the Napoleon’s French army. As Napoleon took possession of the German countryside he had many of the castles destroyed. This family member convinced Napoleon’s staff to let Burg Eltz survive.
[fantastic dragon gargoyle on the drainspout]
Unfortunately, no pictures allowed inside, but I did scrounge up a few from online.
[window seats all throughout the house since much of the castle would have been dark]
The boys are mesmerized by the weapons and armor when we first enter the armory from the central courtyard. Hanging on the wall, you can spot medieval weapons from even the Turks. The Knights Hall depicts panel paintings with scenes from the Old Testament. The Knights Hall is still adorned with the Eltz family coat of arms.
Over 80 rooms, 40 fireplaces and 20 toilets were constructed over 400 years in eight different towers.
The master bed is on a raised platform and shrouded with a heavy curtain. You climbed a few steps to get up into bed. This design kept you closer to the heat near the ceiling and away from the cold floor.
The three families lived in separate wings of the castle and would meet in a large “conference room” to iron out common problems—kind of like condo organizations today. A carved jester and a rose adorn the table in the large room. In those days, jesters could say anything to the king—“fool’s freedom”— reminding them they were free to discuss anything. The “rose of silence” meant that nothing could leave the room. Better than Vegas.
A chapel is built into a bedroom but no one is allowed to live above a chapel because that would be living above God. So the chapel had to built out into a “bay window” architecturally so that God was mainly above the chapel ceiling.
The treasure chamber below displays an extensive collection of treasures collected by the Eltz family for nearly 900 years.
[the family also has a statue commemorating the brave St John of Nepomuk who was thrown off the Charles Bridge in Prague for keeping his oath of confession]
[Here’s a suit of armor worn by a member of the family when he was knighted. Notice how much smaller they were back then, and the suit is even on about a three-inch platform. Glad the picture cut off that I’m on my tippy toes…]
Golden drinking vessels, anyone? And yes, those really are cups shaped like boats.
The boys loved seeing these—a gun and an axe! It’s a boys dream. I kept a close eye on those little people to make sure no one tried to play with these.
Back in Oberfell, nothing wrong with a little German bakery choco-brotchen every now and then!
“Greater love has no one than this; to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” —John 15:13
I never thought I’d get to see an actual American military cemetery in Europe. Picture the opening scene of the movie Saving Private Ryan with the older man in the military cemetery before the headstones.
There is power here beyond words. The force of love and sacrifice.
Sturdy gates, decorated with laurel wreaths for valor and topped by golden eagles greet the visitor. This is undeniably a place of honor and clearly revered by its nation. Before you even get into the cemetery, you see the proud American flag atop a tall flagpole overseeing its venerated graves.
A tour bus and its driver wait in the parking lot with “Beyond Band Of Brothers” written on its side.
Upon entering, we find a small group of WWII veterans and spouses exiting the cemetery. This place is still visited—and loved—by those who fought for that good cause.
A chapel reaches towards the sky bearing the seal of the US and the inscription “1941-1945 In Proud Remembrance of the Achievements of her sons and in humble tribute to their sacrifices this memorial has been erected by the United States of America.” Inside, there is a tall, stained-glass window of the armies whose dead are held here. High above your head, a circular mosaic of angels paying homage to a dove and standing on the words “In proud and grateful memory of those men of the armed services of the United States of America who in this region and in the skies above it endured all and gave all that justice among nations might prevail and that mankind might enjoy freedom and inherit peace”. We try to leave some semblance of respect in the guestbook.
An enormous stone plaque spells out D-Day and its aftermath in Europe in both English and French. Another takes up the story of Germany’s last-gasp Battle of the Bulge beginning in December 1944.
We poke into the visitor’s center and meet the Luxembourgese man at the desk. Once he sees we are interested, he is quick to go the extra mile to explain the cemetery’s background. We talk quietly as the other half of the visitor’s center holds a small meeting chaired by the two American overseers of the cemetery.
US armed forces began burying soldiers here in December 1944 as the fighting still raged around them. The Germans shelled the construction of the cemetery until Patton told his troops to return eight artillery shells for every one the Germans sent the cemetery’s way. The shelling stopped. The dead primarily came from the fighting from this area during the bloody Battle of the Bulge. We are not far from Bastogne and Brig Gen McAuliffe’s—and his surrounded division in that battle— famous response of “Nuts” to the German request for the Yanks to surrender. The men were buried in bags and whatever was available as there were no caskets. We did not have the ability back then to quickly return remains to the States. Thousands were buried here, quickly.
The visitor center man shows us a book of pictures. The fresh mounds of earth rise before wooden crosses in December 1944. Another shows a shot of 1948 when the cemetery was transferred over to the stewardship of the American Battlefield Monument Commission. Every person was exhumed. Any family that wanted their loved one returned was obliged. They don’t know exactly how many were originally buried here but about sixty percent returned to their families in the States. Those left were reburied in sturdy, five-hundred-pound metal caskets. A picture shows them being reburied with either a pastor or a rabbi speaking over them. A crane lowered 5,076 back into the ground. Concrete beams were buried beneath the grass in concentric circles to bear the weight of the heavy headstones. Another picture shows a wreath laid by Winston Churchill on the grave of Patton.
We learn later that Lisa’s grandmother’s cousin is one of those who was sent back home.
Twenty-two sets of brothers lie here side-by-side. In just this one cemetery. A female nurse rests in peace here.
Two Medal of Honor winners rest here. Luke recounts one of the synopses to me. His name is Sgt Day G. Turner and his Medal of Honor citation is below.
“He commanded a 9-man squad with the mission of holding a critical flank position. When overwhelming numbers of the enemy attacked under cover of withering artillery, mortar, and rocket fire, he withdrew his squad into a nearby house, determined to defend it to the last man. The enemy attacked again and again and were repulsed with heavy losses. Supported by direct tank fire, they finally gained entrance, but the intrepid sergeant refused to surrender although 5 of his men were wounded and 1 was killed. He boldly flung a can of flaming oil at the first wave of attackers, dispersing them, and fought doggedly from room to room, closing with the enemy in fierce hand-to-hand encounters. He hurled hand grenade for hand grenade, bayoneted two fanatical Germans who rushed a doorway he was defending and fought on with the enemy’s weapons when his own ammunition was expended. The savage fight raged for four hours, and finally, when only three men of the defending squad were left unwounded, the enemy surrendered. Twenty-five prisoners were taken, eleven enemy dead and a great number of wounded were counted. Sgt. Turner’s valiant stand will live on as a constant inspiration to his comrades. His heroic, inspiring leadership, his determination and courageous devotion to duty exemplify the highest tradition of the military service.”
At least six members of Easy Company—of “Band of Brothers” fame—are here.
Are we teaching our generations about the bravery of these mighty men and women who stood up against tyranny?
The dead were buried as they came in. Entire cemetery sections list days of death as January-February 1945. The first tombstone Lisa reads lists the date of death as the date of birth of her mother, January 23, 1945. Her mother’s father stationed in the Pacific on the day she was born.
In all, 25 American military cemeteries reside in Europe with over 100,000 buried. Worldwide, we have over 200,000 Americans interred overseas after giving the last full measure of devotion. The American Battlefield Monuments Commission administer the cemeteries. The departed come from both World Wars and the Mexican-American War,
The cemetery is not far from the highway and down a side road. But it is quiet here. It is not warm, but somehow it is inviting. I notice a small group of similarly-dressed men carrying implements among the marble headstones. Upon closer inspection, we see the green uniforms of groundskeepers. They are tending to the grass. Later, we smell fertilizer. The same group of men, or possibly another, seem to continually buzz the roads in the five-acre cemetery with maintenance equipment. They drive around and I wonder if they are concerned about disturbing those who come to pay their respects, as if we might be visiting our grandfather. They are respectful but seem accustomed to this environment, as if they have seen this scene everyday. They have an oversized golf cart-type vehicle that holds lawn equipment, barricades and at least four men.
We wander down the concrete paths laid out around the dignified marble headstones. 5,076 heroes lie here. Over one hundred Stars of David mark the Jewish soldiers. Small stones have been left on many of the Jewish headstones, as a part of their tradition. We read that stones were originally left on Jewish graves to hold down notes and prayers left for lost ones. The notes would wither or blow away—leaving the stones. Over time, the stones became symbolic and a way of remembering their departed. We lean in over the grass, to strain to get a little closer to the names on the headstones. Flowers lean up against some of the graves. Christian crosses and Jewish Stars of David stand side by side. The headstones are of equal height and color.
I suddenly want to be closer to the headstones, and to take our family there. It seems too aloof to stand on the perimeter road, at a distance. We step onto the cushion of that soft, green grass. It is dewy or recently watered. We are closer to them now. Every state looks to be represented. We stumble across even Alaska, Hawaii, Idaho, Montana. We can read so many more names now. There are Army Air Corps men and many, many Infantry. A sea of headstones state the rank of private, some are TEC 4 or TEC 5, far fewer officers. We find a few TSGTs, a LT COL, a BRIG GEN, several LTs.
We stand before several known only to God.
We climb the gently-sloping hill of green dotted with white back towards the two, tall flagpoles. One grave lies between the flagpoles seemingly surveying his troops.
Concrete squares have been thoughtfully set in the grass to hold those who’ve stood before the grave of General Patton. He’d asked his wife to bury him with his solders and she chose this cemetery. He was killed in a senseless traffic accident with a US Army truck in December 1945.
A tour group and their French-speaking guide enter the monument and stand before the giant plaque maps. A group of German military men in uniform stroll beneath the eagle gates and stop to read the informational display sign on their way into the cemetery.
As we leave, the maintenance men carry on in their work. They don’t say anything to us but seem to be constantly moving. The grass is everywhere green and stands tall and trimmed to a consistent height. The headstones are white and in perfectly ordered concentric rings. I don’t see any of the green marks from grass cuttings so often thrown onto fence posts and street signs from string trimmers. The men have shown care. The flowers are in wonderful bloom. The colors of the grass, the flowers, the small fountains and the trees against the blue and cloudy sky look like the bold colors on an artist’s palette. The edges here are defined, they stand out from one another, they do not blur. All is clean, all is neat.
As we walk out to our car, Camille tells us how it makes her proud to see how our country remembers our soldiers.
It is overwhelming to see the respect lovingly meted out for our American war dead. These men, and one woman, are gone from the face of the earth, but not forgotten. Thank God our Nation still holds them close. War is terrible, we wish that none would seek glory in it. MacArthur said that it is the soldier above all others who prays for peace. I wonder, now, if it is the parents of the soldiers who pray even more.
After seeing Auschwitz, what can we say about these courageous men that stood up and gave all for others? How many families’ generations are shadows because of this terrible war? There must be enduring honor for those who fought the good fight. Great names are carved into the marble stones before us. They are giants upon the earth and it is humbling to think of their legacy in standing before the face of evil.
Back in 1944, the Allies also began to bury the German war dead in this region. The Americans and Germans who fought each other in the Battle of the Bulge are buried just 1.5 kilometers apart. I must give the benefit of the doubt here and I am no military historian. The Germans must have been retreating and unable to take care of their own. The Allies buried the Germans in groups of four. They must have noted their identities in some way. The Allies buried just over 5,500 Germans at the time. Years later, a German agency recovered about another 6,000 soldiers buried at over 150 sites in the area. Many of these men were buried in a mass grave at the back of the cemetery.
A high, dark stone wall marks the entrance of the German military cemetery. A narrow entryway focuses your attention onto the cemetery as you walk through the wall. We enter the unmanned Visitor Center office. A poster explains the German War Graves Foundation administers this site. I may have accidentally grabbed the English guestbook—we mainly see names from the USA and England—but we sign what we find. Since my German is non-existent, I am sure I am missing a lot.
An imposing stone cross towers over the rows of stones. A flagpole stands to one side of the cross. The flag must belong to the German War Graves Foundation. Heavy, grey headstones hold two names on one side and two on the other. There are many listed only as “Deutsch Soldat.” There are no Jewish star headstones. Though we saw a few cars in the parking lot, we seem to be the only ones here. The stones list birth and death dates. We find many in their late thirties and forties and many at just eighteen or seventeen years old. At such a late date in the war, the Germans were having to recruit deeper into their society. The elevated mass grave, behind the stone cross, has hundreds of names engraved into metal plaques. Beside the names of the deceased, there are very few clues this is a German cemetery. We wonder aloud if the Germans are not allowed to fly their flag here or have chosen to do so out of sensitivity to others. The German nation was devastated by WWII so it is unlikely their society had discretionary funds available for cemeteries after the war. There seems to be much here that we don’t understand and it is difficult to draw any conclusions.
It makes you wonder if any of these assembled Americans or Germans knew what was being done to the Jews at the camps.
For those who sacrificed so much for others, did they know what example they were setting for us in looking beyond ourselves? I am inspired by our family’s heroes when I think of the words of Proverbs.
“A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.” —Proverbs 22:1
Spangdahlem Air Base has the typical, wonderful American air base facilities—a base exchange (mini-mall), huge gym, outdoor recreation for renting equipment, tennis courts, child development centers, neighborhoods, you name it. It’s a town in and of itself. Of course, for the pilot, it’s all about the beautiful iron on the flight line and the 10,000 foot runway.
I even drive by and see many young families out on a Saturday morning at a car trunk sale in the bowling alley. People are out in their sweatpants with the kids early on a Saturday morning.
The morale and welfare folks have a family fitness challenge event underway and other people are all over the football field and soccer fields doing various athletic competitions.
The kids have been telling us, “You’ve got to see the Lego movie.” One night, we find a place to rent the movie, and it’s the kids’ first movie in a while. “Everything is awesome” rings through our apartment.
It’s also great to be able to spend our stowaway US dollars. We end our search for tennis balls and pick up a few so we can play a little tennis on the base courts.
Our family gets the chance to attend the small base chapel on a Sunday morning with a handful of other families. The pastor, Sean, is a real encouragement and describes his son who his now at West Point. It turns out we have mutual friends. Several of my friends have ben stationed here and we loved seeing where they lived, even though they had moved on.
Spangdahlem is a Cold War base built in the early 1950s. The US military has closed most of its European bases and its more difficult than a few decades ago to get an overseas assignment.
It is still amazing to find this slice of Americana smack dab in southern Germany. The opportunity to travel and even live overseas must be one of the unique advantages to military service.
[washer, and a dryer!]
[ah, good ol’ directions in English]
I can’t help but drive by the flight line. No surprise, I find I miss the flying and the camaraderie of military life. Twenty-one years somehow flew by! Lisa tells me she misses the on-base neighborhood we enjoyed in New Jersey. I know we will find a community soon to put roots down into and that thought brings us both joy.
We hardly leave the base at all. It is comfortable here, but we remind ourselves we are not on this investment of family time for comfort.
I am glad we have not planned many days here on base! Time to get back out to the adventure.
Trier is likely the oldest city in Germany and was founded in or before 16 BC. But there is a plaque on one of the medieval buildings in the main square that pays homage to the founding myth of the city’s Assyrian birth. In Latin, the message says, “Thirteen hundred years before Rome, Trier stood / may it stand on and enjoy eternal peace, amen.” Not far from this plaque, is a market cross that has stood here for over a thousand years.
Trier was a residence of the Western Roman Emperor, after the Roman empire was “split” into two halves for administrative efficiency. I write that like I know it, but I learned about such a split from Lisa and the kids as they did the history portion of their Classical Conversations curriculum last year! In the 4th century AD, Trier was one of the five largest cities in the known world with a population of about 80,000.
The Porta Nigra gate is the best preserved Roman city gate north of the Alps.
This city gate was built between 186 and 200 AD. It was part of a system of four gates controlling commerce and providing security to the city. On the city side of the gate, the remnants of Roman columns have been left. This colonnade would have stretched about 100 meters and had a “crowning cornice and parapet” to cover this Roman street approaching the gate. You can even glimpse parts of the old Roman road to the next city climbing into the surrounding hillside.
The gate is enormous and it’s not difficult to imagine the imposing impression this would have made on a visitor coming upon this vestige of Roman engineering and strength. There was a gigantic iron portcullis that could be dropped as well as open archways to launch attacks from.
We’ve come across many Roman ruins that are torn apart by locals repurposing the building materials for other structures—like their own homes. By the early Middle Ages (sometime around the 5th to 6th centuries) the gates were no longer in use for their designed purpose. The Porta Nigra had some of its iron works removed and the damage is still visible. The gate was built without mortar, utilizing iron spegs to keep the sandstone blocks together. But the Porta Nigra likely survived because a Greek hermit chose one wing of the gate as his hermitage. The monk’s name was Simeon and he took up residence in 1028. He lived here for seven years before passing away and becoming beatified. To honor him, a monastery was built right next to the Porta Nigra and the gate itself was converted into a church.
About 1802, Napoleon ordered the monastery, the church dissolved and the gate returned to its Roman-era appearance. What we see today, dates back to the end of this ‘renovation’ in the early 1800s.
[I find a State of Oregon flag hanging up on a side street and have to get a picture with it. Camille is looking suitable impressed. ]
Those Romans lived in style, there were three separate Roman baths here. They intended to make this the largest network of Roman baths anywhere in the world. The huge project was never finished, and when Constantine pulled out of Trier in 316 AD the Romans left behind over a mile of unfinished bath tunnels.
The Roman amphitheater is built into the city wall. The hillsides around the amphitheater would have been lined with stone seats but all the stones were hauled off through the centuries. They still put on gladiator exhibitions here. Which almost requires me to include the classic line from the movie Airplane—“Do you like movies about gladiators?”
The amphitheater would have seated 20,000 spectators when it was built the 2d century. There are ground-level rooms where the gladiators prepared for battle.
We crack up reading about the “vomitorium.” The vomitorium is a passageway built under or behind a tier of seats to allow crowds to exit rapidly after a performance. The Latin word vomitorium derive from a verb meaning to “spew forth.” The kids love learning about something gross sounding but it’s also amazing to see how we still design many stadiums and theaters in this fashion.
Beneath the amphitheater “floor” there is an underground cellar where animals, feed and props were stored. The Romans had trapdoors and false floors so that things could pop up from below. They would stage mock naval battles. Particularly impressive, we see the deep circular shafts that are now full of water below the floor. Each one had a large counterweight in it. When they needed to quickly raise a large or tall artifice they’d drop the counterweight down the well shaft. Amazing. The Romans would keep prisoners sentenced to death alongside exotic wild animals like African lions or Asian tigers. A moveable platform would bring them up to the amphitheater for the showdown.
We run by the oldest cathedral in Germany as we are out of time. I love to see the old churches and castles but we are certainly learning that too many and you just burn out the small people. Better to just see a few things at a time. They are doing so well on this big trip.
We find a great playground near the back of the palace of Trier and the kids are off to the races. Young mothers sit near us with their strollers and try to keep on a sharp eye on their own little wigglers.
Trier sightseeing time is over and we pile into the welcome car seats to drive to the picturesque Mosel river valley. We’ve booked a place in a small town called Oberfell.
We pull up to Horst and Andrea’s house to get the key and they walk us down the house which is right behind their place. She opens the door and asks, “where are the kids?”
We bring them to the door and the family is so friendly. They have kids the same ages as ours but our kids are still a bit hesitant to try and bridge that language barrier.
The whole family walks us down to the house that used to be his parents’ place. Horst & Andrea have left out for us a bottle of Mosel wine, sweets for the kids and even candy on each bed. We are in a tiny German town on the river with our car parked on a very quiet street. Good thing we left Spangdahlem!
[the view out our front window]
We will miss Jolana & Jan but it is on to the next part of our adventure. We do the familiar bag loading calculus, let the kids get their nests built and settle in a for a journey back west. We’ll practice our German via the coffee break German podcasts. It feels good to be headed back to a language we’ve practiced a tiny bit. Czech has been interesting, Polish a challenge and Hungarian is nothing like the language of its bordering countries. Of course, that doesn’t really matter to us because we don’t know those bordering Slav languages anyway!
Every time I load up we clean everything out of the car again. The cupholders and under the seats are treasure troves of legos, plastic animals and remnants of snacks that we keep trying not to eat in the car. I bet that all sounds a bit familiar.
The drive will take all day so we plan a stop about halfway at a small, walled town—Rothenburg ob der Tauber. The name means something like “red fortress on the Tauber river”. It will be about 3.5 hours there and another 3.5 after.
[one of the entrances into the walled city–people actually drive right through here and under the arch]
Through these travels, we are consistently reminded of the pervasive power of stories to capture the imagination. A few places we’ve visited are known because stories were told about them through the ages. People are encouraged to visit Auschwitz and places like it so that the story of what happened there will live on. Stories and myths are celebrated and passed along to satiate an appetite that must be hard-wired into us. Of course, Jesus taught so many of his principles in parables. Many of the buildings, churches and museum relics we’ve seen have certain elements that attract attention because of the story that’s involved. For instance, we all know of Loch Ness and we all know why it is the most famous loch in Scotland. Over 600 lochs reside in Scotland but I wonder how many others we could name. The ancient sword in Vienna’s museum has more value because it may be associated with Charlemagne. That same museum boasted a unicorn horn (read “narwhal’s tusk”).
For the same reason, wherever we go, people explain what part of their village or their special interest is in a movie or a book. Our own guidebooks expose us to the fame of many of a place. The Harry Potter books and films are a link for our kids to many different places.
As I check a few Rothenburg facts online to explain what it was like there, I stumble across—sure enough—the town was used in a “Harry Potter Deathly Hallows” film and was the fairytale village seen in the movie “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang”. The brief Harry Potter scene of Gellert stealing the wand of Gregorovitch takes place in Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
We spy a plaque at an ice cream place bearing a Rick Steves endorsement on our way into the town square. He possesses a rare ability to communicate the nuances of traveling tips and specifically encapsulates European history into bitesize chunks for an American audience. We frequently find his guidebooks in our hands and see them in others at many sights. His success has even changed the experience of certain, smaller sites somewhat akin to a huge mutual fund finding it difficult to invest in a small company without changing the whole picture. Another shop has his picture displayed on the door showing he’s been in the store.
Rothenburg ob der Tauber is a top German tourist board site, an UNESCO world heritage site and also a stop on the Romantic Road, Germany’s north-south scenic route in the southern part of the country. Promotion-minded tour agencies devised the 350-kilometer stretch in the 1950s. Brown signs bearing the “Romantische Straße” (often in Japanese too) mark sites such as Neuschwanstein, Wurzburg, Nördlingen and Rothenburg ob der Tauber.
The original Käthe Wohlfahrt Christmas store displays its festive wares right down the cobbled street from the Old Town square. There are more ornaments than you can shake a stick at. No pictures allowed in most of the store. A ten foot tall wooden Christmas pyramid carousel spins with motor power rather than candles. There’s a Christmas museum too with fully decorated Christmas trees. With the kids trying not to combust from all the Christmas energy in the place you keep looking over your shoulder worried that some hidden Elf security force isn’t about to storm out and stop everyone from touching the nutcrackers.
The Marktplatz—Market square—clock puts on an hourly show much like Prague’s Astronomical clock. But this one is far simpler—two windows open revealing two men drinking from tankards. They both drink till one falls over—the loser.
From the town’s tourism website, “Every hour on the hour between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. the clockwork figures on the clock above the Ratstrinkstube entertain the public with the key scene from the legend of the Master Draught. According to the story, former Mayor Nusch saved the town from destruction at the hands of the troops of Imperial General Tilly by winning a wager by drinking 3 1/4 liters of Franconian wine in October 1631. What is known for certain is that the women of Rothenburg and their children assembled in the Market Square to beg Tilly to spare the town.”
This threatened destruction of the town took place during the Thirty Years’ War as the villagers stayed the hand of the Catholic Tilly from burning the village. To commemorate the event, people flock to the annual Meistertrunk festival.
Another great Rothenburg story is that the Americans bombed it in WWII but senior leadership advised army commanders on the ground not to use artillery against this culturally important city if at all possible. A contingent of US troops marched in under the white flag to present terms to the Germans for their surrender. The Americans announced that if they did not return to their lines in three hours that US artillery would begin to demolish the city. The Germans deliberated and surrendered despite Hitler’s orders that no unit should surrender no matter what.
This is the place to see a wealth of buildings from the middle ages. We can’t stay for the night watchman’s tour but wish we could. We are traveling this much and still can’t see it all. Better to pick and choose your focus, just like so much of life!
But we can do one of the things we do best—run all over the place and enjoy the atmosphere.
So we set out on exploring the wall that encircles the tiny town.
The kids run ahead, then run back to us to show us some tucked-away corner. We run up and down stairs and into dead-ends on the wall and have to backtrack to find the part that continues on. It is all just plain fun.
The kids, especially the boys, frequently have to pause to take some shots between turrets and arrow slits to defend the city.
We climb medieval towers via sloping stairs and stoop beneath wooden beams to run along the walls. The boys are still discussing which of their sisters was hit by incoming artillery and why. There are plaques everywhere celebrating the people and groups who donated to rebuild the walls (after WWII or just general repair). The townsfolk are friendly and they know a thing or two about tourists.
The on the road planning is nonstop, obviously, for next lodging places and attractions to see. We’ve got a few days before we can check into the small town in the Moselle valley that we’ve found. Nuremberg was primarily booked up but we were able to get a few days at the affordable base TLF at Spangdahlem. “TLF” is a great military acronym for “temporary living facility.”
It’s a challenge to get a reservation at a base because the “standby” traveler is understandably not their priority. They must keep rooms open and allow room for official business travelers and families moving in or out until relatively late in the game. We rightly get the leftover rooms, so you don’t know until just a few days prior.
We drive by signs for Kaiserslautern and its Ramstein Air Base where we started our European portion of the adventure about six weeks prior. Finally arriving through the darkness after a hideous traffic jam, we drive up to a brightly lit gate bearing the name of Spangdahlem Air Base. The American flag is prominently displayed here. After our last three years living on base for the first time—at Joint Base McGuire-Dix-Lakehurst in New Jersey—it feels like driving up to your own neighborhood. The American guard even speaks American! And he gives clear directions to the lodging office on base. Can’t hardly wait to go to the BX!
The room is great—strong wifi, two bathrooms, beds for everyone and English directions on the washing machine—and even cheap.
Thank you so much for your thoughts and prayers! We received news that my lab results are all within the normal range. It had been three months since my last check. Thank you God! We are so grateful. Without realizing that it was really there, I’ll admit to feeling like a boulder has been lifted from my shoulders. Thank you again for reading and joining us on this adventure.
One day, we walk along the heights overlooking the Vltava river enjoying the sun glinting off the water, the boats and the bridges.
Hurrying down and across the river to find a place with Czech food, we take in the sights quickly on our way to dinner and a symphony concert we’ve booked in this famed capital of music. The restaurant celebrates the nostalgia for Soviet days with the sparse decorations of a train depot restaurant and the fact that its staff are advised to act professional, but gruff, in their service. It is recommended in the guidebook and represents a rare sit-down dinner for our clan as we are certainly watching the budget for such a long trip!
The restaurant is huge, but every table looks booked for a party of six. A few “reserved” signs mark off the handful of empty tables. One waitress encourages us to move along but another learns that we are only in for a quick meal and plan to be long gone by the time the table is reserved. They finally award us a table and we order quickly. Our food takes a while to come despite the efforts of the wait staff but we decide it is too late to cancel our order and run for the concert. The trout and brussel sprout soup are simply fantastic. The Czech beer fits beautifully with the meal. We eat as fast as we can and run for the seats we’ve booked at the back of the concert hall for Mahler’s Second Symphony.
We are about 7-8 minutes late to the concert hall. Uh-oh. No significant problem, we hope.
I’d seen the website had mentioned there would be no break in the performance. And, as you’ve likely guessed, the hall staff refuse to let us enter late as we would disrupt the performance. We’d thought we’d have a chance as our seats are on the end of the very last row. Ouch, my bad. (we’d booked them there in case the kids had decided they’d had enough and we had to depart early).
We are directed upstairs to a stand-up balcony. A few unfortunate incidents occur including me spending an inordinate amount of time trying to speak with a manager since the website did not mention that latecomers would not be seated.
Lisa’s view–Lisa admits to anger as she tried to process the balcony, not understanding we would never be seated. One child was entranced by the music. One huffed and puffed at standing at the late hour of 19:30 and reclined in the corner on a rustling jacket. Another child had many whispered questions. A fourth had to go to the bathroom. How does that work? Will they let us back in the balcony? Brent was still talking with the manager. (Would they even let Brent in? He’s been gone awhile, are they keeping him out?) We couldn’t all five go to the bathroom, that would be disruptive. A child couldn’t go by themselves when they don’t speak Czech, and people had not been overly friendly here.
The kids are quiet by kid standards but not to the standards of the tense music lover standing next to our family. He complains about our noise several times. We struggle to reconcile the thought of this scheduled musical inspiration that we’d planned for a few weeks prior and the reality of our family now passing our weight from foot to foot. Lisa sits, listens, and prays Romans 8:28 that “for those who love God all things work together for good for those who are called according to his purpose” but she’s not “feeling it.”
Then the doors are opened behind us into “our” balcony and stands are brought in with musicians. Several members of the orchestra will be playing trumpet and french horn within arm’s reach. Their play is responsive with the orchestra and choir on the stage. The experience, volume and proximity to the live music is far better than what we’d have had in our seats downstairs. Not to mention our proximity to the ceiling gave us an upfront view of the ceiling artwork and sculpture. The conclusion was beauty deep enough for tears. Even the uptight neighbor relaxed.
Upon reflection later that night, the experience exemplifies the travel analogy to Lisa and I. I had messed up by bringing our family later to the performance than we’d planned. We wrestled with our own disappointment at not meeting the expectations we’d set up for the performance. But then once we embrace the new, we meet with a better experience than we’d hoped.
What an analogy too for the Christian life and the expectations we wrestle with when life’s curveballs come our way. Travel is a condensed way of living that is teaching us much. No one knows when an illness may strike or a loved one may face a real challenge yet I know I am often so tempted to be caught up in the frustrations of the moment and to surrender my joy without a fight. Apparently, I need to be taught the same lessons again and again. The human condition, I suppose. Thank God, His unmerited grace leads us back to the path of joy.
To their credit, the manager advised that the “latecomers would not be seated” blurb was written only in Czech but the next day he offers us discounted seats to another performance. We have other plans but sure appreciate his efforts.
Castle Hill stands high and proud over Prague and the walk up to its vistas is a good climb. Prague Castle is the largest ancient castle in the world. The “Hill” holds the official residence of the Czech president, romanesque St George’s basilica, a courtyard and the gothic St Vitus cathedral.
[Castle Hill dominating the Prague skyline]
[on Castle Hill]
We duck into the St Vitus cathedral to glimpse the stained glass window done by Alfons Mucha. St Vitus was under construction for over six centuries.
It’s hard to resist a picture with the castle guards. Meanwhile, a lone man is waving a sign and protesting a government policy of some type. Unfortunately, no one pays him much mind and I wonder if everyone outside the castle is from somewhere else.
[Will and his stone crown]
[L is for Luke!]
A podcast we’d enjoyed explained an American family’s connection to Czech properties. The Lobkowicz family is a Czech royal family and owned many castles before all was seized by the Communists. The family lived in the Boston area and one of the sons went to Harvard. After the Wall came down, it was all returned to the family in 1990. Their wealth includes original manuscripts from Beethoven and Mozart but the family could not afford the taxes and upkeep on all their castles and properties. One of the family palaces is here on Castle Hill. The son moved back to Prague after the fall of the Communist government to receive, restore and display the family’s ancestral holdings. Nice work if you can get it!
The peerless Charles Bridge awes with its thirty statues and its crowds. It was the only bridge across the river for centuries. The first stone was laid in 1357 by the Holy Roman Emperor who was into numerology. Czech legend declares he laid it at 5:31 AM on 9 July so that the beginning of the bridge would be 1357 9, 7 5:31. This mathematical bridge was thought to provide strength to the bridge. The Charles bridge was the only means of crossing the river until 1841. We cross it with the sun low in the sky illuminating the caricature artists’ canvases as they call out for tourists to have their likenesses painted. This is the bridge where St John of Nepomuk was thrown to his death from a bridge parapet in 1393. Supposedly, St John had taken the confession of the queen and would not violate the seal of confession despite the interrogations of her husband, King Wenceslas. The king then had him killed. We have seen this saint’s courage celebrated in statues and reliefs in Vienna and in Germany. The statue of St John and his fate has turned bright bronze from the many hands rubbing his commemoration to pay him homage. We join in.
And the one with the cute dog on it for the peeps.
[great internet image showing the upstream ice guards]
[at the train ticket machine for the subway]
One night back in our suburb of Tursko we are invite up to Jan & Jolana’s upstairs for a beer. Jan’s college-bound daughter and her friend also sit at the table while Jolana stays on her feet hosting. We walk into a table loaded with meats, cheeses, and pickles amongst other appetizers. Jan has a guitar and we interrupt the Czech songs.
Lisa keeps slowly finishing her glass and is surprised when Jolana keeps refilling it. Jan and I are into a few Czech beers.
After asking how old the home we are in is, we ask about the oldest structure in the village. “How old is the number 1?” Jolana asked. They discussed it and we just wondered, “What’s the number 1?” We hear of how the houses are numbered in the villages. The oldest house in the village will be a prominently displayed #1—generally the church or the priest’s house. The other numbers are added in order of age. Our home for the week was #66. Sometimes, for instance in Prague, an additional physical address building number helps with location. In Prague, the same thing occurs, city block by city block. So an apartment building will have two large numbers by the door in different colors.
Jan and Jolana are wonderfully gracious and open hosts. They are both highly educated professionals with strong English skills they use frequently in their occupations. When you name your child here, you must pick a name from the enormous list of approved names. If enough people want to add a name, it can be approved over time. But it is interesting how foreign this is to the American ear and our idea of individual freedom. Another interesting fact is that the Czech Republic is largely atheist. One website quotes a guide describing it as about 20 percent Christian. Jan and Jolana believe it is closer to 95% atheist.
They tell us how successful the Soviet propaganda campaigns were in the schools as they grew up. As soon as the Cold War ended, the Czech kids stopped having to learn Russian. If I understood it correctly, the Czechs also began to have to work harder instead of having the job security that came with the Soviet presence. They grew up largely unexposed to Western music, movies, or culture.
Their family loves to go camping just like ours and they get together with other families to camp and play games. We wish we had our tent and could go with them! They are doting parents to Vojta and we are thrilled to be at their place.
Without meaning to, we stay up late nursing our drinks and talking of college and Czech history and music and America. They are so kind and welcoming that we don’t seem to notice how late it is and the next morning Jan & Jolana will be off to work early.